The Blog

War of Silence

The intellectual boycott of Israel hits the United States.

12:00 AM, Mar 20, 2009 • By ERIN SHELEY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In late January, a group of American university professors launched the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, the first American effort of its kind. Part of the broader Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel, the boycott calls for its adherents to, among other things, "refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions," to "advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels," and to "promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by academic institutions and place pressure on [their] own institution[s] to suspend all ties with Israeli universities."

The boycott, spearheaded in part by University of Southern California Professor of English David Lloyd, follows on the heels of several similar attempts made by British professors since 2002; the latest, proposed by the British University and College Union lecturers' conference, disappeared after the threat of litigation under Britain's discrimination laws. Though the U.S. effort is far narrower in scope (the statement has only 250 individual American signatories thus far) it is significant as the first organized effort of this kind in the U.S., where unfettered academic debate has traditionally been fostered by a much more robust constitutional right to free speech than Great Britain's. (Indeed, when Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg drafted a petition responding to the proposed UCU boycott, calling for professors to decline to participate in any activity from which Israeli academics were excluded, it garnered thousands of endorsers, including Columbia President Lee Bollinger, UC Berkeley President Robert Birgeneau, and New York University President John Sexton.)

Despite the comparatively low number of signatories, the USACBI puts an official face on what many students already experience as a monolithic anti-Israel narrative supported by professors across American campuses: a narrative that, most perniciously, obscures the harm inflicted upon the Palestinians by their own leaders, as well as gross human-rights violations by the leaders of the rest of the Arab world. As Ruth Wisse, Professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, says, "being against the Jewish nation was a great feature of leftism since Karl Marx" and this impulse to "be against something," coupled with the natural instinct of activist students to seek a single scapegoat for the plight of an undeniably oppressed people, results in a dramatically simplified story, in which Israelis become the "only group that you can safely aggress against with no price to be paid." All this despite the role of Arab nations themselves in keeping Palestinians victimized.

Endorsers of the USACBI (speaking in their individual capacities in commenting for this article) frequently invoke the distinction between Israel as an occupier and Palestine as an occupied territory, and the obvious military disparity between the two, to justify the apparent bigotry in targeting Israeli scholars for retribution. On the subject of Palestinian violence against Israel, James Fetzer, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota, argues that "the comparison is not meaningful. We have fighter jets and heavy tanks, artillery and bombs versus rocks and an occasional rocket, which may have symbolic significance but seldom inflicts any real damage." Even setting aside the points-of-view of the victims of "symbolic" rockets and, even more dramatically, ignoring the roles of Hamas and the rest of the Arab nations in perpetuating the Palestinians' plight, the idea of silencing all intellectual discourse with an entire nation is troubling for two obvious reasons. First, it assumes that no value exists in scholarly exchange so long as all parties cannot agree with the political principles of a particular side (which is to say that no legitimate scholarly exchange should ever occur at all). Second, it ascribes a particularized, presumptively malicious viewpoint to an entire nationality. As Professor Dershowitz notes, "many of the people who want boycotts claim that Israel is inflicting collective punishment on the Palestinians but a boycott is essentially punishing every Israeli academic without regard to what their views may be." The notion of a boycott in this context is uniquely disturbing to the extent it can be construed to apply solely to Israeli Jews and, thus, is religion-based. (The proposed British boycott would have exempted "Israeli academics and intellectuals who oppose the colonial and racist policy of their state," which could be taken to mean only those who did not believe in Israel's right to exist at all.)

USACBI endorsers appear to vary widely on the dangers of closing off debate with their Israeli colleagues. Eleanor Doumato, a Fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute, describes this as "a huge concern," though one partially justified by the alienation of Israeli peace groups within their own country. Another signatory said this was the first question she asked before endorsing the boycott, but was assured by those in leadership roles that "the boycott targets Israeli institutions as opposed to Israeli individuals." Other signatories say up front that they don't care how the boycott affects individual Israeli scholars: Gray Brechin, a geologist at UC Berkeley, states he has "no problems with that," as "[t]he Israeli academics who support their government's policies and incremental annexation of the occupied territories far outweigh those who do not." Cal State Fullerton Professor of Accounting Paul Foote simply says "Israeli thinkers who agree with my positions on the issues are not in the majority in Israel."

