The boycott of Israeli academics
On December 15th, the American Studies Association (ASA), an academic organization dedicated to the “interdisciplinary study of American culture and history,” endorsed a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
The boycott resolution was in response to Israel’s denial of academic freedom to Palestinian scholars, and others critical, of the Israeli government.
The ASA maintains that individual Israeli scholars will still be able to attend conferences hosted by the ASA, as well as collaborate and publish with its members. However, the ASA will no longer share resources with Israeli institutions of higher education, and it is unclear as to when a scholar can be deemed to be acting “on behalf of the Israeli government,” leaving the door open for individuals to be singled out as part of the boycott depending on the nature of their work.
More from the ASA’s website:
[The ASA boycott is] limited to a refusal on the part of the ASA in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others), or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.
We are expressly not endorsing a boycott of Israeli scholars engaged in individual-level contacts and ordinary forms of academic exchange, including presentations at conferences, public lectures at campuses, and collaboration on research and publication. U.S. scholars are not discouraged under the terms of the boycott from traveling to Israel for academic purposes, provided they are not engaged in a formal partnership with or sponsorship by Israeli academic institutions.
The boycott is part of the larger BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, launched by Palestinian civil society in 2005, that has called for universities, corporations and notable figures to put pressure on the Israeli government to grant Palestinians rights currently denied to them, and to correct past injustices including the expansion of settlements.
The counter-boycott of the ASA
The ASA’s actions have unleashed a flurry of criticism in American academia, centered around the readily-apparent idea that restricting access to academic information is no way to promote academic freedom. On the contrary, Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, argued in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, the ASA’s actions constitute, “an attack on academic freedom, declaring institutions off-limits because of their national affiliations.”
Over 200 colleges and universities – including MIT, Stanford, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Princeton, Penn, Carnegie-Mellon, Georgia Tech and the University of Virginia, along with academic organizations such as the American Association of University Professors – have condemned the ASA’s boycott, while none have endorsed it. Additionally, six colleges have gone as far as to cut ties with the ASA altogether: Brandeis, Indiana, Penn State Harrisburg, Bard, the University of Texas-Dallas and Kenyon.
Kenyon, my college, is a particularly interesting case. We are the smallest of the six schools cutting ties with the ASA, and we also maintain a significant number (relative to our size) of students of Palestinian descent. However, this did not stop our newly-inaugurated president, Sean Decatur, taking a high-profile stance against academic boycotts when he endorsed our American Studies department’s decision to rescind its ASA membership.
Taken together, this led to a rather unique discussion on campus over the relative merits of our actions. What follows is my attempt to unpack what transpired.
Unpacking the debate
It is nearly impossible to separate the merits of the ASA’s boycott of Israel from the overarching debate over whether or not Israel has a right to exist, and, if it does, the steps it must take to ensure that it continues to exist on its own terms. As Damon Linker recently pointed out in The Week:
Israel is different, with Judaism granted special status due to the Zionism intertwined with its founding and embedded in its legal system. That doesn’t make it evil. But it does make it less classically liberal than the United States and most other liberal-democratic nations — and that can be grounds for legitimate criticism (as opposed to criticism motivated by anti-Semitism, of which there is plenty).
The ASA’s motivations for the boycott are based in these legitimate criticisms. By their calculus, Israel, in order to preserve its status as a Jewish state, has relegated Palestinians to second-class citizenship. As a result, their government has engaged in practices that are seen by many in the United States as anathema to a well-functioning liberal democracy, practices that concerned Americans have a moral responsibility to repudiate based on their beliefs in free expression and equal representation.
This has included the denial of Palestinian scholars, and others critical of Israeli, the academic freedom to cross Israel’s borders (perhaps most notably, in 2010 Israel refused to let Noam Chomsky enter the West Bank to speak at Birzeit, a Palestinian university). This means that academic institutions like the ASA are relevant participants in the overarching debate.
As one Palestinian Kenyon student explained:
Regardless of where one stands on the issue of an academic boycott of Israel, we need to acknowledge the reason behind the ASA’s decision in endorsing the boycott movement: the Israeli occupation and its practices in denying academic freedom to Palestinian scholars and students.
However, when these criticisms are raised, many Americans – including my own friends, family and professors – come to Israel’s defense, pointing out that it is still, by far, the freest country in the region. They ask, “why the double standard?” If the ASA is serious about academic freedom, and isn’t simply engaging in geopolitical activism, then shouldn’t it also boycott Iran, Syria, Egypt and any other country that restricts the free exchange of ideas?
Not quite, boycott supporters would argue. It’s a little more complicated than that.
Israel is a different kind of democracy, due to its status as a Jewish state, but it’s also different given the level of support it enjoys in both the American government and the American populace relative to its neighbors. Proponents of the ASA’s boycott argue that Israel should be held to a higher standard because we have higher expectations of them, and they have an incentive to listen to us. No one assumes that Iran is a classically liberal democracy, and America doesn’t provide any support – explicit or implicit – for the actions taken by Iran’s government. If Israel wants America’s support, they argue, they have to earn it by acting more like us and less like their neighbors when it comes to dealing with ethnically marginalized groups.
Is boycotting Israeli academics contrary to promoting academic freedom?
If one can successfully separate the ethical appeal made by the ASA from their boycott’s pragmatic implications, their actions are harder to justify. The people most directly affected by the ASA’s boycott, Israeli academics, are some of the chief critics of the Israeli government’s actions.
While it’s already difficult to justify boycotting an entire country’s academic community in the name of academic freedom, it’s even harder to claim that such actions make sense if the people you’re most directly affecting are also the people most likely to agree with you. You’re not just targeting the wrong people, you’re targeting your friends and allies on the inside.
As the chair of Kenyon’s American Studies Department, Peter Rutkoff, explained:
I think they, the ASA leadership, have confused political criticism of a state policy with pressuring, even hurting, academic colleagues who may or may not have anything to do with that policy, indeed who may even share the same critique.
Other students pointed out that Kenyon’s decision to cut ties with the ASA, over the ASA’s decision to boycott Israel, was also hypocritical. They essentially turned the college’s argument on its head. As one student argued:
Kenyon, by rescinding its membership in the American Studies Association (ASA), has done the very thing it opposes: it boycotts an academic organization. Although I disagree with ASA’s decision to boycott all Israeli institutions of higher education, I believe that Kenyon should engage with organizations that choose to protest against something for an informed reason. Conversations critical of Israel, or of any other country for that matter, should not be stifled.
However, Kenyon’s boycott differs from the ASA’s boycott in one crucial way: Its probability of success. Successful boycotts are ultimately exercises in collective action, meaning, boycotts are effective only if everyone joins in. The ASA, acting by itself, has zero ability to affect the Israeli government or its actions. Additionally, the ASA has likely lost more academic contributions from the six American institutions that have cut ties with them than they have from their boycott of Israel in the first place. They deal in American studies, after all. The counter-boycott – the boycott of the boycott, if you will – has a much greater chance of getting the ASA to reverse its position because more actors are involved, meaning that the counter-boycott can exert far more pressure on the ASA than the ASA can on Israel.
An academic organization, and really any pragmatic actor, has to be able to think and chew at the same time. It is entirely possible to be critical of the Israeli government’s actions while still engaging with the country’s universities. It’s also entirely possible to be critical of an organization’s actions without making a statement as to the principles behind their actions. As another Kenyon student remarked:
I don’t think that an academic institution or organization should take a controversial geo-political stance if it impedes the academic freedom of said institution or organization. I also don’t believe that Kenyon is taking a pro-Israel position by leaving the ASA.
That’s not to say the ASA’s stance hasn’t been effective in raising awareness about a number of aspects of this debate. It has. For example, about the tradeoffs Israel has made in order to maintain its status as the world’s only Jewish state. But also the tradeoffs America makes in being Israel’s strongest geopolitical supporter. And finally, Israel may be the freest country in the Middle East, but that doesn’t make it “free” in the way most Americans have come to understand the term.
So what do you think — did Kenyon make the right call?