Boycott bubkes

The murky logic of the ASA's resolution against Israel

January 8, 2014 7:00AM ET
People waving Israeli and Palestinian flags outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

The American Studies Association is a relatively small professional association of scholars, but suddenly it has made an enormous impact on the public discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On Dec. 16, the ASA endorsed an “academic boycott” of Israeli universities. It was a victory for what is known as the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement, which began in 2005 but has been largely unknown in the United States until now.

The vote totals themselves were small: The ASA claims roughly 5,000 members, and the vote was 827 yes, 382 no, 43 abstaining. (By contrast, the Modern Language Association, of which I am immediate past president, has nearly 30,000 members.) But in an important sense the ASA vote has been productive, shattering an American taboo on discussions of whether to withdraw support for Israel. In another sense the vote has put everyone on the defensive: those who continue to support Israeli policies; those (like myself) who oppose academic boycotts in principle; and, not least, the ASA leadership itself, now experiencing a substantial (but entirely predictable) backlash in the press.

I do not see academic boycotts as a defensible strategy for pursuing social justice. But I also think it is imperative to address weak arguments against the ASA resolution.

The most important of these is the argument that the resolution is anti-Semitic — in effect if not in intent. For almost 50 years, supporters of Israeli policies have leveled the charge of anti-Semitism against critics. The charge is so familiar it is easy to miss how inflammatory and bullying it is, implicitly associating criticism of Israel or its policies with thousands of years of systemic oppression leading to the Holocaust itself.

I know and admire many BDS supporters in academe. They are not anti-Semites. The scholars known to me personally are people of principle and integrity, many of whom have been persuaded to their current position, in part, by pleas from the Israeli left. In 2009, for example, Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in which he endorsed BDS on the grounds that there were no longer any political forces within Israel itself capable of creating the conditions for a viable two-state solution. Noting that nothing has stopped the building of settlements in the occupied territories, or indeed the steady rightward drift of Israeli politics, Gordon wrote, “I am convinced that (BDS) is the only way that Israel can be saved from itself.”

One can argue that Gordon is mistaken; in the U.S., even Norman Finkelstein, a dedicated and sometimes inflammatory critic of Israel, wants nothing to do with BDS. But one cannot argue that Gordon is anti-Semitic. Like many Israelis who oppose the occupation, he speaks out of what he believes are the best interests of his country.

Critics of the resolution commonly ask why the ASA has singled out Israel when China, Russia, the U.S. and many other nations all violate human rights and international law. The standard response has been that the ASA merely (as its resolution states) “endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” This leaves unaddressed — and perhaps dishonored — long-standing calls from Tibetan civil society for boycotts of China. BDS supporters counter that given the crucial U.S. economic, political and military support for Israel, U.S. citizens have a moral responsibility for Israeli policies that they do not bear for Russian and Chinese policies. I agree that the U.S. does have such a responsibility; but this reply does not explain why an academic boycott is being proposed, as opposed to, say, a more specific, targeted economic boycott of all products manufactured in the territories, or something more like an endorsement of the new European Union guidelines that prohibit grants, prizes or funding from the EU to the settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights (and that, importantly, refuse to recognize those lands as part of the state of Israel).

The logic of the BDS strategy is based almost wholly on the analogy to South Africa. Even if one accepts the claims of some that Israel is an “apartheid state” (I would argue that this applies only to the occupied territories), one would still have to come to terms with the fact that no scholarly organization, anywhere in the world, ever endorsed an academic boycott of South African universities. Many people, myself included, supported boycotts, sanctions and divestment in response to the illegitimacy of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Based on the analogy with South Africa, the logical strategy for expressing opposition to Israeli policies and conduct in the occupied territories would be an economic and cultural boycott of the occupied territories. The American Association of University Professors (on whose Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure I serve) refrained from endorsing an academic boycott of South Africa, just as it refuses to endorse BDS today, on the grounds that such a boycott “undermines exactly the freedoms one wants to defend, and it takes aim at the wrong target.”

The freedom the AAUP wants to defend, of course, is academic freedom; but academic freedom is not well understood, even by academics. It entails a delicate kind of intellectual autonomy, whereby professors are free to pursue knowledge independently of the dictates of other interested parties. Without it, academe as we know it (and should desire it) cannot function.

It is remarkable how easily left-leaning professors can be cowed by the charge of 'elitism.' Academic freedom may be something enjoyed only by the few, but it should be the raison d’etre of every principled academic.

So does the ASA resolution infringe on academic freedom? The most common pro-BDS reply is that the resolution targets institutions, not individuals, and therefore harms no one’s academic freedom. This is a meaningful but murky distinction. It would not countenance a situation like the one precipitated by British scholar Mona Baker in 2002, when she threw two Israeli scholars off the editorial boards of two journals simply because they were Israeli. At the same time, when it comes to the conditions in which scholarship is produced, it can be very difficult in practice to maintain the distinction between institutions and individuals. According to the guidelines promulgated by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), BDS covers “addresses and talks at international venues by official representatives of Israeli academic institutions such as presidents and rectors.” But according to the literary scholar Judith Butler, a Columbia University professor and leading activist on behalf of BDS, any Israeli academic who accepts funding from his or her university becomes a “representative” of the institution: “Any Israeli, Jewish or not, is free to come to a conference, to submit his or her work to a journal and to enter into any form of scholarly exchange. The only request that is being made is that no institutional funding from Israeli institutions be used for the purposes of those activities.” The ASA’s “Frequently Asked Questions” page, by contrast, states that Israeli scholars are permitted to attend the ASA or visit any American campus even if they rely on Israeli university funding. And incoming ASA President Lisa Duggan said that even presidents of Israeli universities may speak at the ASA if they are not representing their universities. So precisely where there should be clarity, there is murk: No two people agree on what “representative” means.

