Condemning a Boycott of Israeli Abuses

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.

A map showing Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Territories.

A map showing Israeli settlements in and control of the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank.

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 In addition five of these institutions of higher learning “have withdrawn from ASA membership.”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.

Promoting Anti-Semitism:

– 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.


  9 comments for “Condemning a Boycott of Israeli Abuses

  1. rosemerry
    January 14, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Cannot normal humans see the favoritism given to Zionist influence in academic institutions all over the USA, with shouts of “antisemitism” whenever any speaker dares to mention Palestine?
    As for Larry Summers, has not his prejudice against the poor, women, and most other non-plutocrats become glaringly obvious over the last twenty years or more? His opinion on anything moral should be suspect.

  2. John
    January 14, 2014 at 7:10 pm

    Very well said, Mr. Davidson. The Israeli suppression of US academic freedom is quite marked. I recall that in MIT modern history classes absolutely nothing could be said which might be seen as criticism of Israel, any Jewish person, or any tenet of the Israeli right wing, because it was immediately shouted down by their fanatics among the students. I don’t recall any attempts to say anything unfair to them. There was no other group that ever tried such suppression of academic freedom, although the militarist right-wingers in the administration made dissent against the Vietnam war dangerous.

  3. borat
    January 14, 2014 at 8:02 pm

    Save for some college students refusing to buy Israeli hummus, the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement against the Jewish state has had very few successes over the past decade. That changed last month when the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Now the Modern Language Association (MLA), a far more prominent group, is poised to condemn Israel at its annual meeting in Chicago. Anyone interested in academic freedom should pay attention.

    Scholars at academic conferences are expected to offer original research and analysis in their presentations. That certainly can’t be said of one MLA session this Thursday, called “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.”

    All the scheduled panelists are outspoken supporters of the boycott Israel movement: University of California, Riverside Prof. David Lloyd, Wesleyan Prof. Richard Ohmann, University of Texas Prof. Barbara Harlow, and Omar Barghouti, who has compared Israeli policies to those of Nazi Germany. Even the moderator, University of Texas Prof. Samer Ali, is a boycott supporter. In essays and public statements I have read, their message was clear: Israel, the worst human-rights violator on the planet, deserves to be made a pariah among nations.

    On Saturday MLA members will also get to vote on a resolution by Wesleyan’s Mr. Ohmann and Columbia University Prof. Bruce Robbins that “urges the U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.”

    One scholar, Rima Merriman, who is quoted in the supporting document for the resolution, declared in 2009 that it was a violation of her “rights as an American citizen” to be denied access to the West Bank. Whether anyone explained to her that the U.S. does not control another nation’s visa rules I cannot say. Apparently some MLA members consider themselves qualified to judge whether a visitor presents a security risk.

    There’s a lot at stake for the MLA here. The humanities—increasingly politicized and unserious—are in danger, as seen by plummeting enrollments in majors like English and history. To remain relevant, the MLA needs to be a big tent in which scholars can pursue research without being subjected to political litmus tests. Instead, by only featuring anti-Israel professors, the group seems to be taking a stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

    Meanwhile, the MLA denied press credentials to two reporters from conservative-leaning outlets, the Daily Caller and the Jewish News Service, who wanted to cover the conference. This shows that the organization, which claims a principled devotion to academic freedom, needs a lesson in press freedom.

    Academic freedom certainly isn’t the priority for supporters of the boycott Israel movement. If it were, they would not be so keen on breaking relations with the very Israeli institutions—its universities—that provide a home to many of the sharpest internal critics of Israeli government policy. Despite the claims of boycott advocates that they are all about promoting freedom, an academic boycott will inevitably inhibit interaction between American and Israeli professors. As more than 100 university presidents have argued in rejecting the American Studies Association boycott resolution, academic freedom can only survive if international exchanges are promoted, not curtailed.

    Struggling to justify an agenda with no imaginable benefit to the Palestinian people, boycott advocates claim they can move Israeli universities to protest their government’s practices. A less likely outcome could hardly be imagined. If Israel and the Palestinians ever negotiate an agreement, it will not be because American faculty members have indulged their hatred of the Israeli state. By castigating Israel, the boycott movement instead will produce bitterly polarized constituencies here and abroad.

    A truer indication of the real goal is the boycott movement’s success at increasing intolerance on American campuses. Junior faculty members sympathetic to Israel fear for their jobs if they make their views known. Established faculty who grasp the complexity of Middle East politics hold their tongues for fear of harassment by those who are more interested in offering lessons in contemporary demonology than in sound history. The politically correct stance in many academic departments is that Palestinians are victims and Israelis are oppressors. Period.

    The fundamental goal of the boycott movement is not the peaceful coexistence of two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, but rather the elimination of Israel. One nation called Palestine would rule from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Those Jews not exiled or killed in the transition to an Arab-dominated nation would live as second-class citizens without fundamental rights.

    There is no political route toward a one-state solution. But some American professors are too blinded by hatred of Israel—or too naive—to see that they are inadvertently advocating for armed conflict.

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 14, 2014 at 9:48 pm

      Borat, I think you put it very well. You are thinking beyond the knee jerk. You are right when calling upon these academics to be fair to the total. Not punish the whole for the sins of a few.

      I have said in recent times that Israel would do well to consider the back lash that is coming from their treatment of the Palestinians. I also think that Netanyahu’s displeasure with the p5+1 agreement is just not playing well with most Americans.

      Americans are broke and very tired of war. You seem more well versed on Israel than I, but yes fairness is always a great value.

