The Blog

War of Silence

The intellectual boycott of Israel hits the United States.

12:00 AM, Mar 20, 2009 • By ERIN SHELEY
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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