Clause 12 of the PACBI guidelines, by contrast, is crystal clear: BDS forbids “advising on hiring or promotion decisions at Israeli universities through refereeing the work of candidates, or refereeing research proposals for Israeli funding institutions. Such services, routinely provided by academics to their profession, must be withheld from complicit institutions.” This is not targeted at any specific persons, but there is simply no way this provision would not affect individual scholars: If it were universally observed, anyone applying for a position or a promotion at an Israeli university, or anyone overseeing a job search or a tenure/promotion case at an Israeli university, would find him- or herself shut out of the system of peer review by the entire international scholarly community.

The uncertainty over who counts as “representatives” of Israeli institutions is troubling; but academic freedom is very clearly undermined by clause 12, insofar as it would prohibit important forms of scholarly communication between Israeli academics and the rest of the world. Nevertheless, BDS supporters argue that academic freedom is either (a) somehow enhanced for Palestinian scholars by boycotts targeting Israeli institutions or (b) not really all that important in the grand scheme of things, and never mind (a).

I have not seen any coherent explanation of how a boycott of Israeli institutions enhances academic freedom for Palestinian scholars. Much more has been said about (b), as when BDS founder Omar Barghouti writes, “By positing its particular notion of academic freedom as being of ‘paramount importance,’ the AAUP effectively, if not intentionally, sharply limits the moral obligations of scholars in responding to situations of serious violations of human rights,” or when BDS supporter Sarah Roberts writes, “It is a peculiar sort of academic elitism that puts academic freedom, a somewhat abstract concept in itself, in a position of primacy before other types of very real and tangible physical freedoms.”

It is remarkable how easily left-leaning professors can be cowed by the charge of “elitism.” Academic freedom may be a freedom enjoyed only by the few, as Barghouti and Lisa Taraki charge when they write, “The march to freedom (may) temporarily restrict a subset of freedom enjoyed by only a portion of the population.” But it is the raison d’etre of the American Association of University Professors, and it should be the raison d’etre of every principled academic. When it is subordinated to allegedly more exigent concerns, it simply dies. Whenever you make academic freedom contingent on something else, you violate the principle that academic freedom should not be subject to the dictates of church or state, political parties or boards of trustees, corporate funders or irate parents — or even activists in Palestinian civil society. Tellingly, BDS supporters tend to become aware of this (as Roberts does later in her essay) when they speak of reprisals against BDS supporters, which are real and intensifying, and which also threaten the academic freedom to discuss BDS. Academic freedom, in short, is the very condition of possibility for this debate.

And what, finally, are the goals of BDS? What would it take for the ASA to declare “mission accomplished” and end the boycott (nonbinding on individual members though it may be)? In the case of South Africa the purpose was clear: an end to apartheid and peaceful regime change. And thanks mostly to a determined South African resistance movement, it worked. But the BDS endgame is deliberately unclear. Barghouti, for his part, has made it clear that his desire entails, “at minimum, ending Israel’s 1967 occupation and colonization, ending Israel’s system of racial discrimination and respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands from which they were ethnically cleansed during the 1948 Nakba.” At the same time, he insists that the “BDS movement … has consistently avoided taking any position regarding the one-state/two-states debate.”

This allows BDS to practice a “big tent” politics, welcoming many different critics of Israeli policy. But it also puts moderate and liberal opponents of the occupation in the position of supporting radicals who define “occupation” as “the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.” Just as handily, it allows those radicals to pretend that opponents of BDS are on the wrong side of history, supporters of Israeli crimes in the occupied territories and advocates of apartheid, when in fact many of us are simply proponents of the two-state solution who oppose the occupation as well as (to take a recent example) Israel’s controversial “resettlement” of Bedouins in the Negev, which critics have called a form of ethnic cleansing.

Even if the goals of BDS were clearer, an academic boycott would still not constitute a defensible strategy for pursuing them. If supporters of BDS took their own South African analogies seriously, they would support targeted economic and political boycotts associated with specific Israeli actions and policies, not academic boycotts of Israeli universities. The fact that they do not — and that they misrepresent the ASA resolution as consonant with the AAUP’s understanding of academic freedom — is revealing.

In this context, it is telling that the ASA refused to post on its website the AAUP’s open letter opposing the resolution. The AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom had just published a number of pro-BDS essays (including one by Barghouti), because the AAUP, understanding the importance of academic freedom and open debate, welcomes and will publish critics of its positions and policies; the ASA, while claiming that the AAUP letter was misleading, could not bring itself to do so much as acknowledge a position contrary to its own. That, I think, is the difference between a scholarly organization that is firmly committed to the free and open exchange of ideas, and a scholarly organization that has — to borrow the immortal words of Dick Cheney — other priorities. I am proud to be a member of the first of these.

Michael Bérubé is an Edwin Erle Sparks professor of literature and the director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of “Life As We Know It: A Father, A Family and an Exceptional Child” (Pantheon, 1996).

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

Related News


Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter