Academic Boycotts and Israel

Academic Boycotts and Israel


Howard Adelman



There is no rest for the wicked, so the saying goes. If had not studied and taught logic, I might conclude that I must be wicked since I cannot get my planned rest. I had decided to take yesterday off after publishing a fairly heavy blog the day before – more philosophical than my usual fare. The temperature was 13 degrees and I went out to clean up the last of the leaves. That really exhausted me even though there were not many leaves and not much work and I only took on a very small area. I took a long nap after lunch.

When I got up and went to my computer, there was a note that informed me that the day before the National Council of the American Studies Association (ASA) had voted to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The note also interpreted this resolution as endorsing boycotting individual Israeli academics. From my peripheral knowledge and a quick check, I was sure the latter interpretation was incorrect. But I wanted to double-check and probe the reasoning, mechanics and intent of the resolution. I was going to the theatre last night and had considered possibly writing a review on the play, The Valley (Tarragon Theatre) this morning. However, I knew then and there that my blog this morning would be on the boycott resolution.

Then the announcement came through on the six o’clock news that Nelson Mandela had died. So after the theatre, I wrote a short reflection on the great man to add to the tens of thousands of accolades he will receive. This morning I turned to the boycott issue.

Background to the Boycott

The resolution itself was simple. It honoured and endorsed the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions that is an integral part of the Boycott and Divestment (BDS) campaign. Unlike an original proposed resolution, it explicitly did not endorse the boycott of individual Israeli academics, but included in the boycott representatives of Israeli academic institutions – Deans, Presidents, etc. “The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication except if they are viewed as part of the propaganda machinery of Israel.” Further, the resolution was not binding on any individual member of the ASA. Finally, the resolution was subject to the confirmation by an electronic vote of at least 50% of its 3884 members. Voting was to be completed by 15 December.

In its official statement, the Council also said that it “voted for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions as an ethical stance, a form of material and symbolic action. It represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.” The ethical argument was not elaborated. Nor were the material implications made clear. There was an added rationale: “A boycott is warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and the support of such a resolution by many members of the ASA.”

The BDS movement to which the resolution paid homage has a website that begins with a quote from Desmond Tutu who addressed the University of Johannesburg which subsequently joined the boycott by severing its ties with BenGurionUniversity.

“It can never be business as usual. Israeli Universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice. While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation. [Ben Gurion University] is no exception. By maintaining links to both the Israeli defence forces and the arms industry, BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation.”

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is a part of the overall Palestinian Civil Society BDS Campaign established in 2005, though it began separately by Palestinian academics in Ramallah in April of 2004. and remains a key part of the Palestinian-led, global BDS movement. The campaign is explicitly part of a much larger campaign for a comprehensive economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel.

The resolution passed by the ASA applies only to Israeli academic institutions. The boycott does not apply to institutions which retain official links with Israeli institutions, including many of the academic schools to which many of the members of the ASA belong. It does not apply to Palestinian institutions either even though, for example, in May 2005, in response to the BDS campaign, Hebrew University of Jerusalem President Prof. Menachem Magidor and Al-Quds University President Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, signed a formal agreement of cooperation affirming the continuing academic cooperation between the two universities.

Cognizant of the moral leadership universities should provide, especially in already turbulent political contexts, we, the President of Al-Quds University and the President of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, have agreed to insist on continuing to work together in the pursuit of knowledge, for the benefit of our peoples and the promotion of peace and justice in the Middle East.

Cooperation based on mutual respect, rather than boycotts or discrimination, bridging political gulfs rather than widening them further, requiring exchange and dialogue rather than confrontation and antagonism, were their watchwords. The action was explicitly “predicated on the principles of academic freedom, human rights, and equality between nations and among individuals”. In spite of such arrangements, the boycott movement advertises itself as an expression of Palestinian civil society.

Background to the Resolution at the ASA

For the last four years, dozens of American studies scholars in the ASA have been actively recruited and joined in a campaign to support the academic dimensions of the worldwide boycott campaign. They were self-confessed “activist” scholars. Last year, the Academic and Community Activism Caucus of the ASA asked the Executive Committee (EC) to consider a resolution supporting the academic boycott of Israel.

One year later, from 21-24 November, the ASA held its annual meeting in WashingtonDC. It was attended by 1970 members.

Learned society meetings are strange rituals for any outsider to comprehend. They are massive, with a conference this size running about twenty parallel sessions, most for the presentation of academic papers on the topics advertised, but others for business, caucus and organizational meetings. I attend the International Studies Association which is about twice the size of the ASA, but the concurrent sessions are almost all academic sessions and there is nothing close to the number of caucus sessions held at the ASA.

In the whole academic program of perhaps 1000 academic papers at about 250 topical sessions, I was only able to spot one purely academic session that dealt with Palestine, and it seemed to be a stretch. Keep in mind that the overall theme of the conference was, “Beyond the Logic of Debt, Towards an Ethics of Collective Dissent,” a topic which in itself suggests the ideological orientation of the ASA. The one academic session was called: “Debt and ‘The Palestine Question’ in Latin America: Colonization, Zionism, Imperialism and Dissent” scheduled for the morning of the Saturday on which the caucus was scheduled to meet for an open discussion at 5:00 p.m. on the topic: “The Israeli Occupation of Palestine,” not exactly the most objective and neutral title. However, after all, this was a caucus about activism, not a scholarly discussion.

There was a prime time session on Friday entitled, “The Crisis of Palestine” with an open forum with a panel that addressed the plight of Palestinian universities and academics, and, as advertised, discussed “the profound pressures on teaching and research contexts in the U.S. and Palestine where education and intellectual freedom [allegedly] were under attack.” The Saturday session before the debate was entitled “Academic Freedom and the Right to Education: The Question of Palestine.” The panel focused on the boycott consisted of the president of ASA, Curtis Munez, Angela Davis, Ahmad Saadi (an anti-Zionist sociologist teaching at Ben Gurion University), Jasbir Puar (Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies at Rutgers University currently finishing her third book, Inhumanist Occupation: Sex, Affect, and Palestine/Israel), J. Kehaulani Kauanui (a longtime activist promoting the boycott) and Alex Lubin (co-founder of the ASA’s caucus on academic and community activism), all advocates of an anti-Israel and pro-Palestine ideological line. One would not be surprised to learn that no one on the panel was critical of the boycott.   

It helps also to understand the ASA. It is called the American Studies Association, but many of the best known scholars of American studies do not belong. Many who still belong feel a nostalgic loyalty to the Association. Thus, of the small minority who signed the petition opposing the boycott, seven were former presidents of the ASA. The list of papers at the conference might suggest why. I ran through the program and stopped arbitrarily at one set of sessions set for noon on the last day. The titles of the nineteen concurrent sessions were as follows:

Indebtedness To and For the Nation of Immigrants … 316

The Urban Turn?: A Roundtable on the City (at the) Center of American Studies … 317

File Under “Labor” … 318

Ethical Confrontations with Antiblackness: To Whom is the Human Indebted? … 319

ASA Site Resources Committee: Activist Responses to the Policing of Sex in DC … 320

Confronting Carceral America: Activist Responses to the Punitive Logics of Debt … 321

White Supremacist Cultures … 322

Movement Debts in the Age of Neoliberalism … 323

Mobilizing Against Settler Colonialism: Idle No More and Allied Dissent … 324

Producing Play: Labor and Leisure in Early Video Game Culture … 325

Slavery, Trafficking, and Criminalization: Using Historical Metaphors to Assess Interlocking Systems of Oppression … 326

American Modern Design: A Question of Cultural Indebtedness … 327

Specters of Du Bois: Dissent as Decolonization … 328

Muckraking, Dissent, and Social Change: Writing in the Public Interest … 329

Genealogies of Neoliberalism … 330

Queer Reorientations of the Good Life … 331

Neo/Colonial Pedagogies and the Creation of Indebted Knowledges in the American Century … 332

Refugee Archival Memory: Disrupting the U.S. Logics of Freedom and Debt in Hmong/Laotian History … 333

The orientation of the ASA currently has a fundamental commitment to the study and critique of racism. US imperialism and settler colonialism. The primary mode of discourse is rooted in a post-colonial orientation to scholarship, an approach not used by the vast majority of scholars in America. These scholars approach the world of learning through a fixed lens with an emphasis on what they call settler-colonial studies that provides the intellectual scaffolding connecting liberal nation-states with exploitation and the role of universities in perpetuating inequality.

The traditional presidential address of this learned society was delivered by Curtis Marez, who has a PhD in English and is an Associate Professor in the Ethnic Studies Department of UC San Diego and who lists his main academic interests as Latino, migration and technology studies, more particularly, race and political economy in popular culture and media. He published Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics in 2004 which compared the official media representations of the drug culture with that of and by the media of immigrants and minorities.

