Boycotts have historically been a peaceful way to challenge oppressive or immoral actions by companies and governments, including colonial America’s early protests against King George III. But a boycott aimed at Israeli oppression of Palestinians is condemned, as Lawrence Davidson notes.
By Lawrence Davidson
The controversy that broke out over the American Studies Association’s December 2013 vote to adopt an academic boycott of Israel was inevitable. The ASA’s academic boycott is a just a part of a much larger effort – the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement – which has been growing worldwide over the last decade.
In fact, the movement’s progress in the United States has been relatively slow, but this is changing, and the ASA controversy is an indicator of this shift. That being the case, the reaction on the part of Zionist supporters of Israel in and out of academia came as no surprise.
On Jan. 5, the New York Times reprinted a piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education more or less summarizing the reaction to the ASA move. It noted that “the presidents of more than 80 United States colleges have condemned the vote.” In addition five of these institutions of higher learning “have withdrawn from ASA membership.” The Chronicle piece concludes that the ASA has become “a pariah of the United States higher-education establishment.”
That is a rather premature judgment. There are roughly 4,500 colleges and universities in the U.S. Being condemned by the administrations (which is not the same as the faculties and student bodies) of 80 represents condemnation by less than 2 percent. Over 100 institutions of higher learning have ASA membership. Losing five is again a small percentage. All of this hardly makes the ASA a “pariah.”
There are also other ways of judging the impact of the ASA action. If one goal of the ASA boycott move is to stimulate debate about Israeli behavior and policies within a society – i.e. the United States – which has long been dominated by Israeli propaganda, then the move is certainly a success.
It has brought to the surface many statements and charges that demonstrate just how decontextualized attempts to defend Israeli behavior are. If insightful counterarguments are spread about because of the ASA resolution, then the “pariah” has done quite well.
Charges and Responses
Let’s take a look at some of the public charges and possible responses:
Damaging Academic Freedom:
- Carolyn A. Martin, president of Amherst College: “Such boycotts threaten academic speech and exchange, which is our solemn duty as academic institutions to protect.”
- Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council of Education: “Such actions are misguided and greatly troubling, as they strike at the heart of academic freedom.”
Response: It is hard to argue against the ideal. Everyone associated with higher education does, or should, value academic freedom and the free flow of ideas. The problem is, people such as Dr. Martin and Dr. Broad and many others are directing their criticism at the wrong party.
The ASA resolution, which one suspects has not been read by many of its critics, is not directed against individual scholars, researchers or teachers. It is quite explicitly directed against Israeli institutions – institutions that have abetted in the destruction of the Palestinian right of academic freedom for decades. The Israelis have just done this largely out of sight of the American academic community, to say nothing of the American people.
The fact is that the Israeli government, assisted by many of the country’s academic institutions, runs an illegal occupation that has long impeded education in the Palestinian Territories. One wonders just how aware of this historical fact are those who criticize the ASA.
The facts in this regard are not a secret, although one does have to go out and look for them. Just do a thorough online search of the subject and all kinds of reports, analyses and documents show up. For instance, here is a link to a report about the complicity of Israeli universities in maintaining the occupation. Here is another on the impact of occupation on Palestinian education, and yet another on the struggle for Palestinian academic freedom.
It should also be mentioned that the Israeli government is embarked on an effort to enforce its own version of history on Palestinian schools. This may soon appear as an Israeli priority in its ongoing negotiations with the Palestine Authority. And, right now in the U.S., the Zionist student organization Hillel has laid down rules restricting any free discussion about Israel in their chapters on American college campuses.
These facts should raise questions about the sincerity of Zionist concern over academic freedom and the free flow of ideas. It is policies and actions such as these, which have multiplied themselves out many fold, that are part of the context of the BDS movement and the action taken by the ASA.
Damaging Institutional Reputations and Solvency:
- William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton University and president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: “Boycotts are a bad idea. … It is dangerous business … for institutions to become embroiled in these kinds of debates. The consequences for institutions are just too serious.”
Response: What might this mean? I don’t think that Dr. Bowen is implying that what the ASA did is “dangerous” because it allegedly put the institution on the wrong side of a moral question.
But here is another possible answer as to why “it is dangerous business” for colleges to take a position critical of Israeli policies. As Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, said: “Calls from alumni to take a stand against the boycott had played a role [in Bard College’s withdrawal of its institutional membership in the ASA]. … I recognize that the American Jewish community is disproportionately generous to American higher education. For the president of an institution to express his or her solidarity with Israel is welcomed by a very important part of their support base.”
Response: Dr. Botstein is suggesting that if one wants to know why “the presidents of more than 80 United States colleges have condemned the vote,” one should follow the money, and not necessarily the ideal of academic freedom.
- Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University, on the Charlie Rose show of Dec. 10 said: “I regard them [boycott efforts against Israel] as being anti-Semitic in their effect if not necessarily in their intent.” That is because these efforts “single out Israel.”
Response: Dr. Summers can say this only because he and other Zionists take the position that Israel and the Jews are one. This is factually wrong. There are many Jews in the U.S. (and elsewhere) who do not identify with Israel and, in fact, a good number who publicly oppose Israeli behavior and the notion of a Jewish state.
As to the singling out of Israel, it is certainly warranted given the influence Zionist supporters exercise over U.S. politicians and foreign policies and the resulting inordinate amount of aid and assistance given to Israel.
A lot more has been written about the ASA position. Below, I list a small number of articles in support of the academic boycott position by thoughtful Americans:
Henry Siegman, former director of the National Jewish Congress, “There is no bigotry in the boycott.”
- M. J. Rosenberg, former longtime aide to various congressmen and senators, Propaganda vs. History.
- Joan W. Scott, scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton, New Jersey, “Changing My Mind about the Boycott.”
- Eric Cheyfitz, professor at Cornell University, “Why I Support the Academic Boycott of Israel,”
Sydney Levy, director of advocacy for Jewish Voices for Peace, “Academic Freedom.”
If the academic freedom of Palestinians was not being destroyed as part of an overall policy of ethnic cleansing and apartheid, there would be no need for an institutionally centered academic boycott of Israel. As it is, however, the Zionists in their relentless drive to create a Jewish state controlling much of historic Palestine have created the conditions for resistance, and the boycott in its many forms is part of that effort. It is not going to go away.
Israel’s future is one of increasing isolation. The Zionists recognize this possibility and that is why they are kicking and screaming. They even want to outlaw aspects of the boycott effort. It might be easier if they joined the Twenty-First Century by giving up their racist ambitions. However, ideologues rarely give up their ideologies willingly, so we will all have to do this the hard way.
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.