Over the last two years, whenever critics have condemned anti-Israel academic boycotts as an attack on academic freedom that would, by necessity, harm individual scholars, we were told by academic boycott proponents that their actions were targeted solely at institutions and would thus have no impact on professors, students or scholarship.
It’s been hard to put that theory to the test with regard to programs like the American Studies Association (ASA) boycott since, as far as I know, not one American Studies Department in the country has implemented a boycott program that was voted in by an ASA leadership claiming to represent the scholars making up those departments.
And even when ASA leaders themselves had the opportunity to put the boycott they forced onto the organization into action at their December national conference, they chickened out – allowing Israeli scholars to proudly march around the conference brandishing their institutional affiliation (in defiance of ASA’s new policy) while ASA leaders avoided questions from whatever press they had not managed to ban from their event.
There has been talk that a furtive boycott might be in place, one where US American Studies professors are shunning their Israeli colleagues (by refusing to attend their conferences, referee their papers or participate in hiring and tenure projects). But even if this is the case, such secretive boycotts cannot be described as a form of political action since genuine political acts (vs. secret acts of bigotry) require the world know that such shunning is being done in the name of a stated political goal.
Since un-implemented (or secret) anti-Israel academic boycotts that have not been translated into action provide no information on the whole institution vs. individual punishment issue, we need to look elsewhere to see how the matter might play out if a boycott of an academic institution was actually put in place. Fortunately for this discussion (but unfortunately if you happen to work there), we have an example of an implemented institutional boycott to draw upon: the one currently underway targeting the University of Illinois.
While this boycott is not specifically about Israel, it certainly derives from the mainstreaming of academic boycotts that have resulted from recent BDS campaigns within academia, involving as it does the now famous (or infamous, depending on your attitude) English professor and anti-Israel polemicist Steven Salaita.
I suspect everyone reading this knows the tale, but just in case: Salaita, who taught at Virginia Tech, was offered a teaching position within the American Indian Studies department at University of Illinois, pending approval by the school’s Board of Trustees. And, assuming that such approval was just a formality, he resigned his current tenured position in Virginia and prepared to relocate to Illinois.
But during the period before final approval, a series of vulgar, infantile, over-the-top tweets Professor Salaita sent during the recent Gaza war hit the media, making him a controversial figure which contributed to the Board not approving the hiring decision, and leaving Professor Salaita without an academic home.
I’ll leave it to the legal courts to determine whether the original unapproved offer made to Salaita represents a binding contract U of Illinois breached, just as I’ll leave it to the court of public opinion the question of whether Salaita’s hiring was nixed because of a conspiracy of Likudnik donors threatening university leaders, or because Salaita’s tweets woke those leaders up to the fact that they were about to reward life employment to someone with little scholarly experience in the field in which he’d be teaching and – at least with regard to his politics – no maturity or self-control.
Others, however, were not willing to wait for these various courts to declare their verdicts and a boycott of University of Illinois was put in place by Salaita supporters who demanded that the decision not to hire him be reversed.
So has this clear-cut example of a boycott of an institution impacted individual scholars after all?
Well according to Professor Susan Koshy, a Professor of English, Asian-American Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Illinois (a supporter of Salaita as well as someone who signed on to a petition calling for boycotts of Israeli academic institutions) the answer is unquestionably yes since it includes:
“Planning and then canceling or redefining searches. Deferring program reviews. Canceling talks, conferences, and speaker series. Dealing with the irrecoverable costs of airfares and room bookings from last-minute cancellations. Taking “no” for an answer time and time again when searching for reviewers for manuscript workshops. Documenting all the rejections and cancellations.”
You will notice that her list of problems resulting from the boycott of her institution all directly impact individual people (including Koshy herself and many of her colleagues). And given universities are in the people business, how could it possibly be otherwise? Higher ed institutions, after all, do not grow grapes or manufacture garments that can be shunned in the grocery or department store. They “produce” interaction between teachers and students and between professional colleagues (all protected under the umbrella of “academic freedom”). So boycotting the institutions where interaction is the primary activity requires boycotting the people participating in those interactions.
I’ll leave it to William Jacobson to wrangle statement from Professor Koshy regarding how she feels about her support for an academic boycott of Israelis now that she is on the receiving end of such an effort. But I should note one other ongoing BDS-related issue that the whole sorry U Illinois story illustrates.
For here we have one more element of civic society (University of Illinois directly, but I would say academics more generally) where BDS supporters dragging the Middle East conflict into an institution ends up harming not Israel but the organization that caved in to BDS blandishments, moral blackmail and demands that they “do something” (that “something” consisting of participating in the boycotters’ squalid little propaganda program).
We’ve saw it in places like Somerville MA and the Olympic Food Coop (although, fortunately, those instances helped immunize municipalities and food coops almost entirely from the BDS infection). We see it at places like the Presbyterian Church which will soon enter the grave grasping onto its anti-Israel animus as the few members under the age of 70 look elsewhere for spiritual salvation.
And we’ve seen it on college campuses where anti-Israel propaganda campaigns have been woven into the fabric of student life, making it impossible to participate in student government or even walk across campus without having this issue – alone among international conflicts – shoved in your face again and again and again.
In other words, the University of Illinois story simply proves what many of us have known for years: that BDS turns everything it touches into shit.