A Case for Academic Boycotts at UMass Amherst

Timmy Sullivan
9 min readJul 23, 2020


An Open Letter to the UMass Amherst Faculty Senate and Massachusetts Society of Professors

This piece was originally published on the Amherst Wire (7/19/20) and republished on Mondoweiss (7/23/20).

Dear Members of the Faculty Senate and the Massachusetts Society of Professors,

I write to you because we are in urgent times requiring our action. Once again, we are met with news of Israel’s plan to continue annexing even more of the West Bank, its intention to claim the Jordan Valley as its own. These plans constitute an egregious assault on Palestinian livelihood and blatant disrespect for international law.

This annexation, understood in its historical and political context, is the ongoing process of violent settler-colonialism which created the state of Israel in 1948 and has continued to ethnically cleanse and dispossess Palestinians in the pursuit of yet more land for its ethnocracy. These annexation plans do not exist in a historical vacuum; rather, they are the predictable next steps in the ongoing Zionist* colonization of Palestine, perennially on the political horizon so long as Israel’s occupation remains intact.*(when I use the term “Zionism” or “Zionist,” I am referring to Political Zionism, a late 19th century nationalist political ideology emanating from Europe which explicitly advocated for the colonization of Palestine and resulted in the expulsion of the indigenous Arab-Palestinian population from Palestine to facilitate its resettlement with Jewish immigrants).

Annexation is the reality of Zionism. Recognizing this, we should not limit ourselves to opposing just this annexation, but be consistent by denouncing all prior annexation as well. To be against these plans, therefore, requires us to be against the military occupation as a whole and instead support a politics of liberation: one that secures true democracy, equality, adherence to standards of international law and human rights, and a lasting peace rooted in justice. There will be no peaceful solution to the occupation while its violent architecture and ideology remain intact; these oppressive structures continue to exist, in part, because they are empowered by international partnerships that legitimize and sustain them.

To that effect, our siblings in Palestine have identified how we, internationally, can be in solidarity with their struggle for liberation by targeting our institutions that sustain the occupation. This is the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS).

The BDS movement– categorically opposed to all forms of racism, anti-semitism, and islamophobia– is an ideologically diverse, human-rights-based movement to pressure Israel into accordance with international law and defend the equality and rights of Palestinians.

In 2005, the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society issued a call to support BDS until Israel meets 3 of its fundamental obligations under international law which have been systematically denied, including:

  1. “Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands* and dismantling the Wall;
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”

*(e.g., Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria)

Already on our campus, there is a movement of students and faculty committed to ending UMass’ partnerships with institutions directly implicated in the occupation and responsible for the denial of human rights. As Israel annexes more land, it is increasingly urgent that we leverage our political power of protest to raise the economic and social cost of injustice now.

I believe we– as undergraduates, graduates, faculty, and professors– must act on our governance authority per the Wellman Document to pass a BDS resolution and elect for ourselves– democratically– what the character of our University will be. Doing so is a crucial step in actualizing our commitment to freedom, equality, and human rights and is also morally consistent with UMass’ prior condemnation and divestment from apartheid in South Africa. Further, it is important that we pass these resolutions through our governance channels because an inclusive, democratic approach is a stark rebuke and correction to the Chancellor’s unilateral decision-making which has, for the time being, sided UMass with the Zionist lobby.

I am referring to last October, when, in an effort to stifle the growing movement in solidarity with Palestine on our campus, Chancellor Subbaswamy bluntly rejected the BDS campaign, deciding unilaterally for us all that “the University remains firmly opposed to BDS and to academic boycotts of any kind.” In conversation with me later that week, he elaborated that this move was in defense of “academic freedom.” It strikes me as curious, though, that someone principly committed to academic freedom would hasten to chastise a movement in defense of freedoms and align himself instead with institutions notorious for their denial of freedoms, academic and civil.

By this, I mean that diminishing, restricting, and denying academic freedom to Palestinians is just another manifestation of Israel’s military occupation, enforced both by physical violence and the bureaucratic and structural technologies of apartheid. Palestinian students are no strangers to Israeli military raids of their campuses; the banning of academic conferences and detainment of participating researchers and academics; having their colleges shut down by Israeli police; learning that certain degrees are no longer recognized by Israeli authorities; and even being shot in the head with rubber-coated steel bullets or suffocating on tear gas.

Issuing an in-depth report on the matter in 2015 titled “Palestinian Universities Under Occupation,” the Association of Academics for the Respect of International Law in Palestine, a European organization of researchers and professors, documented a pattern of:

“coherent and multi-faceted policy of Israeli interference with the normal functioning of academic life. This interference inhibits free movement of staff and students; reduces academic effectiveness and productivity by the usurpation of staff time through mobility restrictions and imposed bureaucratic obstacles; prevents effective collaboration and sharing of intellectual resources between Palestinian universities; obstructs international visits to Palestinian universities; substantially prevents the employment of teaching staff from abroad; interrupts the supply of equipment, materials and books; and subjects staff and students to repeated humiliations and indignity.”

Meanwhile, Israeli “universities are structurally integrated into Israel’s permanent war effort.” These campuses author and rely on doctored histories of Israel’s founding; publish “strategic reports” that architect apartheid; conduct Israeli Defense Force officer trainings; and even capture the bodies of murdered Palestinians to hold as “political bargaining chips,” refusing a burial to families.

