The Academic Boycott of Israel Is Going Nowhere

Every once in a while, academia gets it in its head to take a stand against Israel by trying to engage in an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. The fact that this kind of behavior only serves to stifle academic inquiry and freedom doesn’t bother the boycotters; the only thing they are interested in is striking a blow against a state that just happens to be Jewish. (Not that any of the boycotters are anti-Semites, mind you; Heaven forbid that any of us think such a terrible thing).

Fortunately, for all those interested in keeping academia from going to the dogs–and for all those interested in ensuring that intelligent behavior and common decency don’t die out–the boycott is failing:

Dozens of American colleges and universities are rejecting an academic boycott of Israeli universities recently approvedby the academic American Studies Association, the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history. And a few schools said they are withdrawing from the organization.

The association’s membership — or, rather, 66.05 percent of the 1,252 votes that came in from the group’s 5,000 members — approved the boycott last week over the objections of numerous former presidents of the organization and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who angered activists by saying that he does notsupport a boycott of Israel (though he does support a boycott of Israeli products in the occupied territories).

Schools including Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Princeton and Boston universities and the Universities of Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Texas at Austin  and others have slammed the boycott, issuing statements similar to one by Harvard President Drew Faust that said that academic boycotts “subvert the academic freedoms and values necessary to the free flow of ideas, which is the lifeblood of the worldwide community of scholars.”

Penn State University at Harrisburg and Brandeis University have said they are withdrawing their memberships from the American Studies Association, and other schools are considering doing the same thing. In addition, two major associations of institutions of higher education, the Association of American Universities and the Association of American University Professors, have issued statements rejecting the boycott.

This is, of course, an exceedingly heartening development. And it is informative to discover that the ASA is going far beyond anything that even the president of the Palestinian Authority is calling for.

Mark Brilliant points out just how silly the attempt to boycott really is:

By a two-thirds margin of the third of its 5,000 members who cast ballots, the American Studies Association (ASA) has passed a “Resolution on Academic Boycott of Israel,” joining the Association for Asian American Studies as the second U.S. academic professional association to boycott Israeli academic institutions for their complicity in the “Israeli occupation of Palestine” and various injustices related to it. Next up the Modern Language Association. The ASA has made its decision, to paraphrase that great perpetrator of American-settler colonialism, Andrew Jackson, and now Israeli universities need to figure out what just what exactly they can do so that the ASA might one day rescind its enforcement.

Unfortunately, the ASA provides little clue. Though its members would presumably object to a system of crime and punishment that delineates neither the terms of the crime, nor the length of the punishment, nor the means to achieve restitution for it—indeed, presumably that’s one of the many features of the “occupation” the ASA finds objectionable, as well it should—they have nevertheless enacted a measure that does just that.

“What is required for an Israeli university to no longer be subject to the boycott?” Well that, the ASA’s response begins, is a “difficult question to answer.” More difficulty ensues. “The boycott is designed to put real and symbolic pressure on universities to take an active role in ending the Israeli occupation and in extending equal rights to Palestinians. The international boycott, divestment, and sanctions [BDS] movement has called for a boycottto be in effect until these conditions are met.”

Nowhere does the ASA explain what exactly “occupation” means: Are we talking about Jewish settlements across the 1967 green line and/or Jewish settlements since the United Nations General Assembly cast its vote in favor of the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1947 and/or something else? Nowhere does the ASA explain just what an “active role” in resisting the “occupation” would entail. But then again, how could it? If there is no specification of the charge (“occupation”), there can be no explication of what an “active role” in resisting it would involve.

As for the punishment—the boycott time to be served—the ASA says, in effect, we’ll let you know when the international BDS movement lets us know. In the meantime, all that movement can tell us is that the “boycott [is] to be in effect until these conditions”—i.e., ending said unspecified “occupation” through said unspecified “active role” in hastening its end—“are met.”

Boycott, divestment, and sanctions leaders like Omar Barghouti do spell out what they mean by “occupation,” i.e., the State of Israel as a Jewish state, which should be jettisoned in favor a single binational state. If this is what the ASA’s boycott resolution means by “occupation,” it should say so. Once that is cleared up, the ASA can provide guidance to Israeli universities on how to play an “active role” in resisting the “occupation,” be it the post-1947 version or the post-1967 version or some other version.

[. . .]

But what’s done is done, and while Israeli universities can puzzle over how to undo it, the American Studies Association can perhaps now turn its attention closer to home, to the America that is, after all, its unit of analysis. In particular, maybe the ASA can take up the occupation that American Indians remind us is occurring quite literally under our noses. I’m sure the Oglala Lakota would welcome the ASA’s assistance in reclaiming something bigger and better than Pine Ridge Reservation. Ditto for the Ohlone, who once occupied the land now occupied by my colleagues, the university that employs us, and me. No doubt, the Ohlone would be happy to have the ASA’s help in securing something more than the sidewalk the City of Berkeley has named in their honor. Boycott our backyards, I say.

Boycott our universities, too. After all, if it’s U.S. money to Israel that helped justify the American Studies Association’s targeting of the Jewish state, why not boycott all of us who get high off that drug? I’m sure our dealer would welcome the refund.

Once the ASA finishes with America, perhaps it can then turn to other settler-colonial nations. Justice delayed should not be justice denied by the kind of arbitrary statute of limitations that the late historian Tony Judt once applied to distinguish Israel—an “anachronism”—from other settler-colonial nations. Nor should the ASA draw the line at rogue states whose oppressed make a direct appeal to the ASA to boycott their oppressor, as the current association president, Curtis Marez, said about his organization’s targeting of Israel: “Whereas the current resolution answers the call of Palestinian civil society, to my knowledge there has never been a similar call for boycott from the civil society in another country.” Since when did doing the right thing require an invitation? The world waits. The ASA shouldn’t: Boycott all bad states. This, Marez reassures us, is precisely where his organization is headed. “One has to start somewhere,” he says, about why begin with Israel. Who’s next?

Finally, if all this boycotting hits too close to home or seems like too much to tackle, just do this: Speak truth to folly and boycott the ASA.

I cannot resist adding, of course, that I am very proud that my own alma mater has taken a strong stand against a boycott. Good to see! Perhaps common sense still has a chance of prevailing on this issue.