Literary and philosophical studies have long been the symbolic refuge for the broken, the oppressed, the silenced. But the most powerful literature blurs distinctions between the dichotomous categories of right and wrong. It fleshes out those nuances and teaches us to wrestle and struggle with texts, flexing a very specific intellectual muscle so that we might carry a deep understanding of ambiguity out of our small towers and into the largeness of real life.
The world’s conflicts and controversies, I have learned, are much grayer than I imagined. The sides of every issue are legion — turning and turning reveals the impossibility of understanding another’s reality that is not my own. But as scholars and human beings, we try. And in the process we also try to take the moral high ground, to position ourselves on the right side of history, as champions of the bullied and the disenfranchised.
But with the growing presence of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movements on college campuses, I fear that we have unwittingly embraced the same form of bullying of which Israel is often accused. While I believe that the intentions of many proponents of BDS are honorable, it is quite possible that we are concerned more with being part of a loud trend than we are with deploying the skills that studies of literature should have taught us: the capacity and tenacity to grapple with difficult issues and acknowledge their complexity, particularly when they concern cultures and customs not our own.
I take issue with academic boycotts of any kind because they challenge everything I have come to love about the study of literature. Good literature teaches us the value of dialogue and the danger of silencing even those voices that are critical of us or that, in our minds, are most deserving of our criticism. If there were proposed academic boycotts against some of the most egregious violators of human rights — Syria, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, China — I would stand against those as well. But we focus on Israel alone, and we applaud ourselves for our compassion and bravery. We champion our love of academic freedom while foreclosing opportunities for its expression.
The rhetoric of a proposed Modern Language Association resolution to support the boycott of Israeli academic institutions suggests that it speaks for all Palestinians — that it has the interest of all Palestinians at heart. Yet many Palestinians believe that while the Israel-Palestine predicament is indeed a serious problem that needs a solution, BDS is not the answer. We do not support the boycott of Israel," says Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. This suggests that the Authority considers the movement a threat to Palestinian interests, and that the movement and its followers depict all Palestinians as radicals who are interested only in boycotting and delegitimizing Israel. But I know that there are Palestinians who want peace and partnership with their Israeli and Jewish neighbors. BDS crushes any hope of this possibility, and for that I resent its infiltration of academic discourse.
The BDS movement has little impact on Israel, but it directly harms those it claims to protect. As seen in the case of SodaStream — which last year shut down its West Bank factory and cost Palestinians hundreds of jobs that paid three to five times more than the average Palestinian salary — many so-called victories of BDS hurt the smaller Palestinian economy. BDS activists celebrated this "victory" while hundreds of Palestinians agonized over the loss of their livelihood. Yet we remain more deeply invested in the fantasy that BDS promotes peace rather than hardship, bigotry, and hatred.
The pro-Palestinian thinkers Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein have, surprisingly, come out against BDS. Chomsky argues that failed initiatives (which is how he characterizes much of the BDS movement) harm the victims doubly "by shifting attention from their plight" to other issues such as anti-Semitism and academic freedom, and by "wasting current opportunities to do something meaningful."
I wonder whether we are not drowning in (and drowning them in) our own posturing — our empty gestures of justice and compassion that become little more than theater for some and a way for others to ascend political ladders. We silence the voices of Palestinians who say no to the boycott. I’m not sure I want to be on the side of history that forces these mouths closed. I’m not sure that I want to stand with a body of so-called scholars and intellectuals who choose a fleeting trend in "social justice" over real work — that is, the work of maintaining dialogue, the work of finding a solution even when we do not believe there is one.
It’s alluring, but its allure is in its ease. Foreclosing intellectual exchange and dialogue with Israeli scholars and institutions is an intellectually dishonest response to a real issue. In presuming to know what is best for all Palestinians, American academics force our own agenda on deeply nuanced circumstances so that we may enjoy the smugness that accompanies such presumptions.
The BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti has said publicly that he supports Zionism's "euthanasia." Hatem Bazian, the founder of the largest on-campus BDS organization — Students for Justice in Palestine — has called for a violent uprising here in the United States. Like many other BDS leaders, Bazian has been connected to a range of groups shut down by the Justice Department for raising money on behalf of the Hamas terrorist organization and other radical Islamist groups.
Certainly, the behavior and ideologies of some BDS activists may not be indicative of the sentiments of all who embrace the divestment movement. But academic organizations like the Modern Language Association and others have a greater responsibility — one that is not reflected in the impulse to boycott Israeli or any other academic institutions. Our responsibility is to insist on an awareness of the nuances of every issue and to resist the impulse to oversimplify. The Israel-Palestine situation has a long and deep history that is fraught with complexity. Our responsibility — as literary scholars, intellectuals, and academics — is to work toward understanding this complexity from both sides, in the hope that we might respond ethically and with compassion.
At its roots, the BDS movement, and perhaps any movement that seeks to boycott collaborations among scholars regardless of where they come from, stands in opposition to a discipline and intellectual tradition that resist the deceptive simplicity of either/or thinking. I wonder if we’ve forgotten where we come from.
Correction (2/22/2016, 11:05 a.m.): This essay originally mischaracterized a statement by the BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti. He has said publicly that he supports Zionism's "euthanasia," not that he is working for Israel's "euthanasia." The essay has been updated to reflect this correction.