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Academic Boycott – A Case Study

28 Feb

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.

History Has Spoken – The AHA BDS Blues

5 Jan

As some of you might have heard, the latest attempt to bring an academic association on board the BDS “bandwagon” collapsed last night as the American Historical Association voted 144 to 51 to not bring two anti-Israel resolutions up for a vote within the wider organization.

The specifics of the decision will likely seem Byzantine to most non-academics, but the nut of it comes down to:

  • The proposals skirted the issue of an academic boycott (as did last year’s votes by the MLA), with the BDSers instead pushing resolutions condemning Israel for practices that they claim harm academic freedom (of Palestinian academics and American academics working with them). This might simply reflect a strategy of phases whereby this year’s condemnations would lead to next year’s boycotts, although it might also indicate a recognition that academic boycotts are radioactive after everything we saw ASA go through in 2014.
  • Decision-makers within the organization had already taken boycott votes off the table, and last night’s vote was over whether or not to take the extraordinary step of adding new resolutions to an agenda that had been closed in November (a deadline the BDS cru missed)

It is too early to tell if this decision reflects the start of an auto-immunization process within the academy, or if the boycott/condemnation bandwagon will continue across more and more academic associations in the coming year (including AHA which is likely to see the same resolutions submitted – within the deadline this time – for next year’s conference).

I was pleased to see that discussion over the resolution focuses on whether or not history professors at American universities (very few of whom have any expertise in Middle East history) equip them to make decisions that involve (among other thing) understand military choices made during last year’s Gaza war.  This  reflects a degree of intellectual humility that alone provides a certain level of protection against partisans insisting that an organization has the right – and responsibility – to make political statements in the name of the field (although only statements of which the boycotters approve).

I suspect that this recent vote will be used by critics of inter-disciplinary fields like American studies to make the case that academics representing more traditional fields (not to mention non-humanities fields like science and engineering) are better prepared to resist politicization and hubris.  But I think there is a simpler explanation as to why the boycotters seem to have lost so badly among History vs. American Studies professors.

For in this case, the AHA seems to be led by people who value scholarship, the needs of their members and the general cause of academic freedom over the requirements of a particular partisan agenda.  In contrast, organization that have passed anti-Israel boycott resolutions (notably ASA) chose to place the BDS “mission” of the leadership over scholarship, the needs of colleagues and the good of the academy as a whole.

Now there is no telling if the BDS tactic of infiltration will make AHA or some other academic organization vulnerable to the boycott infection in the future.  But I think the telltale sign of trouble moving forward is not the nature of the discipline, but whether or not a specific organization is run by a bunch of partisan hacks ready to trash everything and everyone for their own selfish gain.

 

What to Do About Academic Boycotts

9 Dec

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!

Majority of a Minority and Academic Boycotts

7 Dec

There are a number of ways to approach the latest campaigns against Israel within academic associations like the American Studies Association (ASA), the UAW graduate student union in California and, most recently, the American Anthropology Association (AAA) and Middle East Studies Association (MESA).

One option would be to simply express outrage at the sheer ludicrousness of targeting the only nation in the entire Middle East where the academy has the same freedom enjoyed by those who are condemning it (and the ever-lamer excuses these groups use to justify their highly selective outrage).

Another option would be to panic that perhaps, this time, BDS really is “on the march” and that if we don’t do something immediately then we’re All DOOMED!!!!! (I’m waiting for my favorite overwrought ally in the anti-BDS fight to publish something along these lines any minute – which will then get retweeted a million times by the BDSers to prove their success.)

Then there’s the option of treating the whole academic boycott movement as a subject of academic study, something that’s been done remarkably well by the people behind the recent book The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel.

But today, I’d like to focus on a more practical aspect of this latest form the BDS “movement” has taken on, one which may provide answers to that all-important question of “What do we do next?” (other than freak out or simply wash our hands of the academy altogether).

For this analysis, keep in mind that BDS is an ever-morphing virus, ever on the lookout for new targets of opportunity to infect.

When I first learned about “the movement,” their target was college administrations whom they thought could be convinced by student/faculty/alumni petition campaigns (which would lead to sit-down meetings) to embrace the agenda of having colleges and universities divest from companies doing business with the Jewish state (and thus “prove” that Israel was the new South Africa – the last nation schools divested from for political reasons).

