What to Do About Academic Boycotts

As I described last time, academic boycotts can be treated with outrage, with contempt, with fear or with defiance.  But if any of these reactions are going to lead to specific actions, it’s best to understand the true nature of such boycotts and those that are trying to push them onto an organization.

Long time readers can skip the next two paragraphs where I’ll be spinning my favorite broken record.  But for everyone else, the goal of the academic boycotters (like the goal of all BDS activists) is to get their propaganda message – that Israel is the next South Africa, alone in the world at deserving global punishment – to come out of the mouth of an someone more well-known and respected than the BDSers (which pretty much includes everyone).

And in order to score such “wins” in their campaign, virtually any tactic is allowable.  Students from every nation on earth (including nations at one another’s throats) attend University of California schools.  But only the Israel question is dragged before student government year after year after year.  Academics across the planet are suppressed, imprisoned and killed, or provide the intellectual justifications for the monstrous dictatorships under which they live.  But only Israel is considered for banishment from the community of scholars.

So charging the leaders of ASA or some other academic group of hypocrisy for their boycotts or attempted boycotts misses the point that they are being true to their core (and only) mission: the BDS propaganda campaign.  What they are in fact guilty of is of leading an organization in order to subvert it, turning academic associations (and the members these leaders are supposed to represent) into mere means to the boycotters ends.

But also keep in mind that the boycotters are fundamentally cowards, which is why they rarely, if ever, work to enact their boycott and divestment programs in any way.  Partly, this is because their primary goals (spreading propaganda and speaking in someone else’s name) can be achieved just by getting their motions debated and/or passed. But they also understand that actually implementing a boycott (by publically refusing to contribute to Israeli journals or accept submissions from scholars working in “boycotted” Israeli universities, for instance) could mean putting themselves at personal risk.

Now tenure acts as a prophylactic providing a certain amount of protection for many of the most active boycotters.  But as Mona Baker learned in the UK, actually implementing (rather than just talking about) academic boycotts can lead to serious and long-term damage to the boycotter’s reputation and career.  Which is why folks like Curtis “One Has to Start Somewhere” Marez have chosen to begin and end with words and not deeds.

With these psychological factors in mind, here are some thoughts regarding what to do to slow, halt or reverse the trend of academic associations flirting with boycotts.

Obviously the best option would be to ensure that academic associations are led by people who put scholarship and the profession before politics.  And given that there exist hundreds (if not thousands) of academic associations in the US and overseas, the fact that boycotts are being considered by just a handful of smaller ones (most of them in the humanities and social sciences) means that the bulk of academia (so far, anyway) seems to be in responsible hands.

But like the terrorist who only has to be lucky once (while those protecting against them have to be lucky all the time), the BDSers are constantly on the hunt for those organizations that are particularly susceptible to takeover or manipulation.  So while it would be great if every academic organization was led by those who are academics (vs. BDSers) first, it’s unrealistic to assume there will always be enough thoughtful scholars ready to step into leadership roles in an organization that others are busy turning into a political vipers’ nest.

So for organizations that have already had their leadership subverted, the next best option is to organize opposition within the group.  In the early days of BDS, this was actually the dynamic that ended up checking the excesses of radicalized leaders in groups like the UCU/AUT teachers union and NUJ journalists union in the UK, both of which passed boycott motions which were immediately overturned by protests from an outraged membership.  Internal opposition was also responsible for keeping BDS at bay within the Presbyterian Church for most of the last decade, despite PCUSA’s leadership doing everything in its power to force the organization to vote in a divestment policy.

But the BDSers (as well as being ruthless) are also relentless which means if they are ever told “No,” they will simply keep asking the same question over and over until they get the “Yes” they demand (as happened with the Presbyterians last summer).  And while we’ve seen a well-organized minority opposition overcome corrupt processes at places like MLA, this option still requires people who may have otherwise opted out of association politics to instead not just participate but participate at a level that can counter highly aggressive political opponents.

So do we have to give up in places where the opposition’s majority of a minority is bigger than our majority of a minority?  Not necessarily, for there are still a number of things that individuals or small groups of boycott opponents can do that leverage the huge gap between the boycotters’ claimed courage and their actual cowardice.

