When you are in the thick of defending the Jewish state from the endless propaganda assault of its enemies, it’s easy to lose track of how marginal movements like BDS really are. For outside of the specific communities BDS seeks to infiltrate (mostly progressive institutions such as colleges and universities, liberal churches and unions), the opinion that Israel alone in the world deserves to be treated like Apartheid South Africa would barely register a blip of public agreement.
Which makes it all the more extraordinary that when the boycotters do find a community open to their message, the first thing they ask of such a group is that it sacrifice everything most dear to participate in the BDS cause.
For example, in 2007 the leadership of Britain’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) passed a resolution urging a union boycott of Israeli products. While on the surface, this would be classified as a product boycott, in reality it represented the organization throwing away the most sacred principle of journalism – editorial independence – to take part in a political campaign.
The membership (which revolted against a decision taken in their name which most of them were not aware was even being discussed) understood the stakes, insisting that officially condemning one nation – as journalists – meant officially taking sides in a conflict many of them were also being asked to cover impartially. As one NUJ member put it, this would translate to “colleagues reporting from the Middle East while carrying two cards – a BBC ID which said you were impartial, and an NUJ card which said you were a biased reporter.”
Anyone familiar with UK media coverage of the Middle East will understand that the successful journalists’ reversal of the NUJ boycott was not the result of a devotion to the Zionist cause. Rather, it represented a profession’s unwillingness to sell its soul to take part in someone else’s political campaign.
You can see something similar with the Mainline Churches which are endlessly lobbied to pass divestment resolutions, not in the name of political principle but for the sake of “Christian Witness.” In other words, in order to participate in BDS the boycotters are insisting church members accept their political position as the word of God.
So what has the leadership of ASA thrown away in order to become part of what they perceive as a higher cause?
To begin with, the attempt of one group of academics to boycott another for political reasons cannot be seen as anything other than an attack on academic freedom.
ASA leaders have tried to obfuscate this fact by insisting that they are only boycotting institutions (not individuals) and that their boycott is in response to Israel’s alleged limitation of Palestinian academic freedom. And while this piece does a better job than I could in in confronting the argument regarding institutions vs. individuals, if you turn ASA’s argument regarding boycotting as a legitimate response to Israeli behavior into a generalizable principle, that would mean any academic group that decides another set of scholars live in a society where academic freedom is limited are justified in instituting their own boycott against those scholars. In other words, ASA’s behavior turned into a precedent would ultimately make decisions over who can be expelled from the community of discourse dependent on the beliefs (or aggressiveness) of partisans within any group considering a boycott.
Looking at a hypothetical, if the American colleges and universities whose Presidents have condemned ASA’s decision instead instituted a community-wide boycott of the organization (due to their belief that ASA was guilty of assaulting academic freedom), ASA would have thrown away the only principle they could use to defend themselves (and would thus be reduced to special pleading that only they were allowed to decide which academics were guilty and deserved the boycott treatment).
The weightlessness of such an argument gets us to a second asset the ASA boycotters have had to jettison: academic integrity.
Most of us are familiar with instances in which students were flunked for plagiarism or academics denied awards or fired for knowingly introducing inaccurate data or fake quotations into their work. And the basis for these harsh punishments is an understanding that open-mindedness and a commitment to finding and following facts wherever they lead are what make the scholarly enterprise uniquely valuable.
But during the run up to the boycott, ASA leaders decided to turn this principle into a weapon aimed only at their opponents. Which is why they become hyper-fastidious when “fact checking” the material of critics (such as their fellow AAUP academics) while never applying the slightest scrutiny to truth-challenged tirades from non-academic anti-Israel propaganda sites they put on direct feed to the membership. And let’s not even talk about the intellectual problems associated with determining official truth (in this case, the truth of who is guilty and who is innocent in the complex and contentious Middle East conflict) by putting the matter to a member vote.
And speaking of intellectual problems, this gets us to the final sacrificial victim we’ve seen resulting from the ASA boycott: intelligence.
For keep in mind that, despite attempts by some to belittle ASA members, the organization and even the entire field of American Studies as lightweight, no one who earns a PhD is a moron. Which makes the moronic statements coming from Curtis “One has to start somewhere” Marez (the last President of ASA), or his successor’s lame attempt to paint opponents as homophobic all the more striking.
The only possible explanation is not that stupid people earned PhDs, write books and rise to the top of a (once-) respected academic association, but that these people’s decision to embrace the BDS agenda at all cost made them stupid (or, more specifically, demanded such an enormous commitment to biasing one set of facts and opinion over another that, on this particular subject, their doltish behavior is a result of having turned themselves into dolts).
I’ve noted before the practical value of BDS insisting its political allies sacrifice all to join their “movement.” For someone making a political decision can always change his or her mind. But once you have placed your most sacred possessions (such as independence, Witness, freedom, integrity and intelligence) on the pyre, it makes it that much harder to ever pull back. And thus, like an angry Moloch, BDS continues to demand its allies (which now includes ASA) demonstrate their commitment by submitting to human sacrifice without end.