Thus, to shield his rejection of BDS with a false notion of supporting “academic freedom” is, in fact, applying a blatant double standard which unequally privileges the academic freedoms of US and Israeli institutions while denying the same rights to Palestinians. Indeed, it privileges these so-called “academic freedoms” not just over Palestinian freedoms, but at the expense of them. Therefore, the Chancellor’s remark certifies the academic freedoms of only some; which is to say, it certifies not academic freedom, but academic exclusion.

To support true academic freedom would entail noncooperation with repressive and exclusionary institutions until such time that full academic freedoms and rights are realized. As such, the Palestinian call for academic boycotts of Israeli institutions is a specifically designed pressure against the conditions of unfreedom; in other words, BDS is not an obstacle to academic freedom but rather a way to achieve it.

It is further ironic that to make his point about “academic freedom,” the Chancellor relies on talking points from those actively invested in the suppression of political speech. His words echo those from Israel’s defenders relentless in their pursuit to silence criticism of the occupation by delegitimizing, ostracizing, vilifying, and criminalizing those of us who dare to promote human rights. It is, in fact, these Zionist campaigners who deny and infringe upon our academic freedoms by bringing lawsuits against events such as ours; digitally harassing and doxxing supporters of BDS; rescinding job offers, academic opportunities, and awards for supporting the Palestinian freedom struggle; subjecting activists to surveillance; destroying and rewriting history in favor of a Zionist mythology; denying visas; and socially excluding or disinviting anti-zionist Jews from Jewish spaces for supporting Palestinian liberation. To import this culture of fear and silencing onto our campus– known as the “Palestine Exception to Free Speech”– constitutes a legitimate threat to UMass’ academic freedoms and calls into question the extent to which “academic freedom” applies to Palestine-solidarity activists and scholars at UMass.

His statement, then, clearly has less to do with “academic freedom” as it does for supporting a Zionist politics. Ultimately, for the Chancellor to subject his professors and students to strict and public condemnation for speaking in defense of human rights, while not applying any scrutiny to the Israeli institutions violating those same human rights, is at best irresponsibly hypocritical and at worst dangerously complicit in the very politics which normalize and allow for those abuses.

Many faculty also realized this and were rightfully outraged by the Chancellor’s inflammatory statement. Responding quickly, nearly 130 UMass Amherst professors signed on to a letter rejecting the Chancellor’s “denigration of BDS supporters” and instead offered their own commitment to academic freedom. I am writing today to implore you and your colleagues to act with similar moral conviction as you did in October and to translate that commitment to academic freedom into symbolic and material action, by authoring and passing a BDS resolution through the Faculty Senate and the Massachusetts Society of Professors.

Your colleagues in Palestine and the diaspora, who form the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, have outlined in the “guidelines for the international academic boycott” what is useful, tactical, and also meant by an academic boycott that targets the institutions* which comprise the main pillars of support for the occupation. Specifying 5 useful ways to enact a boycott, your colleagues ask you to:

  1. “Refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions;
  2. Advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions;
  3. Promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions;
  4. Work toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations;
  5. Support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or implicit condition for such support.”

*(it should be noted that the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel has stated that mere affiliation by individuals with an Israeli institution is not sufficient cause for boycott; rather, the call for boycott is of the institutions themselves and projects and events of such institutions, which does include events and projects with individuals representing such institutions)

It is high time that major institutions, such as ours, recognize what is at stake. Annexation is not a “new” phenomenon– it is the ongoing “Nakba” (catastrophe), the logical next step in the Zionist project to fully colonize Palestine. Annexation of today is the unfinished business of 1948. And it will persist until Israel’s criminal impunity is meaningfully challenged and the structures of its military occupation are dismantled.

Passing a BDS resolution through our respective governance bodies is necessary because our University– through institutional partnerships– is aiding and abetting Israel’s illegal military occupation. Moreover, the Chancellor has– in our name– repeatedly issued statements that publicize the Zionist pseudo-logics necessary to promote, sustain, and normalize the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. These direct affiliations and patterns of selective support for the Zionist lobby make it clear that UMass is complicit.

As Mahmoud Nawajaa, the General Coordinator of the BDS National Committee, reminds us, “for decades, international inaction and complicity have enabled Israel to violate the laws of belligerent occupation, advance its colonization of the occupied Palestinian territory and impose an apartheid regime that is enshrined in Israel’s domestic law.” It is therefore incumbent upon us, as people of moral conscience and members of an institution and country which lend legitimizing support to the occupation, to heed the call for solidarity with Palestine. Thus, we must recognize our responsibility to enact BDS until such time that freedom is won.

In solidarity,

Timmy Sullivan

Commonwealth Honors College ‘20

B.A. in Political Science; Academic Minor in History

Additional Resources:


  1. Boycott Divestment Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights by Omar Barghouti
  2. The 100 Years War on Palestine by Rashid Khalidi
  3. The Battle for Justice in Palestine by Ali Abunimah
  4. The Drone Eats with Me by Atef Abu Saif
  5. Letters to Palestine edited by Vijay Prashad
  6. On Anti-Semitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice by Jewish Voice for Peace
  7. Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism edited by Carolyn L. Karcher
  8. Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine by Noura Erakat
  9. Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on the US-Israeli War Against the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé
  10. Ten Myths About Israel by Ilan Pappé

Organizations to Support:

  1. Palestinian Youth Movement
  2. Adalah Justice Project
  3. US Campaign for Palestinian Rights
  4. Palestine Legal
  5. National Students for Justice in Palestine

Get Involved:

  1. UMass Amherst Students for Justice in Palestine
  2. Jewish Voice for Peace Western Mass