The Chronicle Review

Israel Boycott Has Staying Power

June 08, 2016

T he American Anthropological Association resolution pledging to honor the academic boycott of Israel just lost a membership vote by 2,423 to 2,384. The closeness of the tally illustrates how acutely the issue divides scholars inside and beyond the United States. It is also clear that academic boycott, and the broader boycott, divestment, and sanctions, or BDS, movement, is now established on campuses.

Even though the resolution won’t go into effect, in November its organizers persuaded 88 percent of voting members at the business meeting of one of the world’s larger scholarly organizations to formally consider boycotting Israeli academic institutions. Then they achieved a virtual tie in the actual referendum. An unprecedented 51 percent of AAA members participated. Academic boycott, even the possibility of it, compels us to pay closer attention to things we might otherwise find tangential to our daily lives. That’s a good thing.

Boycott acts as a corrective to the exercise of arbitrary power. It arises where dialogue fails.
The organizers of the resolution managed these feats despite a general opposition to boycotts of Israel that includes governors, financiers, university presidents, and heads of state. Legislation has been introduced in numerous states curtailing speech rights vis-à-vis opposition to Israeli policy. This month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered state agencies under his control to divest themselves of BDS-affiliated organizations and companies, a move that many legal scholars consider to be unconstitutional. Various colleges have sought to conceptualize criticism of Israel as a form of anti-Semitism and thus a type of hate speech. Those in support of BDS, in other words, are not merely in conflict with colleagues; they have run afoul of institutions capable of doing serious harm. Even those who oppose academic boycott should be mindful of the forces now using it as pretext to intervene on campus.

P eople absorbed in the debate usually focus on the ethics and philosophies of academic boycott, but the issue transcends the question of whether it is an appropriate political gesture. It’s crucial to think about why academic boycott exists in the first place. It is not a silly diversion from the serious work of teaching, service, and research. It affirms the ideals of equal access underlying that work. The immediate goal of academic boycott is to offer fellowship to our colleagues in Palestine. Its ultimate goal is to help provide much-needed relief from the miserable conditions under which they often labor.

Violations of Palestinian academic freedom, and much worse, continue unabated. Students and teachers in Palestine must navigate checkpoints, campus closures, police violence, the destruction of equipment, and an inequitable legal system. Israel periodically raids and bombs Palestinian universities. Students and instructors are arrested for their speech and activism — most recently the astrophysicist Imad Barghouthi, of Al-Quds University, who was charged with incitement for a Facebook post after having already spent three months in prison.

Whenever a BDS action is successful, colleges’ upper administrators mobilize with remarkable speed to condemn it as anathema to the values of free inquiry. Yet they offer silence, consent, or encouragement when pro-Israel groups push initiatives that brazenly violate constitutional rights, the principles of academic freedom, or the integrity of students and faculty members. I am unimpressed by the invocation of "academic freedom" as a rationale for curtailing boycott, which U.S. courts repeatedly rule is a form of protected speech.

Academic freedom has never been applied equally. Depending on the era, certain groups have much less leeway than others to raise unpopular criticism. Repression of scholars who are vocal about racism and inequality predates the McCarthy era. The consistent trend across eras is that those who oppose structural violence or state power are the ones most likely to face recrimination. Between the dueling parties in the BDS debate, only the side working in favor of Palestinian human rights now faces systematic repression.

In this era of corporatization and discontent, we are hard-pressed to find a site of greater discipline and solidarity than among the campus managerial class, illuminated by its lock-step opposition to criticism of Israel. Scholars ought to seriously consider the utility of academic boycott based on that fact alone. It acts as a corrective to the exercise of arbitrary power. Boycott arises where dialogue fails.

While the impulse to reduce the issue to its effect on scholars inside the United States and Israel is understandable, it is important to pay mind to the Palestinians and those who face punishment for criticizing Israel. BDS doesn’t exist to protect the comfort of Western scholars. It offers an ethical way to respond to appeals for solidarity from those who must survive the brutal conditions of military occupation.

The narrowness of the AAA vote illustrates that academic boycott is here to stay, at least as long as Israel’s military occupation makes it necessary. The organizers of the resolution have pledged to continue, and similar resolutions have succeeded after first being rejected.

As scholarly associations debate boycott, the final tallies are less important than the ethics we create by imagining a world that treats Palestinians with dignity. Thanks to the AAA boycott resolution, a larger number of people now openly discuss Israel’s military occupation and its violations of Palestinian human rights, which is, in and of itself, a considerable victory.

That discussion needs to continue. We can debate ad nauseam the probity of academic boycott, but it would be more useful to address the problems of repression and occupation that spurred the boycott movement to begin with.

Steven Salaita is a visiting professor of American studies at the American University of Beirut. His latest book is Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom (Haymarket Books, 2015).