    • F. G. Sanford
      January 15, 2014 at 8:44 am

      Borat, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that you are actually a troll working against the best interests of Israel. You made only one statement that rings true:

      “The politically correct stance in many academic departments is that Palestinians are victims and Israelis are oppressors.”

      It’s a true statement, though I’d argue that it is the politically correct position. Norman Finkelstein lost his job for having that opinion, so in academic circles, it is a politically precarious position. It is pure hypocrisy to believe otherwise, but hypocrisy is the foundation upon which the Israeli position rests.

  4. borat
    January 15, 2014 at 9:05 am

    Last week, the Modern Language Association Delegate Assembly rejected an emergency resolution expressing solidarity with academic boycotts of Israel by a vote of 59-41.

    However, a separate resolution criticizing Israel for “denials of entry to the West Bank by U.S. academics” traveling to Palestinian universities was narrowly approved. That resolution must now be reviewed by the MLA Executive Council which will determine if it should be sent to the full membership.

    I applaud the Delegate Assembly’s decision counter the assault on Israel’s legitimacy, and to not consider the emergency resolution, while at the same time urging the MLA’s Executive Council and full membership to reject the resolution that singles out the state of Israel for discriminatory treatment based on admitted misrepresentations of facts and bias.

    The American Studies Association’s recent vote in favor of an academic boycott of Israel has been roundly criticized from all sides, including by over 187 universities and broad-based academic associations.

    This emergency resolution would have placed the MLA clearly outside of the mainstream in this discussion. Contrary to assertions by proponents of the resolution, statements made in the public sphere, by design and necessity, attract vibrant debate and that controversy is not equivalent to attacks or intimidation. This is a major victory for the voices of academic freedom.

    I applaud this decision, and still remain concerned that a second resolution specifically focused on allegations that Israel prevents the freedom of movement of American academics was advanced by the MLA Delegate Assembly.

    The proposed resolution was based on false information and misrepresented facts refuted by opponents. Contrary to allegations by resolution proponents, Israel does not violate academic freedom and implements reasonable security measures that would be expected by any other country in the world. Those measures would not be needed but for terror attacks against Israeli men, women and children.

    This is why Israelis and Palestinians need to negotiate a peaceful settlement, and Americans need to support these efforts, not back tools of division like boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

  5. Hillary
    January 17, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    The answer is to ask Jewish Doctors , Dentists etc.etc their views on Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians …..
    If they support the Netanyahu right wing opinion then a boycott of their services is obligatory.

    • F. G. Sanford
      January 17, 2014 at 4:29 pm

      Hillary, that sounds like a great way to get a root canal!!!

  6. borat
    January 21, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Visiting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper exposed anti-Israel media bias Tuesday by noting that no reporter asked him in Ramallah about human rights in the Palestinian Authority but peppered him with questions on Jewish settlements when he was in Jerusalem.

    At a joint press conference with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Tuesday, Harper was asked several times to make a statement on settlements. He kept repeating what he has said he arrived on Sunday – that the purpose of his visit is not to “single out Israel” for criticism.

    When a reported pressed him again on the issue, Harper replied, “Once again, let me emphasize it: I am not here to single out Israel for criticism. I find it, you know, interesting – let me just make it as an observation – that, you know, yesterday in the Palestinian Authority, no one asked me there, no one asked me there to single out the Palestinian Authority for any criticism in terms of governance or human rights or anything else.

    “I’m asked to single out Israel. When I’m in Israel, I’m asked to single out Israel; when I’m in the Palestinian Authority, I’m asked to single out Israel; and in half the other places around the world you ask me to single out Israel.”

    Harper in a single swipe described the international mindset against Israel more clearly than any Israeli official has ever done.

    Netanyahu picked up the beat and stated, “Now, there are two things that I want to puncture, two prevailing myths. Well, one is no longer with us. The first one, which was repeated ad nauseum – you can check if you are a repeater – but until recently, everybody who knew anything about the Middle East explained that the core of the conflict, always in the singular, conflict; the core of the conflict in the Middle East was the Palestinian problem. You remember that?

    “Now, today you’d be laughed out of most places…, including the leading campuses in the West – even there – if you argued this, what was accepted as a common, obvious truth…

    “The core of the many conflicts of the Middle East is not the Palestinian conflict. But what is the core of the Palestinian conflict itself? And here you have another great myth, and the myth is that the core is basically the settlements. Okay, now mind you the settlements issue, on which Canada has a different position from Israel – I guarantee you, that’s the case, okay? But the core, the settlement issue has to be resolved and will be resolved in a context of peace negotiations. But it is not the core of the conflict. We know that because this conflict raged for half a century before there was a single Israeli settlement, before there was a single Israeli soldier in Judea, Samaria or Gaza.

    “This conflict began in 1920, 1921, with the attack on the Jewish immigration depot – murderous attack – in Jaffa. In Jaffa! And it raged on in the attack on the ancient Jewish community of Hebron; it’s been there since, practically unbroken since the time of Abraham – almost 4,000 years.

    “And continued in the great attacks by the Palestinians on the Jews here in 1936 to 1939; there were no settlements there. It continued in the rejection of the partition resolution in 1947 that called for a Palestinian state next to – an Arab state actually – next to the Jewish state. There were no settlements. And it continued right up to 1967 when the West Bank, Judea, Samaria, and Gaza were firmly in Arab hands and it was meant to… to do what? To liberate the lands that were already in their hands?…
    Well stated. Both Prime Ministers refuted the vicious lies that are repeated ad nauseam on this site.

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