A Misguided Boycott


Over the past few weeks, it has been difficult to see a newspaper, blog or journal without reading an opinion about the recent vote by the American Studies Association (ASA) to boycott Israeli universities. The ASA boycott incorporates “formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions” and “scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions.”I think the boycott is misguided and wrong. Boycotting all Israeli universities is a grave assault on academic freedom and does little to achieve peace.

I am glad to see that President Roth condemned the boycott. Roth argued that the boycott lacked consistency. That is, why boycott Israel while ignoring North Korea, Russia or China? This argument has merit and proves a double standard on the part of the ASA. However, many opinions have used this argument to show that the boycott has its foundations in anti-Semitism. The President of the ASA did not help his case when stating that, “One has to start somewhere” when explaining the decision to boycott Israel. However, there is no reason to believe that the ASA had its motives rooted in anti-Jewish sentiment.

To understand the morality of the boycott, I think it is important to explore the purpose of a university. Universities, like many institutions, are concerned with professional, not political, performance. While the ASA will not be boycotting specific Israeli professors based on their citizenship, they will not allow them to participate in academic forums if they are sponsored by an Israeli institution. However, if an Israeli institution condemns the occupation, they are exempt from the boycott. I personally do think that Israeli universities should take a stance in opposition to the occupation, but I think it is wrong to boycott universities based on their views. To explain this reasoning I would like to propose a thought experiment. University X is a progressive, liberal institution. However, Professor Y, who is eligible for tenure, is an outspoken critic of many of the university’s policies. It would be wrong of the board of trustees to deny this professor tenure because he does not conform to the university’s beliefs. Non-conforming ideas lead to progress. A university has the right to define its own beliefs, however misguided they may be.

Similarly, it is wrong for the ASA to boycott any academic institution, regardless of the morality of their government. The primacy of freedom of thought is inherent to academic beliefs. While the ASA is not explicitly boycotting Israeli professors, by boycotting their institutions it attempts to delegitimize their academic qualifications. The boycott would also affect joint U.S.-Israeli academic institutions such as the Brandeis-Middlebury Program at Ben Gurion University as well as the Cornell-Technion campus under construction in New York City. This boycott not only affects Israeli academic freedom, but spreads across borders back to the US.

When examining the ASA reasoning for the boycott, it becomes clear that the boycott is the cause as well as the solution to the institution they attempt to protect. The ASA claimed that they endorsed the boycott in order to protect academic freedom. This was summed up in a statement as “the necessity for intellectuals to remain free from state interests and interference.”

The ASA cites the hampering of Palestinian academic freedom by Israel as the primary reason for boycotting Israeli institutions. The ASA claims that boycotting all institutions within a state that hampers the academic freedom of other universities will protect their long-term goal of preserving academic freedom. However, by utilizing a boycott as their means, they are taking part in the exact activity they condemn. The legitimizing of boycotts as a tool for change in regards to academic freedom is hypocritical and shortsighted on the part of the ASA.

My biggest problem with the boycott is not only about the claim of protecting academic freedom, but about the larger outcome that the ASA hopes to achieve. The ASA denounces “The Israeli occupation of Palestine,” rather than “the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.” Peter Beinart explains the importance as such, “making no distinction whatsoever between Israeli control of the West Bank, where Palestinians lack citizenship, the right to vote and the right to due process, and Israel proper, where Palestinians, although discriminated against, enjoy all three.” Without separating the two realities, the ASA makes little effort to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.

I am a strong supporter of the two-state solution and I feel that the ASA’s actions do more to harm the prospect of two states than it does to help it. It is important to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist while also condemning its occupation of the Palestinian territories. Such is the reason why PLO President Mahmoud Abbas does not support a boycott of goods produced in Israel proper, but supports a boycott of the settlements. Self determination on both sides of the Green Line will be achieved through a final status solution negotiated by both sides, not a rejection of Israel’s right to exist. If the ASA truly believes in peace and see’s boycott as the best way to achieve that goal it would boycott Ariel University Center, a recently recognized Israeli university located within the West Bank, while sparing Hebrew University, a university founded before Israel. The lack of distinction delegitimizes Israel’s right to exists and harms efforts towards peace.

Both academic boycotts as well as the ASA misguided motives behind the boycott pave no path towards peace. World wide free speech will be threatened if certain institutions are excluded from the global exchange of ideas due to the actions of their government. There will never be peace between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River without an acknowledgment by both sides of the others right to exist. The boycott achieves little and has the potential for great harm.

