Academic Boycott Blues

Recent anti-Israel votes by academic associations (notably ones devoted to anthropology and women’s studies) were shocking, but not surprising.

Shock derives from the fact that academic boycotts have always been the most loathed of all boycott, divestment and sanctions activities, given how they collide with and threaten the very academic freedom upon which every scholar (and modern scholarship itself) relies.

But BDS is also an opportunistic virus.  And just as we who fight it had to deal with a spate of boycott campaigns at food cooperatives before that community immunized itself from the BDS threat, recent pro-boycott votes by some US-based academic associations last year (notably the American Studies Association – ASA) – meant the BDSers had found a new host to infect.

Academic associations are particularly vulnerable to tactics favored by the Israel haters.  For example, the vast bulk of the members of most such groups are focused on teaching and scholarship, rather than leading or managing an organization with which they might interact only once every few years.  Within such a community, members who are political activists first, scholars and teachers second, can easily move into positions of leadership in order to drive their agenda.  And the blast shield of tenure means their irresponsibility will only impact people who are not them.

Like many civil society organizations, academic groups have rules of governance based on trust, notably trust that those leading or participating in an association of scholars will not do things that can cause harm to the discipline or the general goals of scholarship.  But, as we’ve seen with and ASA, such loose rules are interpreted as a welcome mat by those who will do whatever it takes to get their anti-Israel message to come out of someone else’s mouth, to hell with the damage it might cost to that someone else.

Because BDS votes only tend to pass within organizations where a majority of a minority is all that’s needed to set policy, it’s also not surprising to find academic boycott votes breaking out in fields where a sizable minority subscribes to certain political orthodoxies (which include the demonization of the Jewish state).  And ruthless tactics which should seem out of place within any community valuing comity and discourse (such as cutting boycott critics off from communicating with members, or holding key meetings important to Jewish members on the Sabbath) seem to have found a comfortable home within the academic boycott community.

Finally, it should be noted that the precedent set by ASA established that one can pass an academic boycott resolution but not actually do anything to implement it and still get “credit” for being on the BDS bandwagon.  In fact, hiding from and ignoring critics while lavishing praise on your own courage (not actually ever boycotting anyone – since that could get a professor in trouble personally) seems to be the only requirement for being an academic boycotter in good standing.

Some critics have pointed out the irony of recent decisions by the American Anthropological Association and National Women’s Studies Association to initiate academic boycott votes targeting Israel.

After all, the entire field of anthropology rests on objective, non-judgmental observation of and learning from other cultures.  So why would they participate in a boycott that relied on embracing a transparently false, cartoon version of one of the world’s most complex set of societies?  Wouldn’t that be an open invitation to stop taking anthropology seriously since even anthropologists don’t seem to care about the field’s precepts?

Similarly, the staggering chasm with regard to women’s rights between Israel and every one of her neighbors (including the Palestinian society in whose name the boycotters claim to fight) make the decision by women’s studies scholars to shun their Israeli colleagues (including Israeli women, although probably just the Jewish ones) seem even more out of step with everything women’s studies and feminism claim to represent.  So why throw all that away, just to become a notch on Omar Barghouti’s belt?

Again, while it’s shocking that anthropologists and women’s studies scholars seem ready to chuck decades of reputation-building out the window (while tainting and putting at risk the rest of the academy in the process), it’s not all that surprising.

For those pushing BDS have always asked anyone seeking to embrace the cause to sacrifice that which they hold most dear in order to do so.  Mainline Protestant churches, for example, are asked to divest not out of human political concern, but in the name of “Christian Witness” (thus stuffing their political opinions into the mouth of the Almighty).

Any academic association signing the BDS contract is similarly asked to throw its most sacred possession (academic freedom) onto the pyre.  Anthropologists and women’s studies scholars are simply being asked to also sacrifice those things most important and definitional to each of those fields.

It’s obvious why a marginal movement like BDS asks those it lobbies to make such sacrifices.  For while one can always reverse a political choice, it’s that much harder to change course after giving up everything in order to participate in “the cause.”

So we don’t have to ask why the boycotters are happy to corrupt one academic field after another to have their way.  It’s what they do after all.  What we really should be asking, then, is why those who care the least about the academic disciplines they claim to represent are allowed to continue to set the agenda.

One Response to Academic Boycott Blues

  1. Brian Goldfarb December 3, 2015 at 10:47 am #

    Just like the UCU (University & College Union – the trade union for academics in the UK): the Annual Conference passes a BDS resolution every year, and is then reminded by its General Secretary that the union’s lawyers have told them that they can’t actually do anything; they’d be breaking UK anti-discrimination law if they did. And would get sued, possibly personally as well as threatening the union’s funds.

    But they feel better, so that’s all right. And never mind all the other, and real, breachers of human rights throughout the world. Not their focus or concern or so,e such weasel words.

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