The Intellectually and Morally Bankrupt Boycott of Israeli Universities

You know that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions crowd–which is currently busy targeting academic freedom in Israel–doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on when the best that they can do is cite the likes of Richard Falk for support:

It appears no one told the American Studies Association that when attempting to fend off accusations of bigotry, it’s best not to cite a bigot.

In a sign that the organization is feeling the heat from outside opprobrium, the ASA’s Caucus on Academic and Community Activism has posted a defense of its Israel boycott. The statement offers tacit acknowledgment of the fact that over 40 universities–including almost the entire Ivy League–have condemned the ASA’s action. In response, the ASA Caucus lists other academics who have endorsed the boycott and calls for supporters to renew their membership or join the ASA. Unfortunately for those attempting to exonerate the ASA from charges of prejudicial treatment of the Jewish state, one of the six scholars the ASA Caucus cites is Richard Falk, a known 9/11 truther and promoter of anti-Semitism.

By day, Falk serves as the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories, where his support for the terrorist group Hamas has been so blatant that the Palestinian Authority tried to get him fired. The United States and Canada have also called for him to be dismissed, and he has been censured by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. But Falk’s most objectionable conduct has actually taken place outside the U.N.’s halls.

In 2004, he wrote the preface to a book by conspiracy theorist David Ray Griffin which argued that the Bush administration helped perpetrate the 9/11 attacks. “There have been questions raised here and there and allegations of official complicity made almost from the day of the attacks, especially in Europe,” Falk wrote, “but no one until Griffin has had the patience, the fortitude, the courage, and the intelligence to put the pieces together in a single coherent account.” In 2011, Falk mused on his blog about the “apparent cover up” of 9/11, and the “eerie silence of the mainstream media, unwilling to acknowledge the well-evidenced doubts about the official version of the events.” He reaffirmed these views this past June, when he told radio host and 9/11 truther Kevin Barrett that “questioning that deeply the official version of 9/11 does touch the third rail of American political sensitivities, and there is an attempt to discredit and destroy anyone that makes such a bold statement, and this has intimidated a lot of people.”

I am sure that in response to this bill of particulars, supporters of the BDS movement and the American Studies Association in general will assure all of us that they are not anti-Semitic. You will forgive me if I view that claim with at least some degree of skepticism.

Meanwhile, Stanley Fish notes the disconnect between the rhetoric and the actions of the ASA and the BDS movement (as though this is difficult to do):

. . . on occasion my anatomy of a structure of argument bled right into a substantive position. This was so recently, when I analyzed the case being made by some academics for boycotting Israeli universities. They reason that a boycott is justified because as the result of Israel’s actions, “Palestinian universities have been bombed, schools have been closed, and scholars and students deported.” I quote from a statement by the American Studies Association, which just a few days ago endorsed the boycott and did so in the name of academic freedom, defined (correctly) by the statement as “the necessity for intellectuals to remain free from state interests and interference.” Yet, in the next breath, the Association is busily assuming the interests of one state against another and acting accordingly, on the reasoning that the academic freedom of Palestinians has been “severely hampered” by Israel’s policies. Or, in other words (my words), “the state of Israel has done bad things to the Palestinians and therefore we should do bad things to Israeli universities.”

That’s a good example of the kind of bad argument I like to skewer: the American Studies Association resolves to harm the good (academic freedom) it has pledged many times to protect in the hope that by doing so it will bring about a greater good somewhere down the line; it will misidentify the appropriate target of retaliation, because the target it has in its sights — the Israeli academy — is the only one it can hope to affect; it will compromise, indeed abandon, its principles in exchange for the (possible) furtherance of a political goal. And I would add that not only is the argument bad in this instance in the context of these particular facts; it would be bad in any instance. No matter what the motivation or the circumstances, curtailing the freedom of academics because of a political judgment — saying, as the boycotters say, “because we don’t like the policies of your government, we won’t have anything to do with you” — is just flat out wrong.

The American Studies Association could have passed an intelligence and morality test of sorts by eschewing cooperation with the BDS movement, and with vicious anti-Semites like Richard Falk. Instead, it decided to besmirch its reputation for all time by getting into bed with a crowd that has never lacked fleas.