At last month’s ASA convention, for example, Lisa Duggan and the rest of the organization’s leadership were forced to swallow hard as Israelis defied their boycott calls and journalists used the occasion to expose that while ASA was ready to destroy the reputation of the organization in order to pass a boycott motion, no one in that organization actually had the guts to implement it.

In similar ways, Israelis allied with boycott opponents can flood an organization that is allegedly participating in or flirting with an academic boycott with paper submissions, refereeing requests, conference opportunities and other everyday academic interactions and publically document what happens next.  Similarly, boycott opponents can build new partnership with their Israeli counterparts (possibly under the umbrella of those who refuse to take part in a boycott – like the New England and California chapters of ASA) and defy the boycotters to do something about it (with the whole drama playing out in public, of course).

Then you’ve got the old Alinsky standby of making your opponents play by their own rules.  So if that grad school union out in California passes a motion urging members to start politicking in the classroom, for instance, find a grad student that is actually doing this, publicize this breach of academic protocol (and U of C rules) widely and lay blame for the entire sordid affair at the feet of the union leadership.  Similarly, before a single Israeli is boycotted, opponents should find out all the venues where anti-discrimination rules/laws are enforced, prepare their briefs, make sure everyone knows what will happen if a single act of discrimination occurs,  then dare union leaders to live by the discriminatory rules they forced onto the organization they purport to lead.

Sticking with that student union for another minute, a pro-boycott vote will immediately be met with condemnation by college administrators and fellow union members (including their umbrella union, the UAW).  Like the ASA leaders who have ignored the condemnations that have rained down on them from much larger academic associations (all the time insisting that their own association condemnation of Israel be treated with the utmost seriousness), the student union boycotters cannot be personally shamed.  But they can be publically shamed before their peers as having destroyed the credibility of the entire union for their own political gain (with this condemnation expressed more in sorrow than in anger, of course).

Some have suggested even harsher approaches to any academic boycott.  For example, Martin Kramer (a long-time opponent of Middle East Studies Association) has drawn up a list of consequences if MESA ever does pass the BDS motion many members are dying to push through.  And a Jerusalem Post columnist suggests scrutinizing the work of pro-boycott scholars for plagiarism or other academic misdeeds.

As you might guess, I’m more pre-disposed to Kramer’s suggestions (since they simply force a boycotting organization to play by its own rules), rather than open up a footnote battle among warring factions within academia.   That said, it would be worth researching (and publically demonstrating) whether (as I suspect) the academic work of the boycotters is thinner and weaker than that of those they want to shun (opening up a discussion of whether boycotts are being proposed by third-rate academics jealous of far better scholars).

Finally (and most easily), those who are fighting against academic boycotts need to ceaselessly express their views in every forum they can (especially those professional forums over which groups like ASA exercise no control).  And in every one of those exchanges, they should stick to the simple message: that boycott leaders have screwed over the membership in order to facilitate their own political vendetta.  And, like the boycotters (who stick to their own Israel = Apartheid message and never reply to critics), our side should take the fact that groups like ASA et al have been discredited within academia as bigots and rogues as a given, and simply repeat this characterization over and over again, regardless of how opponents respond.

Like Duggan and Marez who run/ran the now-discredited ASA (see how easy that was to type?), any BDSer will remain defiant – even as they are forced into humiliating retreats.  But like the crab that bears its claws as it digs its way backwards into the sand, such bombast will eventually end once those shouting it have disappeared beneath the earth.

So go for it!

3 Responses to What to Do About Academic Boycotts

  1. Faith December 11, 2014 at 2:21 am #

    The University of California UAW vote is in. There were 2168 votes cast (from 13,000 members)

    Yes: 1411 (65%)
    No: 749 (35%)

    • DivestThis December 11, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

      I saw. It’s a bummer, but I strongly suspect that the leaders of a graduate student union are not going to be able to shield themselves from the consequences of their actions as easily as tenured professors at places like ASA have been able to. Let’s all stay tuned to see what happens next.

    • fizziks December 11, 2014 at 7:07 pm #

      So 9% of the membership votes for this and yet it passes?

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