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18 thoughts on “A Misguided Boycott

  1. Joshua Krugman

    The Israeli government sends its academics abroad in order to show “the softer face of Israel” and distract people abroad from Israel’s racist domestic policies, including its harassment of Palestinian students and other infringements of free speech and academic freedom.

    The Israeli government treats its scholars as a mere means to its ends and so fully believes that they will be obedient instruments of its will that it doesn’t even consider that they may shine a critical spotlight back on Israel’s institutions, or that they may change their political perspectives abroad as a result of conversations with people in other countries, and bring back these new perspectives to Israel. This is obviously deeply unethical

    The BDS proponents, however, including the ASA now, repeat this injustice by treating the traveling academics as a “mere means” of the Israeli Bureau of Culture, who can do naught else abroad but to further Israel’s political agenda of “softening”. In so doing the BDS people, just like the Israeli culture ministry, also deprive these academics of their freedom as thinkers and agents. The proponents of an academic boycott, in a manner just as cynical and inhumane as the Israeli culture ministry, don’t consider the possibility that Israeli academics might actually choose–out of obedience to their own conscience or intellectual commitments rather than to the Israeli state–to shine a light back on Israel’s cultural institutions in a way that might be productive or provocative for people abroad (here) to hear, or that they might get exposed to some new ways of thinking abroad (here) that might help to change their views of Israel’s institutions, and moreover that they might be uniquely able to transmit such new perspectives to other Israeli academics when they return.

    The academic boycott is unethical because it treats Israeli scholars as mere instruments of the Israeli state, rather than as individual human beings with capacities of free thought and action.

  2. Kelly Lee

    DUDE. You are seriously misguided in thinking that academic freedom is separate from politics, which seems to be the basis of your argument against the boycott. The space in which academic thinking and academic freedom thrives is ADMINISTERED and ENABLED by the government itself. Israeli universities are government institutions and benefit directly AND materially from those conditions!

    A boycott isn’t even an action AGAINST Israel, it is precisely a motion to not actively support Israel. This attack on “academic freedom” that you speak of is a lofty American dream that we would like to keep alive because it validates the academic freedom we enjoy here at Wesleyan. However, that freedom is political, too. Wesleyan’s (and America’s) unquestioned support of academic institutions in Israel contributes to their political power.

    You’re right, though. This IS about freedom. Which freedom should we protect? Academic freedom or the freedom to resist against colonialism?

    1. Joshua Krugman

      Do you really think this is about colonialism? Why doesn’t the ASA boycott itself and all US colleges and universities then? The USofA is still a racist colonialist country. I think the hope is that academics can help us expose these things and change them. If our real goal is to change these political and economic systems to be more just, how can it be beneficial to refuse to hear what professional thinkers and researchers have to say about these issues and others?

  3. Ross '15

    This is Robin DG Kelley’s (a wonderful historian, scholar, and parent of a 2012 Wes grad) response to Roth:


    In a widely circulated Los Angeles Times op ed piece, Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth denounced the American Studies Association’s (ASA) resolution to support a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as “a repugnant attack on academic freedom.” Parroting near-identical responses by other American university presidents, Roth’s ill-informed, grossly distorted polemic took me by surprise. While I do not expect him to agree with our stance, I did expect a more considered and intellectually honest disagreement from the president of Wesleyan University—a world-class institution with a long and distinguished record of teaching (and doing) social justice, grounded in an internationalist, humanist vision of liberal arts education; a school to which I gave nearly a quarter of a million dollars of my hard-earned academic salary so that my daughter (class of 2012) could learn what it means to be an informed, critical, engaged citizen of the world.

    Roth either misread or deliberately misrepresented the resolution’s carefully considered language. He asserts that the ASA targets Israeli academic institutions merely for their “national affiliation.” This is not true. They are targeted for their complicity in the illegal occupation and government policies of dispossession, repression, and racism. He also claims that the resolution extends to individual faculty. It does not. It strongly condemns any attempts to single out and/or isolate Israeli scholars or any scholar of any nationality. On the contrary, the resolution and its authors encourage collaboration and dialogue, but outside the official channels of the Israeli state-supported institutions that continue to directly benefit from or support the occupation.

    Roth repeats the well-worn argument that Israel is being singled out because the ASA has not boycotted countries with documented human rights abuses. But countries such as North Korea have no formal institutional ties to the ASA, and in most instances our own government has taken action, imposing sanctions and trade barriers or openly condemning violations of human rights or war crimes. Of course, there are egregious exceptions such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain—U.S.-backed repressive regimes that some of our most prominent ASA members have subjected to sharp criticisms.

    But all of this is beside the point: Israel and the U.S. have a “special” relationship. As Carolyn Karcher recently reminded us in her rebuttal to Roth’s op ed, “the U.S. not only gives far more military aid to Israel than to any other country, but has also vetoed all U.N. resolutions in recent memory that condemn Israel’s abuses of human rights. The ASA resolution specifically cites the ‘significant role’ the U.S. plays in underwriting Israel’s violations of international law.” Three billion dollars a year, every year, is an awful lot of money. The money flows despite the fact that Israel’s blockade of Gaza, the source of the region’s immense poverty, is a clear violation of Articles 33, 55, and 56 of the 4th Geneva Convention prohibiting the collective punishment of civilians and requiring an occupying power to ensure access to food and medical supplies, and to maintain hospital and public health facilities.

    Roth, who takes great pride in being a historian informed about and even critical of Israel’s policies, knows that these intermittent wars in Gaza, not to mention IDF attacks and home demolitions in the West Bank, violate our own Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits the use of U.S. weapons and military aid against civilians. And the most recent violent racist attacks on African immigrants in Israel represent some of the worst examples of human rights violations. Some 60,000 undocumented workers, many having fled war-torn or economically devastated countries such as Sudan and Eritrea, are denied refugee status, subject to deportation and imprisonment for up to a year without trial, and endure horrifying violence from racist mobs. The entire community is accused of committing rape, robbery and other crimes, and in Binyamin Netanyahu’s words, threatening to destroy Israel’s “image as a Jewish and democratic state.”

    “Under the guise of phony progressivism,” Roth writes, “the [ASA] has initiated an irresponsible attack on academic freedom.” It is not clear what Roth means by “phony,” but the academic and cultural boycott is a legal, legitimate, non-violent form of protest that targets institutions only. The original call for an international campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) came from Palestinian civil society organizations in 2005, inspired by the global solidarity movement that helped end apartheid and bring nonracial democracy to South Africa. Since then, the movement has gained support globally as well as from Israeli organizations such as Boycott from Within and Who Profits? The ASA membership voted overwhelmingly to support the resolution, but it did not come to this conclusion cavalierly. The implication that some deep-seated anti-Israel or anti-Semitic sentiment was behind it is downright insulting. The resolution resulted from a long process of debate and deliberation within our organization over how to respond to the ongoing 46-year occupation (the longest military occupation in modern history), the deadly blockade of Gaza, the escalation of violence, the expansion of illegal settlements, the denial of academic freedom to Palestinians and some Israeli scholars critical of their government, and the massive U.S. military aid to Israel that ultimately underwrites ongoing dispossession and an entrenched system of apartheid. These discussions began some six years ago, and they have not been easy.

    Had Roth taken time to read discussions leading up to the resolution, particularly the extensive critical analyses by Judith Butler or the special issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom devoted to the question of academic boycotts, he may not have been so quick to indict the resolution as an “irresponsible attack on academic freedom.” As a matter of fact, the boycott will have no direct impact on the ability of individual Israeli scholars to teach, conduct research, and participate in meetings, symposia, or conferences around the globe. And ASA members are not required to abide by the resolution—it really only applies to official association business. The most important point, however, is that the resolution expresses a fundamental demand that the privileges of academic freedom extend to all: Palestinian teachers, researchers, students of all ages, as well as Jewish and Arab Israeli scholars, writers, intellectuals, artists, and students critical of the regime. Roth is silent when it comes to the academic freedom of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and within Israel itself.

    While cognizant of the limited space afforded opinion pieces, I still find it baffling that an intellectual historian who has written about the Holocaust can treat academic freedom as an autonomous category separate and above other freedoms. As Sarah T. Roberts so eloquently explained:

    “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: the freedom to circulate unimpeded, the freedom to be treated as an equal citizen, the freedom to even access spaces of higher education, which must certainly be a prerequisite for the much-lauded academic freedom that is causing so much consternation.”

