Why the ASA boycott is both disingenuous and futile

The move embodies a binary approach that is harmful for peace and academic freedom

December 23, 2013 10:30AM ET
London demonstration, called by Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition, British Muslim Initiative and many more organizations, on Jan. 3, 2009.
Claudia Gabriela Marques Vieira

Long-term efforts by supporters of the global “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS) campaign to occupy positions in the leadership of the 5,000-member American Studies Association have finally born fruit. On Dec. 15, a leadership-endorsed resolution to urge a boycott of Israeli academic institutions won a vote by the organization’s members. While participation in election and resolution votes by academic organizations is often relatively low, it still seems remarkable that only one-third of ASA members participated in the online balloting. For one, it is unlikely that many thought they had elected their national council to develop a foreign policy. It is also surprising that two-thirds of the members were willing to see a controversial resolution adopted in their name without weighing in on the matter. Perhaps they were too busy grading papers or doing Christmas shopping.

Although the international BDS movement had earlier promoted resolutions urging that individual Israeli academics be boycotted if they did not support Palestinian initiatives, those efforts had met with wide condemnation as violations of academic freedom. That failure led BDS activists, including those in the ASA, to propose that relationships with Israeli academic and cultural institutions alone be rejected. But that line will be impossible to draw. If an Israeli university attempts to pay ASA memberships or yearly meeting fees for members of its faculty this will presumably constitute a prohibited relationship. Nor are visits by U.S. or Israeli faculty to campuses in each other’s countries likely to pass muster.

Individual academic freedom cannot survive such institutional boycotts intact. That is the position taken by the 47,000-member American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the organization whose presidency I occupied from 2006 to 2012. The free exchange of ideas is the very core of academic freedom. That includes the freedom to establish relationships between faculty and institutions in different countries. By turning itself into a recklessly partisan political agent, the ASA threatens the credibility of other humanities and social science disciplines as well. The resolution’s potential to do damage to academic freedom far exceeds its capacity to affect events in the Middle East.

But such subtleties were not of interest in the hurried agenda of the ASA leadership. (The voting took place over 10 days, online.) The resolution, I believe, had little to do with its ostensible academic focus. It was an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with Israeli policy, framed disingenuously to appear relevant to specific faculty interests and responsibilities. In fact a number of the resolution’s more vocal advocates have written essays denying Israel its very legitimacy as a nation-state. For them the resolution is part of a long-term project to urge that the state of Israel be gradually marginalized and finally eliminated.


RELATED: Why I support the ASA boycott of Israeli academic institutions

"To kill off not just people, but also their culture is to turn what is manifestly real into the unreal. It is this unreality, apparently so necessary to the identity of the Israeli state, that concerns me most. It is not natural. It takes a great deal of contrivance to ensure that what is obvious in the plain sight of day cannot be seen."  Read more.

Some of course prefer a one-state solution, an option Israelis are hardly likely to tolerate. U.S. academics may find the fantasy of an idealist “peaceable kingdom” model appealing, but nothing in decades of Middle East history suggests Jews would be equal citizens in a state dominated by Arabs or Palestinians. Merely exchanging one group of victims for another does not meet any unbiased model of justice. “Can’t we all just get along?” is a question that merits a largely negative answer in the region. And, while ethnic, religious, and nationalist antagonisms may one day be replaced by functioning democracies and tolerant civil societies in the region, I do not expect to live to see that day. In the meantime a one-state model for Palestine is likely a route to widespread deaths on all sides. Were many ASA members thinking this far ahead? Though it is extremely irresponsible to take political positions without thinking through the consequences, there is little evidence that they did.

What happened to Palestinian families in 1948 was unquestionably a tragedy. So too was the Holocaust. There is tragic history on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Americans, however, seem to prefer an absolute oppressor/victim dichotomy. They appear to think either that history is irrelevant and only present-day power differentials matter, or that only one group’s history counts. If you consider the multiple stories that bear on the conflict, it is clear that no perfect solution that compensates for all the relevant violence and injustice is possible. Israelis and Palestinians alike have indigenous ties to the land. For many Israelis, Judaism is a fundamentally land-based religion. What one must struggle for is compromised justice that makes it possible for all parties to live in peace. That means a two-state solution. Israel must end the occupation, free the Palestinian people, and give up most of the West Bank if it is to preserve its democracy and save its soul. But Jews are not going to give up their aspirations for sovereignty any more than Palestinians are. Thus, the push for academic boycotts only hardens the extremists on both sides, and moves us further away from peace. What is lacking is the capacity of each side to exhibit any empathy for the other; the binary approach that BDS embodies is harmful at once for peace and for academic freedom.

If the Holocaust gave warrant to the U.N. mandate creating the state of Israel, it does not justify Israel building West Bank settlements. I believe both sides should be pressured to negotiate in good faith toward a resolution, which is why I personally support a targeted economic boycott of West Bank industries. Ironically, that meaningful alternative was gathering force in Europe at the very moment ASA was tilting against academic windmills. On one side is economic pressure, on the other, hollow symbolism. Pressed to say what their resolution might actually do, ASA leaders suggested it would help lean on Israeli universities to reject their government’s policies, an eventuality with a snowball’s chance in Sinai of coming to pass. Of course the very ASA members advocating the resolution would protest their own campuses overriding divergent faculty opinion to create a university policy on any controversial international political issue (to say nothing of the fact that the Internal Revenue Service would not look kindly on a university behaving like a political party). But there was little time to reflect on such ironies in the rush to pro-boycott victory. Why not demand that Israeli universities do what U.S. universities cannot?

The American predilection toward mutually exclusive victimologies also extends to characterizations of U.S. campus life. As I argued in my book “No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom,” there are moments on American campuses — from classroom discussions to department meetings to public lectures or campus demonstrations — in which either pro- or anti-boycott voices, but not both, will be disparaged. Each constituency thus at different times feels intimidated, but neither group tends to acknowledge the mistreatment of the other; it is more common for each to declare itself the only victim. At ASA’s annual meeting, the victims were those opposing the resolution. It was a hasty, shameful exercise in bullying. Yet the ultimate victim was academic freedom and the reasoned debate and mutual understanding this subject so desperately needs.

Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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