some thoughts on the american studies israel boycott

I do not agree with the American Studies Association (hereafter oASA, for “other ASA”) boycott of Israel, nor with the broader BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement of which it is a part. I say this recognizing that Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and especially Gaza is appalling; I believe the Israeli rejection of Palestinians’ human rights and national ambitions is a disaster, not just for the Palestinians but ultimately for Israel as well. I think it’s particularly telling that, a generation ago, defenders of Israeli policy argued that Israel was a bastion of democracy and freedom in the Middle East; now the party line has become: Israel is not as bad as Egypt. Or Syria, Saudi Arabia, China, etc. All of which is true, and relevant (more below)–but not exactly a standard to be proud of.

The first objection I have goes to the question of standing. Much has been made of the fact that the oASA boycott is not actually a boycott at all, but more of a recommendation that members and others not engage with Israeli academic institutions. In other words, it does not contemplate or recommend actual sanctions against oASA members or others who ignore the boycott. As Corey Robin (a defender of the boycott and BDS) points out, it’s really essentially censure.

Censure, though, raises the question: who really cares? I’m reminded of the scene in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when Deep Thought is commissioned to find the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything; the philosophers threaten to go on strike if the plan goes on. “Whom will that inconvenience?” booms the voice of the supercomputer. Closer to home, when the ASA membership voted to oppose the Iraq War, which, by the way, the oASA did too, I think many of us wondered what mechanism might result in the resolutions actually having effects. “Mr. President, the sociologists want us to end the war! Oh, well in that case, prepare for immediate withdrawal.”

On the other hand, insofar as it’s actually a boycott, it certainly impedes academic freedom for both oASA members and Israeli scholars and should be opposed for all the reasons the AAUP lays out.

One of the memes that has sprung up to defend the boycott against these critiques is that the violence and human rights violations of the occupation constitute infractions against academic freedom. (e.g., http://www.ethosreview.org/forum-intellectual-spaces-2/accessing-justice/):

Arab students in Israeli schools face systematic barriers to access deriving from compromised citizenship status. Israeli universities build dormitories and facilities on Palestinian territory and produce research that sustains the illegal US-sponsored military occupation. Meanwhile, the Israeli military has shuttered thousands of schools in the West Bank and Gaza since 1989 and routinely denies Palestinian scholars visas to study abroad or even to move freely across territory under Palestinian Authority control.

These direct threats to education exist within a larger ecology of deprivation. As Eyal Weisman describes, the Israeli occupation involves a policing of space that divides Palestinian populations from each other and subjects them to constant surveillance. This denies Palestinians basic necessities such as shelter, water, transit, and health care, much less the shared public sphere central to sustained creative and intellectual exchange. The settler-colonial system of educational “access” is thus deeply imbricated in the dispossession of Palestinians, a violence that results in diminished access to life itself.

This expansion works essentially to evacuate the idea of academic freedom by including any violence or deprivation as a prerequisite. But this makes no sense at all: if thorough respect for human rights and dignity were necessary conditions for the adequate exercise of academic freedom, there would be virtually no exemplars of it. Most relevantly, intellectual exchange with universities and scholars across the Middle East would certainly not pass muster. Indeed, embarrassingly, neither would intellectual exchange with U.S. universities, which could present particular hardships for members of the oASA given their topics of study, not to mention their employers.

This raises the “singling out” critique: that the oASA (and, more broadly BDS) singles out Israel for special criticism, effectively punishing Israel for behaviors that are tolerated among other countries. As I mentioned above, it is damning with very faint praise to protest that Israel is better than Syria, or Egypt, or China, Russia, etc. And Israelis (and we Jews in whose name Israel claims to act) ought to be embarrassed indeed that this is the strongest defense that can be mustered. It is, nevertheless, an adequate defense, and not one that the “Well, we had to start somewhere” argument is adequate to counter (“campaigns against injustice inevitably single out one target, while ignoring others”).

It is obviously implausible that the oASA began by saying “we want to push for human rights somewhere. Where should we start?” and answered that question with “Israel and the Occupied Territories.” As I wrote before, I think there are some reasons for singling out Israel for special criticism:

  1. Israel makes claims to being a democracy, and its cultural grounding is in Western liberalism; therefore, Israel in effect invites a higher standard than its comparators;
  2. Israel makes claims to being a democracy, and its cultural grounding is in Western liberalism; therefore, Israelis and their institutions are more likely to pay attention to human rights/democracy-based arguments than are their comparators;
  3. Israel enjoys a “special relationship” with the United States, comprising both enormous (on a per-capita basis) military aid and overwhelming symbolic support from political leaders, which gives Americans (and, by extension, the oASA) a greater right to exert influence than they have on other countries; and
  4. As a Jew, I believe it’s appropriate to hold a Jewish state to higher standards because it’s “ours” (Claude Fischer appropriately called this an “in-house claim,” and I agree—it is a reason for synagogues and Jewish organizations to put extra pressure on Israel, not for oASA and similar).

Though I am far from an expert, my suspicion is that a coethnic one-state solution will have to emerge, but how much bloodshed will happen before then is tragically unclear. I don’t see how an academic boycott reduces that bloodshed or, even more important, increases the likelihood that that eventual outcome is more just or less violent.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

3 thoughts on “some thoughts on the american studies israel boycott”

  1. I will only focus on the penultimate sentence, “a coethnic one-state solution will have to emerge.” As a sociologist, what makes you believe that such a thing — i.e., a truly balanced, hopefully democratic, tolerant two-ethnic state — could emerge there? For sure, nothing in the history of that region would. What are the odds of getting say,a Belgium or Canada, rather than the much more typical outcome, a state in which one group essentially drives out or totally dominates the other? No rational bettor would put money on the first. Yet one-state solution folks would bet the lives of at least tens of thousands of people on that very long shot. It is partly in recognition of these realities that global efforts to minimize ethnic deaths and cleansing have moved in the opposite direction, into dividing states. Seven ethnic states now replace Yugoslavia, for example. Israelis would be reasonable to reply to the utopians (assuming that the one-state folks are actually sincere), “Do me a favor and experiment on somebody else.”

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  2. Generally I think political protest within the academy that attempts to silence or ignore voices is ultimately destructive to the very victims it hopes to protect, by stunting potential discoveries that might benefit victims. But I’ve made this point here at length already and don’t want to hammer on it.

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  3. Thoughtful post, Andy. My own thoughts are also mixed. As a social movement scholar, I recognize that you go for tactics that you think might work, So the fundamental reason to call for an academic boycott is because academics might do it, and their doing it might help bring moral pressure on the regime. The reason academics would honor the boycott is if they were honoring the desires of the group that called for it. The boycott has the impact of drawing attention to the issue and forcing people to choose sides. Tactically you choose a vulnerable point, not the most ethically or morally worst offender.

    My own very short and superficial stay in Israel/Palestine also made the situation there much more concrete. Accompanied by my Christian Palestian guide, I not only visited the Christian holy shrines but saw the settlements, saw the soldiers guarding the Hebron road, saw the wall, saw the differences between the two sides of the wall. And I spent time at a conference with Israeli academics and heard their discussions about the issues. One part of the conference involved a field trip to an Arab Israeli village and a museum of displacement. And I saw the soldiers with uzis everywhere. I’d say that spending time there made me more prone to support a boycott than before I went. At the same time, I do have a much more concrete feeling of just what is going on, even at the same time recognizing how very superficial all this is.

    Where my mixed feelings come in is my awareness of my own ambivalence. Other academics declined to be at the conference I was at precisely because of the boycott of Israel, and if I had been more politically savvy maybe I would/should have declined the visit. I actually didn’t even think about the political interpretations when I accepted the invitation.

    I also remember 1970 after the Kent State shooting when campuses were going on strike. Parts of my campus were going on strike. I remember being very puzzled and alienated, because I could not figure out how students not going to class would end the war and the whole thing seemed pointless. The professor I worked for went on strike. I told her I wasn’t on strike, and did her being on strike mean I should not do work for her. She said no.

    So to cycle back, I have never been very good at being at the cutting edge of PC on a personal level and I can sympathize with personal reservations. But the strategic and tactical issues are about causing disruption of the status quo and drawing attention any way you can.

    Whether the strategy can avoid more bloodshed, ah, that is another issue. I was privileged to hear two Jewish Israeli academics, neither a supporter of the current policies which involve Jews moving into Palestinian areas trying to make a separate Palestinian state impossible, debate whether the two state solution or a genuine co-ethnic one state solution was a preferable and viable option. No answers but I learned a lot from listening.

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