    Palestinian people living in lands occupied by Israel are barred from these things. There are precious few freedoms for Palestinians, academic or otherwise, in Israel and in occupied Palestine. In this sense, the boycott is, in fact, a response to an actual lack of academic freedom for an entire people, not the creation of a potential for loss of some higher-order freedom for relatively few individuals. Supporters of academic freedom must side with Palestinians or their position makes little sense and loses its meaning completely.”

    The boycott is one of many actions in defense of Palestinians who are denied the right to travel freely because of checkpoints and roadblock. Palestinian students and teachers risk harassment, arrest, detention, injury and even death just to get to their institutions to perform basic tasks like teaching, research, and learning. In fact, in the first half of 2013 alone, 13,064 students were affected by access denial, and UNICEF documented egregious incidents of Israeli settlers in the West Bank attacking Palestinian students. In the realm of higher education, Palestinian scholars are routinely denied the right to travel abroad to participate in conferences and symposia, let alone travel between Gaza and the West Bank.

    Any consideration of “academic freedom” must acknowledge the ongoing history of Israeli raids, closures, and constant disruptions of Palestinian universities such as Birzeit and Al Quds, as well as the hundreds of students currently detained in Israeli prisons for political activity, or for reasons unknown based on “secret evidence.” Israel can detain Palestinians for up to six months without charge or trial, with no limits on renewal. Administrative detention, as it is called, is based on three laws: Military Order 1651 which empowers the army to issue orders to detain civilians in the West Bank; the Unlawful Combatants Law which applies to Gaza residents; and the Emergency Powers Detention Law used against Israeli citizens. These laws violate Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which prohibits arbitrary detention, requires that detainees be told why they are being held, and stipulates that every person has the right of habeas corpus.

    Violations of Palestinian academic freedom in higher education are legion. In 2008, filmmaker and professor Nizar Hassan was suspended from his teaching position at Sapir College because he asked an Israeli student not to carry his firearms and wear his military uniform to class. The administration appointed a committee to investigate Hassan’s alleged anti-Israel teaching, but he argued before his interrogators that he had acted out of the very humanist values that undergird a liberal arts education. “They wanted to believe that I object to the army uniform because I am Palestinian,” he explained. “But I reject the uniform because it is opposed to my universal and human values. I acted as I did because I am a teacher and a human being.” However, the committee thoroughly rejected Hassan’s argument. An “Arab” humanist was simply inconceivable. The report concludes: “Nizar [sic] abused his status and his authority as a teacher to flaunt his opinions, feelings and frustrations as a member of the Arab national minority in Israel, cloaking himself in a ‘humane’ and ‘universal’ garb, whereas in fact he demonstrated a stance of brute force bearing a distinctly nationalist character.”1 The administration threatened dismissal if Hassan did not apologize to the student and submit a written statement promising to respect and honor the uniform of the Israeli Defense Forces. Hassan refused. The administration eventually backed down in the face of international pressure; Hassan returned to his post after a one-semester paid suspension.

    Academic freedom includes the right to free speech and assembly. In November of 2012, during Israel’s bombing of Gaza [Operation Pillar of Defense], Palestinian students at Hebrew University were arrested for holding peaceful demonstrationin front of the campus, and at Haifa University Palestinian students were banned from further protests after gathering to observe a minute of silence in solidarity with the people of Gaza. Following the ban, Zionist students and staff were allowed to assemble in support of the bombing and many chanted “Death to Arabs” and other virulently racist slogans.

    One of the worst examples of state suppression of academic freedom is the notorious “Nakba Law,” passed in the Knesset in March 2011. The Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic) refers to the violent expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians from 380 villages during the 1948 war, and the barring of the refugee population from the right to return or reclaim lost land, homes, personal property, bank accounts, etc. The law permits the minister of finance to reduce government funding to any institution (including schools and universities, civic organizations and local governments) that commemorates either independence day or the anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel as a day of mourning (‘Nakba Day’), or mentions the Nakba in school textbooks. Besides the Nakba Law, right-wing parties have passed laws that directly infringe on the freedom of speech and academic freedom of Arab and Jewish citizens, including the so-called ‘boycott law’, which allows citizens to file a civil suit against anyone in Israel who calls for a boycott against the state or Israeli settlers in the West Bank – whether or not any damages can be proved.