When that ended up not panning out, the target list widened to include municipalities (notably Somerville, MA) and Mainline Protestant churches.  And while municipalities went nowhere after divestment was defeated three times in Somerville, a 2004 vote by the Presbyterian Church to begin a process of “phased, selective divestment” from Israel gave BDS (just called “divestment” back then) an anchor client which they used to their advantage until divestment was overturned by the Presbyterians two years later.

After a brief period of remission, BDS was reborn in 2009 after Operation Cast Lead galvanized activists and a BDS hoax at Hampshire College (still being fraudulently presented as true on college campuses today) put a newly formed and energized Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization in the driver’s seat with regard to campus-based divestment activity.  Meanwhile, other Israel-hating individuals and organizations took advantage of their simplicity and low barrier to entry to start new boycott and divestment campaigns at food coops, student government and, most recently, academic associations.

The food coop boycott fad was kicked off when single such store (in Olympia Washington) passed a boycott motion behind the backs of the membership which allowed BDSers to fan out across the nation urging other coops to follow suit.  And even though the loose rules of governance at most coops gave the boycotters an opening to drag their squalid little project into any such store they liked, it turned out that the coop community was pretty resistant to the BDS virus, self-immunizing against it within a few short years.

But just as that coop experience taught the boycotters how to maneuver within an organization with minimal governing rules regarding boycotts, their involvement with Mainline Protestantism showed them how much could be done within an institution where leaders have little involvement with (and feel little responsibility for) those they lead (and where few members paid attention to what those leaders did or said).

Student government falls into this category, given how few students actually vote in elections or pay attention to what those elected to office do after they’re voted in.  Under normal circumstances, people who run for these leadership positions (even those who do so primarily to pad their resumes) have the interests of the student body in mind for the most part, which means the system can work even if civic engagement is not what it should be.  But as I’ve said before, BDS is not in the normal business.  Which means limited student engagement in the election process is an open invitation to vote in leaders who see student government as having but one role: to pass anti-Israel divestment resolutions (student opinion on the matter be damned).

But with academic associations, the BDSers seems to have discovered a way to parlay their ability to put boycott activists into leadership positions (by taking advantage of low voter turnout at most leadership votes) to give their odious program a veneer of democratic respectability.

ASA provided the template for this approach, which basically involves:

(1) Organizing a vote on a highly contentious issue (an academic boycott targeting one nation and one nation only) that is sure to cause controversy (and likely harm) to the organization;

(2) Taking advantage of the aforementioned loose governing rules within most civic organizations to ensure that vote only requires a majority of voters vs. members (ensuring that the win goes to whoever can organize the biggest minority – the ASA boycott was passed by a “landslide” of just 18% of the membership, for example);

(3) Shrinking the time for members to consider the motion as much as possible (to both drive-down turnout and limit the chances for their opponents to organize); and

(4) controlling communication so that the boycotters are free to fill the airwaves with their own propaganda (culled from members and non-members) while freezing members opposing boycott measures out of official communication channels (forcing them to find their own way to get the word out to fellow members about what is about to be done in their name).

These steps have played out pretty much intact at UAW grad student union vote I mentioned earlier.  And if AAA and MESA are hedging their bets before proceeding with an actual boycott, that’s only because leaders within that organization have yet to figure out a way to implement a boycott in a way that won’t harm them personally.

So if you put aside the emotionally charged nature of a bunch of academic hacks dragging colleagues who don’t put politics before scholarship into messes like the one ASA finds itself in, what we’re dealing with is basically a new target of opportunity (academic associations) and a new tactic (manipulating a majority of a minority vote) that can give the BDSers what they want (the ability to speak in the name of an organization) without having to pay a price for the damage they cause.

And ways of dealing with this particular challenge will be the subject of my next entry.

BDS Destroys Everything it Touches – The Case of UAW 2865

1 Dec

As long-time trackers of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions phenomenon know, BDS is an opportunistic virus ready to use whatever it learned the last time it infected (or was rejected) by a host organism when moving to a new target of opportunity.

Most recently, success in getting academic associations like the ASA on board their squalid little program involved:

  • Moving into leadership positions activists ready to put the BDS agenda ahead of the people and field they are supposed to be representing
  • Either passing a boycott resolution within executive committee (before members know what’s going on) or setting up a vote with no quorum that will allow a tiny percentage of members to vote in a policy that impacts the entire organization
  • Control debate by setting up stacked committees and “discussion” sessions that freeze our or harass critics, and coming up with endless excuses why those critics are not allowed to use the same communications channels the BDSers use to flood the membership with propaganda generated by people with no affiliation with the association

Most recently, these new tactics are being followed to the letter by the BDSers who purport to represent the membership of United Automobile Workers (UAW) 2865 which, despite its name, is actually a union of 12,000 graduate student employees within the California education system.

Like many unions, UAW 2865 has been getting the short end of the stick in negotiations with the state and college administrations over the last couple of years.  Partly, this reflects the weakening of unions generally (especially those that include very few active members – like a union of grad students).  But another reason why they’ve been force to accept crappy contracts recently is that the union’s leadership seems to have priorities that have nothing to do with bettering the lot of the membership.

Most notably, they have been pushing, participating in and spending union money on BDS activities, even before they receive the answer they’re hoping for from the rigged vote they’ve scheduled for December 4th.  And, not satisfied with the damage they have caused to date, they have done everything in their power to ensure a “Yes” vote will permanently wreck the organization by:

  • Weakening the group’s leverage with administrators by putting the union at odds with university governance (by calling for discrimination against a class of fellow academics and legitimizing the politicization of the classroom)
  • Putting the group at legal risk by potentially placing UAW 2865 in violation of state discrimination law
  • Alienating fellow union members, including the local Teamsters who have noted that “Whatever your motives, we cannot conceive of an action more hostile to the interests of our members and more antithetical to the most basic principles of the union movement than for a union to call for actions which are intended to do harm to the economic security of other union members.”

The good news is that an able group of graduate students has organized to overcome the enormous barriers the BDSers in the union’s leadership have erected and are valiantly attempting get word out to those graduates students/union members who might have no other way of knowing what is about to be enacted in their name.

And even as my hopes are with this group, it should be noted (yet again) the kind of price BDS asks of those it is trying to recruit to the cause.

I thought of this when William Jacobson, the Cornell professor who has been covering the ASA beat at Legal Insurrection, subtitled his piece on the union vote “BDS destroys everything it touches.”  For what better way to describe a program that is ready to destroy the credibility, bargaining power and solidarity with fellow members of the labor movement, all so a tiny minority can spread their Israel=Apartheid hate propaganda at the expense of thousands of working students?

As noted in my review of Nelson and Braham’s recent book on academic boycotts, the BDSers at ASA are working hard to redefine academic freedom out of existence (while all the time insisting that their own freedom to boycott fellow academics be protected at all costs), just so the hacks that lead the organization can punch above their trivial weight as either scholars or activists.

Meanwhile, those that forced the Presbyterian Church to vote divestment over and over again for more than a decade until PCUSA members did what they were told have demanded the organization place its most sacred possession – the claim to speak on behalf of “Christian Witness” – on the sacrificial alter for the benefit of an insatiable BDS Moloch.

But why stop there?  For given that BDS is just a tactic of a wider anti-Israel movement ready to corrupt any organization (the UN anyone?) and turn any virtue (including the quest to build a world based on human rights and international understanding vs. national power and tribal alliance) into weapons directed at their hated target (regardless of the damage this weaponization does to anyone else on the planet), couldn’t Jacobson’s “BDS destroys everything it touches” apply to all the hopes and dreams of those who profess to fight for a better future?

I know I’ve quoted him before, but Robin Sheperd in his book State Beyond the Pale sums up this whole sordid phenomenon so depressingly well that I shall again give him the last word on the subject:

Whatever it touches, the anti-Israel agenda always brings out the worst.  It brings out the worst in journalists who cast aside their principles of balance and objectivity.  It brings out the worst in seasoned commentators who substitute hysteria and foot stomping for calm analysis and enlightened discussion.