University of Washington Professor Raya Fidel believes that "most Israeli thinkers who agree with my position support the boycott," and that "if they are not worried of being isolated, there is no reason for me to be concerned." Somewhat more precisely, James Holstun, Professor of English at SUNY Buffalo, explains that "we have weighed the possible inconvenience to anti-Occupation Israeli academics against the probable good in the struggle to end the murderous Israeli Occupation non-violently [and] have found the probable good outweighs the possible inconvenience."

As widely diverging as these views are in terms of acknowledging harm to "innocent" individuals (and as consistently as they all ignore the pervasive harm-not only in Israel but in American classrooms-of the perceived religious discrimination inherent in the boycott) they all share one disturbing commonality: the idea that disagreement is a valid justification for shutting off academic discourse in its entirety. The comments suggest that the greatest fear, if any, is the inadvertent shunning of like-minded thinkers, not the broader harm of silencing scholarly discussion as a general end. The extreme form of this attitude was typified by the least thoughtful response I received from one of the signatories: a professor, outraged at my "arrogant effrontery" in asking the questions at all, asked, seemingly seriously, "why would I wish to communicate with you on this or any other matter?"

Critics of the USACBI point out, of course, the absence of similar boycotts of other nations-notably China-guilty of widespread human-rights abuses, including those directed at non-violent religious minorities. Of the twelve signatories who responded to my question on this issue, only two indicated that they would support a similar academic boycott of China. Professor Holstun noted that, "in the case of China, given political disempowerment of most Chinese, including most academics, an academic boycott would be unlikely to exercise much pressure on behalf of religious and civil rights." But of course many of the well-funded China research centers in the U.S. work directly with the Chinese government, such as the China Law Center at Yale Law School which works with government entities as well as Chinese academic groups to try to support China's legal reform process through a range of collaborative projects. Whatever one believes about China's treatment of the Tibetans-and of its own dissenting citizens-such institutions draw interest and funding precisely because of the perceived collateral utility of working towards the development of the rule of law in a dictatorship interested primarily in enhancing its economic well-being, which necessarily involves the coming together of thinkers who disagree strongly on deeply important issues.

One cannot escape the fact that academic boycotts of Israel seek to marginalize a narrow community of scholars based on nationality and religion, while scholars of other countries with far worse records on human rights remain exempt. This is of course partially because there would be no academy at all were all scholars to boycott all countries whose governments they criticized. Professor Fidel argued in response to the China case, for example, "I do not support violations of human rights in any country, but the U.S. has its own violations, that are not much worse than those in China." While some American academics doubtless would support a boycott of our own universities for just that reason, most would not likely voluntarily cut themselves off from scholarly exchange with each other and with the rest of the world. As Professor Wisse notes, "America is large and can absorb ideological hits; for Jews these have very immediate, harsh and threatening consequences."

But the fundamental problem with an academic boycott transcends even these important concerns over racial and religious discrimination. The fact is that any attempt to close scholarly debate to any subset of institutions will necessarily prevent the individual minds in those institutions from contributing to solutions to international problems, and most especially with respect to those problems that form the basis for the boycott in the first place. Professor Fetzer, who signed the USACBI and supports a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, states he believes-and hopes-that one day "Muslims and Jews, Arabs and Israelis can live together in peace and harmony, which appears to be the only moral and just solution." It is difficult to imagine that harmony can be derived from an official ban on "cultural cooperation [or] collaboration" with all but those who subscribe to a single narrative of an infinitely complicated geopolitical situation.

Erin Sheley is a writer and attorney in Washington, DC