    In other words, many of us support the boycott out of concern for academic freedom—though, as I pointed out above, this does not supersede the main objective: to end the occupation and extend civil and human rights to all. The university presidents who have come out so strongly against the resolution betray a pedestrian understanding of academic freedom, both here and inside Palestine/Israel. Indeed, I was a bit surprised that neither Michael Roth nor Larry Summers nor any of the American university presidents who are so concerned about academic freedom mentioned the important document issued five years ago by Israeli scholars Menachem Fisch, Raphael Falk, Eva Jablonka, and Snait Gissis of Tel-Aviv University. They called on the broader academic community—especially senior scholars—to protest government and university policies that deny academic freedom to Palestinian students and faculty in the Occupied Territories:

    “We, past and present members of academic staff of Israeli universities, express great concern regarding the ongoing deterioration of the system of higher education in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. We protest against the policy of our government which is causing restrictions of freedom of movement, study and instruction, and we call upon the government to allow students and lecturers free access to all the campuses in the Territories, and to allow lecturers and students who hold foreign passports to teach and study without being threatened with withdrawal of residence visas. To leave the situation as it is will cause serious harm to freedom of movement, study and instruction – harm to the foundation of academic freedom, to which we are committed.”

    Nor have the university presidents much to say in defense of Jewish Israeli scholars, whose criticisms of government policies have left them vulnerable to blatant violations of their academic freedom. In December of 2012, Rivka Feldhay, a professor at Tel Aviv University, was banned from participating in a scientific conference in Berlin because she signed a petition four years earlier supporting Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in the West Bank. The right-wing Zionist group, Im Tirtzu (Hebrew for “if you will it”) launched a virulent campaign against Tel Aviv University philosophy professor Anat Matar for her opposition to Israel’s administrative detention of Palestinian prisoners. Dr. Matar is also a member of “Who Profits?: Exposing the Israeli Occupation Industry,” whose son spent two years in prison for refusing to enlist in the military. Im Tirtzu mobilized dozens of students to file complaints against her to the university, but rather than defend her right to free speech and intellectual freedom, the university decided to investigate her.

    Another Tel-Aviv professor, Yehuda Shenhav, experienced similar attacks for statements he made in his anthropology class. A particularly high profile case involved the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University, where what began as an Im Tirtzu-led campaign largely against Professor Neve Gordon turned into a state-sponsored witch hunt against the entire department. As early as 2008, Im Tirtzu accused some of the politics faculty of anti-Zionism. Then in August 2009, Professor Gordon published an op ed piece in the Los Angeles Times in support of the BDS movement in an effort to force Israel to move toward a two-state solution. Attacks on Professor Gordon coincided with a national review of all politics departments. After a couple of high profile resignations and administrative reshuffling, a reconstituted review committee issued a damning report on Ben Gurion’s politics department that pointed to “community activism” as a central problem. Although the university acceded to the committee’s recommendations, the government’s Council for Higher Education appointed another committee and concluded that the department had to be shut down altogether. Only international pressure, including a powerful op ed piece in the L.A. Times by my colleague David Myers, compelled Israel’s Minister of Education to withdraw the order for closure.

    To put it bluntly, under the current regime academic freedom and civil liberties for all—Palestinians, Bedouins, and African immigrants more than others—are in jeopardy, and will remain in jeopardy so long as Israeli society is rooted in occupation, dispossession, militarization, racism and segregation. Some might argue that violations of Jewish Israeli academic freedom make the case against an academic boycott because, as Roth argues, there are Israeli scholars critical of the regime. Of course, the defense of a segment of academia at the expense of everyone else contradicts the principles of academic freedom. But equally damning is the evidence that Israeli universities have refused or are unable to protect their own faculty and students. The facts are unequivocal: in every case, it is the university administration that backs up state repression, that participates in denying the very intellectual freedoms Roth and his friends hold so sacrosanct. As the ASA resolution makes clear, Israeli institutions are complicit, and in defense of all of our colleagues they must be challenged.

    Let me end with a very recent example of an assault on intellectual freedom from right here in the U.S. Just this fall, the artistic director of Washington D. C.’s Theater J and brilliant playwright Ari Roth, decided to produce Motti Lerner’s controversial play, “The Admission.” It tells the story of Teddy Katz, a graduate student whose master’s thesis uncovered an attack by an Israeli brigade on the village of Tantura during the 1948 war. Although Katz never called it a massacre, 240 unarmed Palestinians were killed and were never given the opportunity to surrender. The play explores not only the massacre at Tantura but the state’s attack on Katz and his defender and teacher, historian Ilan Pappe. Despite presenting solid scholarly evidence within the standards of academic history, Katz was forced to stand trial, his thesis withdrawn from the University of Haifa, and Pappe was eventually driven out of Israel. What is interesting is that a play about a gross violation of academic freedom suddenly became the object of a boycott by a group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA). COPMA waged a vicious campaign against Ari Roth and Lerner; Jewish Federations of Washington even threatened to pull $250,000 in donations if the play were staged. Roth refused to back down, just as he had a few years earlier when he produced the controversial play “Return to Haifa.” But he was compelled to move the play from the main stage to a workshop.

    Where were Michael S. Roth or Richard Slotkin or Larry Summers or any other gallant defenders of academic freedom when Ari Roth was battling boycotts and pickets? The truth of the matter is that Michael S. Roth and many of the most high profile, vocal critics of the ASA resolution are less interested in defending academic freedom than defending the occupation, the expansion of settlements, the continued dispossession of land, the blockade of Gaza, the system of separate roads, the building and maintenance of an apartheid wall – no matter what the cost. Nothing in Roth’s editorial or similar statements directly criticizes these policies or suggests a different strategy to compel Israel to abide by international law and to end human rights violations. I don’t expect to persuade Roth or other university presidents to support the boycott, but I do wish they would come clean and admit that unconditional support for Israeli apartheid and occupation is not about academic freedom or justice. I’m not holding my breath.

    1 Quotes take from Jonathan Cook, “Academic Freedom? Not for Arabs in Israel,”The Electronic Intifada (March 4, 2008),http://electronicintifada.net/content/academic-freedom-not-arabs-israel/7398For an excellent account and critical analysis of Hassan’s case, see Leora Bilsky, “Muslim Headscarves in France and Army Uniforms in Israel: A Comparative Study of Citizenship as Mask,” in Maleiah Malik, ed., Anti-Muslim Prejudice: Past and Present (Abingdon, UK and New York: Routledge, 2010), pp. 79-103.

    1. Joshua Krugman

      You seem to be saying that American scholarly bodies should boycott Israeli universities because those universities have violated the academic freedom of their students and scholars. While you demonstrate the latter very well — the deplorable behavior of Israeli universities toward faculty and students who speak out about Israel’s racist laws, the occupation, its historical denial, etc. — I don’t see how you conclude from this that we should refuse to hear from any Israeli scholars, including those who have been treated unjustly by their universities. Shouldn’t the american academic community, as you suggest toward the end of the piece, vocally condemn at conferences and in our national newspapers the unjust chilling of speech by these Israeli universities, rather than imposing a blanket ban on work with Israeli scholars? Doesn’t this just further isolate the voices of dissent we would like to encourage and bring to a wider audience?

    1. Joshua Krugman

      The ASA is, as I understand it, not being questioned for focusing on the Palestinian right to education — or, indeed, on the many abuses of academic freedom of which many Israeli universities are guilty –, but rather the FORM this “focus” has taken: that of a boycott. The question is, as I see it: is a boycott either ethical or likely to be effective in promoting academic freedom in Palestine/Israel? –and I think the answer to both questions is “no.”

      1. Hey

        The boycott isn’t about academic freedom – its about regular freedom. The boycott discredits the role of Israeli governmental institutions, a step Americans seldom take. It is a small, but necessary step towards letting Israel know that its policies are seriously fucked up. America has the power to influence the world’s opinion on the conflict… We need to be less complicit. If you don’t like the tactic of a boycott, suggest something else?

        1. Joshua Krugman

          I like boycotts of business that profit from the occupation, I think the US should stop supplying Israel military aid, we should push for the recognition of Palestine at the UN, and I think imposing economic sanctions on Israel might also be useful.

          Boycotting businesses that profit by the occupation is something universities, businesses, and individuals can do. The other actions have to be taken by states.

          I understand that academics want to do something to help alleviate the injustices they correctly pick out, in Palestine and elsewhere. As arduous as it may seem, I think the most useful think scholars can do is to repeatedly bring the truth to light and attempt to create, inform, and sustain a public conversation about this kind of thing. I wholeheartedly agree with the commenter who says that college presidents and other academics should use the prestige that allows them to get an editorial published in the LA times to condemn the occupation and bring the reality of the injustices perpetrated by Israel and others into the national conversation, rather than only speaking up to criticise the ASA. Scholars can also of course pressure the Universities they work for not to invest in companies (US, Israeli, and otherwise) that profit by colonialism and occupation. As citizens they can also press the government to withdraw military aid, threaten sanctions, etc.

          I don’t think refusing to talk to or work with fellow academics from other countries is an ethical or productive response to the righteous urge to stand up for the rights of the Palestinian people and other victims of colonialism and occupation.

  4. Senior

    Perhaps the ASA, you know the collection of learned scholars who felt compelled to vote–at least partially when it comes to member constituency–for this measure, chose not to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist on purpose.

    The field of American Studies deals, if not primarily certainly closely with, the immorality of settler colonization. Even bringing up the ‘lesser of two evils’ debate is a slippery slope because one is acknowledging the lack of moral basis for the state of Israel’s decisions.

    Also if the reason for the boycott is to ensure freedom of thought, the aspect you so idealistically spew is the goal of academia, you fail to acknowledge that potentially Palestinians are truly the ones receiving the worst of the situation. If we are talking about a realistic world where ideal scenarios such as ‘complete freedom of thought’ don’t exist–aka the real world you are living in–maybe the question comes to simply numbers.

    Not to mention, the ASA is not in charge of promoting peace. Maybe if the State of Israel truly wanted peace it would behave in a manner that demonstrated that rather than offering up empty promises. But that is a discussion for a later time. In the meantime, maybe think about what the ASA stands for and what their studies entail. Think about what their goals are. If you aren’t an idealistic/confused person like yourself, the boycott seems anything but misguided.

    1. Joshua Krugman

      I think maybe if you think hard about whether or not Israel “has a right to exist” you may come to the conclusion that no state really has “the right to exist”. Of what, exactly, would such a right consist? It seems like such a right could be derived from nothing less than the free and informed consent of every one of its subjects, a standard which I think it’s fair to say no state will meet.

      In the meantime we can certainly oppose colonialism everywhere it exists (not only in Israel) (recognizing, as we do, the disastrous physical and psychic harm it has done and continues to do to human beings across the world, colonizers and colonized alike). We can and should descry the abuses of human rights by the state of Israel, descry and oppose the abuses of academic freedom and freedom of expression in its schools and universities, as we can and should like abuses by such institutions in other countries.

      The question remains, however, whether an academic boycott is ethical or likely to be effective in promoting academic freedom and freedom of expression in Israel. You don’t discuss either of these questions in your post. I’d be interested in your reasoning.

  5. SuperJisan Zaman

    Here’s another thought experiment you could have. Let’s say that through there was an institution in the world that claimed itself as the forefront of academic freedom, and proudly carried with it the tradition of promoting social justice goals by including as many people as possible in its institution and putting forth ideas to bring forth a more equal, a more just, and a more fair society. But then you realize the institution actually does not help eliminate the social,political, institutional, and systemic ills it tries to correct but rather reinforces them by not challenging the government of it’s countries racist, unjust, violent policies because it wants to ensure that it receives the government grants it receives to help its balance sheet? Does this sound familiar to anyone? How about Wesleyan University during the late 1980s and early 1990s when it realized its investment helped to enforce apartheid in South Africa? But we decided to divest from those institutions. Or how about when Wesleyan students and faculty were united in not allowing military recruiters in campus and sacrificed government funds and stood up against the Vietnam War?

    You can argue in the language that it is the Israeli academic institutions who are suffering from this boycott. But I think a more compelling, convincing and just case can be made that the real victim of NOT applying to Israeli college and universities are the Palestinian people who are victims of Israel’s systems of oppression, racism, and injustice that Israeli universities are passively supporting when they are not actively speaking out against them?

    When the US government representatives, both liberal and conservative, blatantly support a pro-Israeli attitude because of powerful lobbying efforts. When Western military support, official recognition of statehood, and great economic ties exist with Israel and not Palestine. And when the US government and Israel and a handful of nations who oppose the right of Palestine to become a nation state member of the UN because of fear of Israel being prosecuted in International Criminal Court. I seriously doubt that Israeli institutions can play the victim card in this wholly unequal power paradigm where Israeli academic, social, political and other institutions enjoy much greater Western support than its Palestinian counterparts, enhancing further injustice committed against Palestine.

    The path toward peace between Israel and Palestine cannot be thought just thought of as both powers just needing to sit down and talk. It needs to be rooted in the paradigm of huge power disparity that exists between the two states, and the international ignorance of Israel’s official state policy of oppression. Without pressure from Western powers, including academic fields, Israel has very little reason to change its discriminatory policies.

    The language and the framework of this blog post cannot simply change the topic at hand from the one that is at stake: the unjust treatment of Palestinians, to the the supposed hypocrisy of the ACA in not choosing to condemn other institutions more horrific to try and excuse Israel from its criminal policies.

    1. Danny b.


      Lots of great points made here, but I’d say a few things in reply. First of all, I think the comparison with Wes’s divestment from Apartheid South Africa is a bit problematic on two counts. First, I don’t believe it is totally accurate to compare current Israeli policies (or Israel in general) with Apartheid. That in and of itself is a conversation for another day but I’d note two quick things: all ethnicities within the green line have the vote, something that never existed in S. Africa. Secondly, the divestment campaign in the 1980s was about divesting from companies that supported the S. African economy and military. Here, we are talking about an academic boycott, not a boycott of the Israeli military or companies that do business in the West Bank for Israel.

      I also didn’t read the post as claiming some alleged Israeli victimhood, which I totally agree is a claim that rings increasingly hollow. You are absolutely right that power dynamics must be taken into account when addressing this conflict. I think the post makes two points: academic boycotts are not a good thing, which is not to say that ALL boycotts are a bad thing. A boycott of, say, caterpillar because it sells Israel military bulldozers that destroy homes in Silwan is an entirely different (and, in my opinion) far more justifiable endeavor then boycotting the institutions that in many ways are creating the intellectual framework from which the entire Israeli left is drawn. The post doesn’t repudiate military boycotts (or boycotts of the settlements). It simply asks that we make a distinction between “legitimate” Israel and its illegitimate occupation and settlements. As a counter example, I would say that we want to “delegitimize” the terrorism and violence that Hamas utilizes but NOT delegitimize palestinian national aspirations or minimize the oppression they have suffered. Israel’s existence and Palestinian self-determination are both just causes, just not everything they do is. The problem with the boycott is that it makes no distinction, and thus repeats the mistake of those on the Israeli and American right who use Hamas violence to delegitimize the entire Palestinian national and anti-oppression movement.

      I actually think this post is mostly about tactics. We all agree that we want the situation to change and a resolution to this conflict implemented. The question is basically how to ensure the most democracy for the greatest number of people in the shortest period of time. The ASA has a just cause: the oppression of the Palestinian people. The post, as far as I read it, recognized it as such. The post merely states that the ASA is using a poor tactic to alleviate the problem that they have correctly identified. Boycotts (especially academic boycotts) are a tactic not widely accepted in the US, Israel and even by the Palestinian Authority. What does have traction are the (currently ongoing) negotiations restarted by Secretary Kerry which have the potential to create a viable and vital Palestinian state, end the occupation and bring about the beginning of the end of the Palestinian refugee crisis. In this context, I have chosen not to support BDS not because of its “morality” but simply because I think there are better ways of fixing the problem that BDS identifies. That’s why I support the negotiations and think an academic boycott is misguided.

      Something this post did not mention, but I think is worthwhile, is that President Roth’s op-ed did not mention the two-state solution. Roth spent his entire piece condemning the boycott but offered no solutions of his own to fix the problem. This post, I think, is an implicit critique of Roth: If you are going to oppose the boycott, you better have an alternative policy that can effectively alleviate the oppression that BDS advocates so eloquently identify. The two-state solution (implemented justly) is just such a policy.

    1. Cesar A. Chavez

      Lack of “Academic Freedom” is not the issue. The ASA is boycotting Israeli Universities because these institutions are part of a political system that is racist and that denies Palestinians their basic human rights. Also american tax payer money goes towards the funding of the Israeli state and its apartheid policies. If anything the ASA is taking responsibility for the unfair actions of the U.S. government. Also as far as “Academic Freedom” goes, Roth claims to support this ideology but his decision to end need blind admissions have made Wesleyan inaccessible to low income students, thereby restricting the access of low income students to Wesleyan and its academic resources. If he believes in “Academic Freedom” and access to educational resources shouldn’t he make sure that low income students are not being discriminated in the application process under the current policy of need aware and that Wesleyan will commit to supporting low income students? Also the ASA is targeting Israeli Universities because Israel cares about its image, it wants to present itself to the world as a legitimate state. However evidence shows that Israel has been violating human rights of Palestinians.

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