The American Studies Association, which held its annual meeting in Washington this past weekend, is considering a resolution endorsing a boycott of Israeli universities to protest Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, including the occupation of territories.
If the proposal passes, the association, which promotes study of American culture and history, will be the second American academic organization to support the Israel boycott (the Association for Asian American Studies passed such a resolution in April). The boycott should be rejected as antithetical to both intellectual freedom and human decency.
The American Association of University Professors, which opposes the action, rejects all academic boycotts as incompatible with the free exchange of ideas; it took the same stance with regard to South African universities during apartheid.
This position is consistent and intellectually sound, particularly since, even under morally reprehensible authoritarian states, institutions of higher learning have often served as bastions of dissent and free thought. Arguably, one could make an exception for totalitarian regimes, where the universities themselves are instruments of the state and academic freedom does not exist.
In this case, apart from the overall problems with academic boycotts, there is the striking hypocrisy of singling out Israel. There is no movement to boycott China, which occupies Tibet; Russia, which maintains a puppet regime in Chechnya after suppressing its quest for secession; or Turkey, which occupies Northern Cyprus and whose rule in eastern Kurdistan is viewed as occupation.
Nor is there a cry for a boycott directed at universities in states that deny civil rights to women, such as Saudi Arabia, or brutally persecute gays, such as Iran. The pro-boycott advocacy of academic feminists and gay rights supporters such as gender theorist Judith Butler is particularly ironic considering that Israel is the most gay-friendly and female-friendly state in the Middle East.
The occupation poses undeniable moral and human rights problems; however, these problems exist in a context of a very real threat to Israel — and of a complex history of efforts at resolution, which boycott supporters ignore.
Will the boycott help Palestinians? In 2008, Sari Nusseibeh, the president of the Palestinian Al Quds University, joined the president of Jerusalem-based Hebrew University to oppose a boycott. They warned that far from helping end the “shared tragedy” of the Palestinian situation, a boycott could prolong it by fostering antagonism. Nusseibeh noted that the Israeli academic community has a strong pro-peace, pro-human rights outlook and should be the last sector to be punished. (Al Quds was recently embroiled in controversy over an openly pro-terrorism demonstration by jihadist students that included Nazi salutes. This kind of hate-mongering seems to pose no moral concern for boycott advocates, nor do egregious violations of intellectual freedom under the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip.)
The boycott’s agenda is to make Israel a pariah state. There has been much debate on whether the blatant double standard of such ostracism is rooted in anti-Jewish bias. The bias here is anti-Western: the Israel-hating left sees Israel as an outpost of Western and American imperialism oppressing a Third World people. However, anti-Israel animus often does overlap with anti-Semitism, as the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights recently noted.
Whatever its motive, the anti-Israel boycott is an affront to the true spirit of both political and intellectual liberalism. This movement should be opposed not only by Israel’s supporters, but also by anyone concerned with the state of the American academy.