Thoughts (for “both sides”) on the academic boycott

12 January 2017, 1316 EST

In the wake of the failed attempt at passing a boycott resolution (of Israeli academic institutions) at the recent MLA conference, here are some thoughts. (Readers of the Duck might be aware that last year’s ISA conference saw a modest attempt at bringing a discussion on BDS forward. That proposal was also voted down.)

Let’s talk (past each other)!

The debate over the academic boycott is often frustratingly unproductive.

On one hand, some anti-boycotters accuse boycott proponents of being antisemitic. While some boycotters may be antisemitic (just as some anti-boycotters may be antisemitic!), the accusation is ill-conceived and distracting. One claim I often hear — that since roughly half the world’s Jews live in Israel, then BDS must be antisemitic — simply doesn’t hold up. BDS is a tool to coerce Israel to comply with international law and adhere to human rights imperatives, not a boycott of Judaism or Jews.

On the other side, some boycott proponents accuse boycott opponents of being chained to other allegiances. “The bad conscience of liberal Zionism,” David Lloyd, English professor at UC-Riverside, wrote in Mondoweiss in describing the deliberations at the MLA, “forced to defend the indefensible, was on full display.” This too, is a bad-faith response. While some boycott opponents may be motivated by fealty to the State of Israel or to Zionism, there are enough good arguments against academic boycotts as a tactic to demand a fair consideration of the ethics writ large. More on this, below.

About the MLA deliberations, Lital Levy, a comparative literature professor at Princeton who followed the proceedings and later the responses from colleagues on both sides, says she “felt caught in the middle.” Rather than “digging in our heels,” Levy says, we should “actually talk to each other (and not just at these emotionally laden public hearings at MLA), but throughout the year, directly.” (Levy has more to say about the fraught nature of dialogue, though, below.)

The nature of the academic boycott

Which brings us to the question of to whether academic boycotts are inherently unethical. That the academic boycott of Israel is aimed at institutions rather than individuals is an important consideration in taking some of the sting out. However, among the official guidelines is a demand that requests to serve as an external examiner for a thesis defense for a student studying at an Israeli university, for example, be turned down. This has a direct bearing on individuals. Moreover, the guidelines are often sloppily applied. The threat is often ambiguous, as my investigation into events at Syracuse University earlier this academic year revealed. All this means that academic freedom is imperilled, even if the effect is not frequently deep or widespread.

Proponents of the boycott point to the curtailing of Palestinian academic freedom. But if we abhor restrictions on Palestinian academic freedom, we shouldn’t necessarily use those same restrictions against others as a tactic, even if we are peers in the academy rather than a governmental authority. Surely there are many, many other direct tactics of resistance and protest action we can turn to. Within the BDS call itself, commercial boycotts and divestment, for example, may be less ethically fraught.

In other words, those who call for BDS must realize that each part of the call — boycott, divestment and sanction — has distinct ethical resonances. Some activists or academics may favour a commercial boycott while opposing academic boycotts stemming from their view of how scholarly exchange should proceed. Opposing an academic boycott does not necessarily mean that one is declaring war on BDS.

Still, those who oppose the academic boycott — for any reason — must seriously contend with the strongest of PACBI’s claims, which is that Israeli institutions are directly complicit in the aiding and abetting the occupation. A list of these claims can be found here.

A note on dialogue

Finally, opponents of the boycott sometimes point to the need for dialogue. But when there are serious power disparities involved, as there are in Israel-Palestine, dialogue can be inherently problematic. This is something which the boycott call acknowledges explicitly. And we must not overlook the role of direct, non-violent action in bringing about change. It’s something I’ve written about in supporting If Not Now’s pressure tactics in getting the organized Jewish community to cut off its support for the occupation.

Levy, for her part, says that “opponents of BDS who also oppose the occupation need not only to promote open exchange and dialogue but to address the material and political conditions that inhibit and impair dialogue between Palestinians and the rest of the world (including Israelis) in the first place. Otherwise, the call for dialogue amounts to no more than empty words.” Levy adds, “I can’t support BDS but I’m frustrated by [many BDS opponents’] fundamental lack of recognition that dialogue can only… have meaning when the structural inequities are addressed.”

A closing challenge (respectfully cribbed)

Corey Robin, a political scientist at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, has been hosting productive discussions about the academic boycott on his Facebook page. I’ll close with the question he posed in the wake of the failed MLA resolution. “Criticize BDS all you want, but tell me: What is your plan?”

I have tried to suggest some alternatives here — even alternatives within the basket of tactics which BDS promotes. I have also tried to show that opposing an academic boycott might have no bearing on the urgency with which one views the need to fight the occupation and roll back violations of Palestinians’ human rights. In short, the struggle for justice in Israel-Palestine should not end at the hotel convention room door on the heels of a failed resolution, whatever one’s view of the value, efficacy or ethics of academic boycotts.