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:
- 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;
- 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;
- 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
- 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.