Marez’ address began with a reference to Michael Rogin’s excellent 1996 book, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot that largely dealt with the story of Al Jolson, and, more particularly, the first movie talkie, The Jazz Singer, later remade as The Jolson Story, my personal favourite since Al Jolson was my favourite singer when I was a kid. Merez shows little interest in the book and the general thesis of one culture using another minority culture as a form of mediating and disguising a process of assimilation. He certainly ignored the critics of Rogin who argued that the process was not simply one way but itself was critical to transforming the culture of America,

Marez instead concentrates on the other side of that thesis, the white supremicist culture and the exploitation of the labour of blacks and the theft of “red” Indian lands on which the white supremicist culture was built. So the use of blackface is reduced simply to racism. Current revivals of blackface he sees as perhaps the result of a student need to distance themselves from poor people of colour in order to ignore and transcend the regime of educational debt into which they have been thrust. More positively, “students have been central to creative, collective actions against higher tuition and regimes of debt…[and] have also struggled to take some control over what student debt in effect finances by, for example, demanding that universities disinvest from companies complicit in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.”

There, in a nutshell, like a shell game played with three thimbles and a pea, the pea of exploitation/racism is moved from the racism of white America to the role of universities as perpetrators of that racism and colonialism through putting debt for education on the backs of students, and then, to everyone’s surprise except the fraudster and the shills that surround him, to the third thimble the American economic and cultural oppression by Israel of Palestine. Of course, in an expert hand, you cannot follow the pea or see how it has disappeared up the arm of the player. Only a critical close examination reveals the whole game as an absolute fraud.

The Vote on the Resolution

The result of the vote of the forum was virtually inevitable, as likely will be the result of the electronic vote. Though concurrent with the forum there were two competing receptions, one by the University of Southern California and the other by Harvard American Studies, receptions which, according to the rituals of learned societies, informally grade the sponsor on the quality and quantity of free food available, the caucus meeting on Saturday at 5:00 p.m. was unusually very well attended by 745 members – a very impressive figure representing about 35% of the attendees at the conference. To provide the appearance of fairness, 44 speakers were chosen at random from those who expressed an interest in speaking and were given two minutes each to either express their approval or disapproval of the motion. Of the 44 chosen, 37 supported the resolution, each to immense applause, and 7 opposed who received only scattered clapping. For anyone who opposes mob pressure, the meeting was a travesty and an exercise in intellectually bullying, though conducted in a respectful manner all the more painful given the underlying structure and dynamic. There was no attempt to ensure dissident voices had a fair and adequate time to present a case – not that I believe it would have mattered in the end. The pro-resolution speakers echoed a common theme – Israel was a settler colonial state, the US was complicit in fostering this state and in its own history of settler colonialism, and the ASA commitment to anti-racist and anti-colonial scholarship required support of the boycott.

The Arguments

The proponents of the resolution argue that the resolution supports academic freedom by NOT targeting individual scholars but only institutions that are covert partners of a repressive state and by fostering academic freedom of Palestinians. There was no discussion about how the alleged repression by Israel of Palestinian scholars was congruent with the fact that a vocal anti-Zionist such as Ahmad Saadi could be hired by Ben Gurion University and permitted to travel to the United States to appear on a panel advocating a boycott of Israeli universities or how they could brand America as a racist colonial imperial state yet boast of its academic freedom. The contradictions were just too plentiful to point out, but in the dialectics of post colonial studies could always be dismissed or explained away. For faculty of this persuasion who express solidarity with the oppressed and constantly complain of intimidation and retaliation by “liberal” institutions,  there was little self-critical consciousness that the process in which they were involved was profoundly intimidating. To be a post-colonial scholar logically meant joining the boycott campaign, at the every least in its truncated anti-institutional sanitized version. 

The ASA has demonstrated that it is indeed an academic body of shared intellectual values and commitments but not the traditional shared intellectual values of the liberal university. They accuse Zionists of refusing to debate but from my own experience, the atmosphere of these halls do not welcome debate but ideological posturing including by those who oppose their perspective. Being dispassionate is not seen as a virtue. Being objective, comprehensive, logically consistent and using evidence to support one’s position are not put forth as virtues but ideological commitment is. They insist their arguments are both moral and reasoned. I do not find them to be so. They see themselves as victims of the powerful and wealthy Zionist lobby using its power and material resources to attack and intimidate them. But one finds little evidence of any of that, and in the few cases where academics have not achieved tenure who hold positions like these, other factors are often at work, though I do not deny that in some cases, and I myself have documented some, that donor interference and threats have affected a judicious consideration of issues.

These proponents construct the world into a manichaean cosmos of anti-colonialists and anti-racists versus the neo-con oppressive and inegalitarian state. Small “l” liberals are squeezed out of the debate for they do not fit into their cosmology except as patsies of the oppressive colonial settler state.

Make no mistake. Any reading of the movement and the thinking behind these resolutions is based on an anti-Israel and anti-Zionist ideology that fundamentally opposes even the existence of Israel. When the proponents of the boycott say such charges are ludicrous and , for example, Cary Nelson’s claim that the academic boycott movement aims at the “abolition of the Israeli state” is an outright lie, what else can one conclude if one opposes Israel as an imperial colonial state and claim Zionism is rooted in racism. Though they say they oppose the boycott of individual scholars, they make the argument for selective boycott of those scholars because they are cultural ambassadors for Israel and, in effect, support Palestinian dispossession and occupation. Liberal arguments for academic freedom are just excuses for inaction.

I recall years ago when I gave a guest lecture at Bir Zeit University and suggested to Sari Nusseibeh that he invite me to teach their for a term. He replied that he could not envision the possibility of a Jew teaching at a Palestinian university for a century. Times have changed,. Now anti-Zionist scholars, including Israeli scholars, are welcomed to lecture at Palestinian universities, but what about middle-roaders and even right-wingers? After all, anti-Zionist Palestinians teach at Israeli universities. But these contradictions are side-stepped rather than considered and debated. Certainly Palestinian scholars and researchers have struggled – given the governments under which they work and the shortage of funds, but any objective analysis would show that these institutions were born under Israeli occupation and grew up under it with all its horrible characteristics and restrictions from both sides and more usually from their own side.

The fact is that the underlying thesis that the academic freedom of Israeli academics depends on the moral eviction of the Palestinians is a distortion. Palestinian (and Jewish) anti-Zionists teaching at Israeli institutions do not depend on the moral eviction of Palestinians. Nor do other scholars. Nor do critics of the United States as an imperial colonialist state depend on the eviction of native Americans from their land or the racist suppression of blacks.

In the 2012 report entitled a “Crisis of Competence: the Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California,” the authors on behalf of the California Association of Scholars document how the infusion of political ideology into all discourse and debate negatively impacts on the quality of both teaching and research, politicizing the curricula and promoting a culture of hostility and disruption on campus hostile to the free expression of ideas. As a young student activist, I never envisioned activism challenging the liberal presumptions of the university, or the effects of such a challenge on research, scholarship and teaching. Part of the reason is the asymmetry of the debate in which one side openly supports open exchanges from many points of view while the other side believes that any scholarship that is not wedded to the anti-colonial struggle against racism and inequality is just scholarship in the service of oppression. The terms of the debate ensure liberals lose simply if there are enough anti-colonial scholars present. 

Defenders of the boycott rebut the charge that they are hypocritical because they focus on Israel and ignore the denial of academic freedoms in Arab states, Turkey, Russia and China, not by denying that Israel is less repressive. Rather, they argue that Israel’s infringement of Palestinian academic freedoms is more objectionable because Israel claims to be democratic while oppressing the freedoms among Palestinians by denying the free movement, free communication and free circulation of ideas to Palestinians, asserted as if these were givens rather than conclusions needing empirical support. Further, unlike repressive states like China, the proponents of a boycott argue that, only Israel is a large receiver of US military and other aid. So the asymmetry on criticism matches the asymmetry of American support. So why not target Egypt? and why repeatedly state that historically, it has been very difficult to criticize Israel in the USA?

The Implications

If you support the boycott, the contrasting and conflicting rationales can be ignored and the first positive vote by a large American learned society after the Asian Scholars voted to support a boycott resolution will be cheered and applauded. The opponents will cry foul and argue that the stance conflicts with the principles of academic freedom. They will argue that the resolutions are hypocritical in their application and based on complete distortions of the state of academic freedom in Palestinian academic institutions and greatly exaggerates the role of the Israeli state in the inhibitions that do take place. I myself agree with the advocates of the boycott, that the position is indeed a logical outcome of post-colonial premises.

That is the real problem!


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