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[This letter was first published as Prof. Michael Keefer's Letter to U.

Of Windsor President: Illegitimate

pressure on the University of Windsor Student Union over BDS, Independent Jewish Voices Canada (12 March
2014),; and as Keefer: Letter
to UW President calling on him to support Academic Freedom, (14 March 2014),]

[Index: higher education, Israel, Palestine]

[Date: March 2014]

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: Illegitimate Pressure on

the University of Windsor Student Union

Michael Keefer

Dr. Alan Wildeman

President & Vice-Chancellor
University of Windsor

Dear Dr. Wildeman,

I am writing to tell you how dismayed I am by your attempt to have the student
union on your campus suppress the results of a student referendum in which a substantial
majority voted to support the international campaign of boycott, divestment, and
sanctions that seeks, through peaceful means, to induce the state of Israel to comply with
international law and end its oppression of the Palestinians.
I believe that the position you have taken violates the principle of academic

freedomwhich I regard as being not just a privilege to which tenured academics lay
claim, but a foundational principle of the university, and something to be protected for all
members of the university community. Of course, a commitment to academic freedom
implies at the same time a commitment to civil, humane, and rational discourse, whose
goal might be described, in the simplest terms, as one of determining truths (to the best of
our abilities) and disseminating them.
I believe that faculty and administrators have a joint responsibility to ensure that
discourse within our universities lives up to these standardsand a responsibility, as
well, to act in defense of members of the university community who are subjected, from
within the university or outside it, to discourse that violates those standards and that
commitment to truthby, for example, having recourse to smears, defamation, and ad
hominem attacks of the sort that have been heaped upon the organizers and supporters of
this referendum.
I would ask you to consider whether you are living up to this responsibility. The
international struggle in support of the rights of Palestinians is one of the great moral
issues of our time. It is not an edifying spectacle when a university president obstructs
students who are engaging, civilly, humanely, and rationally in that struggle.
I do not ask you to take my word as to the moral import of this struggle. Take
instead the word of one of Israel's most distinguished sociologists, Eva Illouz, a full
professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the recipient of major academic awards
in the United States, France, and Germany, and also concurrently the President of Bezalel
Academy of Art and Design, her country's national art academy.
Professor Illouz proposed in a long essay published in the newspaper Haaretz on
February 7, 2014 that the 19th-century anti-slavery debate in the United States provides a
useful analogue to help us understand the present-day debate over the morality of Israel's
treatment of the Palestinians, which (as other scholars have also observed) has divided
Jews both in Israel and internationally. In that essay, to which she gave the resonant title
47 years a slave, Professor Illouz argues that Palestinians under Israeli occupation are
living in what amounts to conditions of slavery.
Note, please, that Illouz's essay, together with the work of other distinguished
Jewish public intellectuals, including Judith Butler, Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim, Jacqueline
Rose, Norman Finkelstein, Naomi Klein, Shulamit Aloni, and Yakov Rabkin, refutes any
claim that profound and systematic critiques of Israeli policies and structures of

governance can be dismissed as antisemitic.

You accept at face value the statements of some members of your academic
community that they feel threatened by the outcome of the student referendum, and
you appear to regard this as a reason to invalidate it. I would propose that except in cases
where the people in question have been subjected to clear deviations from proper
standards of civility and humaneness (which would include racist language of any kind),
such claims to victim status should be rejectedgently, but firmlyas attempts to
infantilize universities, which are or should be places for adult discourse.
It is easy to understand how shocked and saddened a student can be who has
grown up thinking of Israel as a great good place, and then discovers that there may be
compelling reasons to think otherwise. But the intellectual and moral growth of
university students often includes moments of painful cognitive dissonance and
dislocation. One should treat such students sympathetically, while at the same time
remembering that however arduous it may be for them to deal with competing ethical
commitmentswhich may include well-substantiated claims that some of their prior
commitments cannot measure up to generally accepted standards of justice and decency
these students are not in any sense victims of those who invite them to consider
unfamiliar evidence and arguments; they are maturing adults.
The real victims are the Palestinians subjected by the state of Israelwith the
Canadian state's full complicityto what Eva Illouz calls conditions of slavery. These
are the people to whom the BDS movement brings support and solidarity, and whose
oppression it seeks by peaceful means to end.
I invite you to move beyond an uncritical acceptance of the slanders of opponents
of the BDS movement, to read the statements of its Palestinian proponents, and to learn
why it has gathered the support of so many leading Jewish scholars and public
intellectuals. You will also learn to respect the courage, integrity, and decency of the
supporters of this movement within your own academic community.
Yours sincerely and respectfully,
Michael Keefer
Professor Emeritus
School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph