The academic boycott of Israel: No easy answers

There are some strong arguments against the ASA’s recent decision to support an academic boycott of Israel. But are they adequate? 

Illustrative photo of boycott advocates. (Photo: Brian S / Shutterstock.com)
Illustrative photo of boycott advocates. (Photo: Brian S / Shutterstock.com)

Members of the American Studies Association (ASA) voted last week to endorse a resolution supporting an academic boycott of Israel, following a unanimous vote by the National Council of the ASA earlier this month.

The global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement might have seemed extreme and marginal when it was established eight years ago. But what seems extreme has a way of becoming mainstream if doesn’t go away. The boycott idea became impossible to ignore as international stars such as Elvis Costello began canceling shows in Israel. Legendary Pink Floyd band leader Roger Waters has been an outspoken advocate, causing hand-wringing among commentators who thought of themselves as liberal.

The past year, 2013, has seen significant victories for the boycott camp. Stephen Hawking bowed out of the Presidential Conference. Unrelated to the BDS movement, the EU issued guidelines to limit interaction with settlement enterprises. Now, the ASA decision makes it even harder to defiantly insist that only Israel is right and everyone else – cultural figures, intellectuals and policymakers – are all wrong.

Boycotting is a painful tool. But anyone who truly desires an end to the conflict and the occupation, who is not just paying lip service, must take this tactic seriously. Both sides of the academic and general boycott debate raise serious questions that I have not seen fully answered. Below are a few that I have grappled with.

Strong arguments against the ASA boycott

Hypocritical. America does evil things, systematically and on a larger scale. So do other countries. There is little moral, ethical or professional credibility to an organization that boycotts selectively, unless it can justify why this cause is more urgent or extreme than all others in the world. The response ASA released on this point is little help. Why not boycott Russia, which pours arms into Syria and has thereby contributed to over 100,000 deaths? Is Syrian blood less valuable or lower priority than Palestinian?

Backlash: Boycott could drive the Israeli and Jewish community to more extreme responses. The academic boycott in particular will drive away many people devoted to advancing human rights, justice and an end to Israeli occupation among academics. Moderates and liberals outside academia as well will turn away, when we should all be joining forces, expanding numbers, making ending the occupation a movement no one can ignore. BDS is fond of the South African model, except that there, whites from the oppressor community joined forces with the oppressed. That is often considered a key to the success of the anti-Apartheid movement.

Maybe the BDS movement doesn’t believe that Israeli or Jewish “peaceniks” truly seek to end the occupation. But that is primarily because BDS has a very specific definition about “what counts.” That leads to another problem.

The BDS Litmus test. The movement calls for the implementation of UN Resolution 194, allowing the full return of Palestinian refugees to Israel proper. That’s a legitimate negotiation demand but it is simply not the authoritative litmus test for commitment to ending the conflict. I know Palestinians with totally different views on the refugee question and they are no less Palestinian. It is wrong to exclude anyone from the anti-occupation camp who does not embrace the BDS view on Palestinian right of return, because the movement is not the sole arbiter of what it means to be against the occupation. Like all maximalist positions, that condition is a disturbing clue that BDS activists aren’t truly interested in a realistic agreement for ending the occupation and the conflict.

Still, the anti-boycott arguments are often inadequate.

Boycott is a limitation on academic freedom. Truly, it is not. The resolution does not target individuals. Any Israeli individual is still able to join conferences, or publish papers and express his or her views. Palestinian academics, however, are and will continue to be physically prevented from being part of global academic society. This cannot be presented as parallel to non-existent limitations on the ability of Israeli academics to make their voices heard.

Boycott is a form of political violence. Political violence is an interesting concept. But surely nobody in his or her right mind would compare academic boycott to physical violence, such as terrorism or military occupation, with its accompanying civilian casualties. Nor will any family go hungry as a result.

For the reasons above, boycott is not a legitimate means of protest. Then what is? Every form of Palestinian opposition to living under a human rights nightmare for decades and generations has been deemed illegitimate. I am against violence as a means. But when Jews used violence we justified it; the world practically heroized it. When the Palestinians undertook a violent struggle the world saw them as bloodthirsty terrorists, racially or culturally programmed for death. The diplomatic strategy of seeking statehood (starting in 1988, and again in 2011 and 2012) was reflexively branded as an anti-Israel campaign. As for the unarmed popular protests movements in the West Bank over recent years, possible side effects include arrests, tear-gassing, injury and in rare cases, death.

If Israel doesn’t like the boycott strategy, what does it propose for the Palestinians? To live as passive subjects of military occupation forever?

Biased, one-sided campaign. True. The ASA’s explanation of the resolution is immature and amateur. But to assume that some of America’s most serious scholars are incapable of thinking beyond the propaganda materials and doing the work to weigh other angles before making a final decision, is futile. People aren’t hypnotized by Palestinian Svengalis. They just agree with the basic points.

The “biased” notion is a remarkably hypocritical attack. The American government is far more constrained, to put it nicely, by decades of hermetically sealed, single-narrative, one-sided perspectives on Israel. Jewish-American organizations have made it their life’s mission to control that narrative and bully Jews who think otherwise; pity the American politician who even dreams of expressing dissent. Frankly, American Jews have zero right to accuse anyone of presenting one-sided campaigns to rally support for a cause. The BDS advocates learned from the best.

Shortly after the ASA Council vote, there was electricity in the air at an event at the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University. People spoke of the ASA Council decision almost reverentially, knowing the Palestinian cause could never hope to win a fraction of the attention or acceptance that Israel’s narrative gets in America. Even if someone in that room did not agree with all the finer points, it was a victory.

Boycott hurts academics, who are most likely to support the cause. The critique here is the flip side of the problem raised earlier. Some academics who believe Israel will only change under outside pressure have endorsed boycott As noted, the boycott really won’t hurt individuals.

Moreover, the boycott message really isn’t about academics. It’s directed at a far larger audience: the Israeli government, the Israeli and Jewish people, interested parties, activists and political leaders on all sides in Europe and the U.S. Unfortunately, there is nothing like this issue to get people engaged. One may hate the boycott, but one certainly feels it. Positive engagement is what America has done for all of Israel’s existence. It has not worked.

Boycott gets many people talking. It will have many Jews and Israelis wondering if it’s all worth it: destroying Israel’s deep desire for success and acceptance, for start-up nation status, all for the sake of controlling millions of Palestinians, denying them freedom of movement, civil rights, self-determination, economic and social development and often, basic needs.

So, is it worth it?

Related:
What can we learn from the Israel apartheid analogy?
On Alice Walker and cultural boycott: A debate
Stephen Hawking’s message to Israeli elites: The occupation has a price