That the academy today has become a source of moral inversion is, unfortunately, becoming ever more clear. There are any number of examples, with the latest involving anthropologists who have announced their boycott of Israeli universities. A number of anthropologists from very prominent schools have signed the call to boycott. But are these anthropologists really motivated by a desire to advance human rights and social justice?
Take Harvey Weiss, a professor of archaeology at Yale who signed the boycott statement. Weiss has worked for decades inside Syria, not only during the so-called "Damascus Spring" that occurred subsequent to Bashar al-Assad's rise to the presidency, but also during the dark days of his father Hafez al-Assad's murder of tens of thousands of civilians in Hama. None of this stopped Weiss from interacting with Syrian academics or working with Syrian universities which, for what it's worth, are not independent from the government like the Israeli universities the good Yale professor seeks to boycott.
Then, of course, there's Narges Erami, an anthropologist who focuses on Iran, a country which has repeatedly purged Baha'i students and professors from universities simply because of their religion, and a regime that takes pride in executing homosexuals. No boycott there. But interact with Israeli academics? That's a bridge too far for that Yale professor. Zareena Grewal is a religious studies professor at Yale. She has concentrated her fieldwork in Cairo, Amman, and Damascus, none of which are known for their respect of human rights or intellectual freedom. Speak up? Better to just boycott universities where Jews teach, it appears. The irony here, of course, is she took to twitter to brag about being invited to a private meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a man who has embraced terror groups, engaged in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and transferred Turkey into the world's largest prison for journalists.
Make no mistake: Yale and its students and faculty should conduct research and interact with Syrian, Iranian, and Egyptian counterparts. They should interact with all academics and, for that matter, non-academics regardless of in what political category they hold them. That doesn't mean that the results of such research should be beyond reproach: academic freedom doesn't mean freedom from criticism.
Back to the boycott: Yale University has long prided itself on its embrace of area studies. If it sees itself as a center for free inquiry and a space that embraces free discourse, it is kidding itself. While Yale hosts many faculty committed to research and the expansion of knowledge, a growing core apparently does not. The shock is not that in a field as politicized as Middle Eastern studies some faculty would sign a petition calling for boycotts based on national origin, but rather that they would be so smug and secure in the politicized atmosphere that has become Yale University that they would embrace their personal bigotry and hypocrisy so openly. Then again, that may be the idea. For while these faculty—especially Weiss, who has held senior departmental posts—wear their hatred of Israel and its citizens as a badge of honor, at the same time Yale University has increased its efforts to raise money from those repressive Middle Eastern regimes—Qatar, for example—that have become the antithesis of tolerance, human rights, and intellectual inquiry. Coincidence? Probably not. It seems that for Yale, either money now trumps tolerance and education, or bigotry is to be celebrated. Which is it, President Salovey?