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

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?"