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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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.