It brings out the worst in trade unions which put a hateful agenda above the interest of their members.  It brings out the worst in diplomats who debase themselves by pandering to tyrannies against a democracy.  It brings out the worst in artists and writers who submerge their commitment to beauty and truth in ugliness and lies.  It brings out the worst of the great traditions of Left and Right which default back to their shabbiest instincts and their darkest prejudices.

The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel

26 Nov

I’ve just finished reading The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, a book of essays edited by Cary Nelson, former President of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and Professor Gabriel Noah Brahm of Northern Michigan University, both veterans of recent boycott wars within academia and contributors to this remarkable volume.

Before getting into content, I wanted to first highlight the publishing achievement regarding getting a book of such quality out the door in the brief time between the ASA/MLA BDS fights earlier in the year and last month when the title must have started rolling off the presses.  Quick-to-print publishing is nothing new, but getting a polished, well-writen-and-edited, academic volume like The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel (published by MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights and distributed by Wayne State University Press) completed in a matter of months demonstrates what can be done when dedicated (and genuine) scholars take advantage of modern publishing technology.

Moving onto content, the book is broken into six sections and many contributors (and some essays published as articles earlier in the year) will be familiar to those who have followed BDS overreach within academic associations in 2014.

In the first section, titled “Opposing Boycotts as a Matter of Principle,” contributors (including Nelson and Brahm, Martha Nussbaum, Russell Berman and others) make the case for why boycotting academia is wrong under any circumstances.  The arguments supporting this assertion are varied and powerful, but if forced to pick a favorite, I’d probably go with Cary Nelson’s “The Fragility of Academic Freedom.”

In that article, the author traces the emergence of the concept we now call “academic freedom,” highlighting its evolution as a human and social construct, rather than a natural law waiting to be discovered.  For if you stop and think about it, why should scholars – alone among professionals – be entitled to not just lifetime employment contracts (i.e., tenure), but the right to do and say what they please with minimum fear of professional reprisal?  It’s because individuals and organizations (especially the AAUP that Nelson previously led) fought for these rights and, just as importantly, convinced the non-academic public that the importance of scholarly work necessitated such benefits and protections.

But if such a social norm is predicated on the virtue of scholars having uninhibited access to ideas (and other scholars), what becomes of the academic freedom construct if academics themselves throw it away to support some transient pet political cause?  That’s just what the irresponsible academics leading the American Studies Association (ASA) did last winter (even as they insisted they were doing nothing of the kind) and it remains to be seen how social norms might change again once the lesson ASA taught (that politics can trump academic freedom – at least for them) seeps out into wider public consciousness.

Speaking of the American Studies Association, their boycott is the specific subject of the second section of the book, and readers can probably guess why I favorited Sharon Ann Musher’s piece “The Closing of the American Studies Association’s Mind,” which provides a blow-by-blow, detailed description of the unscholarly, unfair and unbelievable way the leadership of ASA forced a boycott onto the organization they led, damaging their association (if not their field) while remaining personally protected behind the blast shield of tenure.

The most politically contentious essays can be found in a third section entitled “The BDS Movement, the Left and American Culture” which makes a broader case regarding what the ASA boycott and Modern Languages Association’s (MLA’s) recent anti-Israel votes say about an academic culture where anti-Israel invective has become the norm.  While Tammi Rossman-Benjamin “names names” regarding where the loci of anti-Israel activity can be found on campuses (normally within social sciences departments) and Kenneth Marcus and Richard Landes do their usual masterful job exposing the irrational psychology behind ever-escalating Israel hatred on campuses, the piece that impacted me most was Samuel M. Edelman and Carol F S. Edelman’s “When Failure Succeeds: Divestment and Deligitimization.”

In that essay, the Edelmans point out how seemingly trivial matters (like meaningless student government divestment votes rejected by school administrators before they are even brought up) provide a channel whereby endless propagandizing creates an environment in which students come to accept as natural the assumption that Israel is a ghastly place (even if it might not deserve to have its scholars boycotted).  Having spent several years exposing the failure and fraud behind the BDS “movement,” it’s become too easy to treat the BDSers’ shouts and viciousness as a form of temper tantrum from spoiled children not getting their way.  But as “When Failure Succeeds” points out, we all need to take far more seriously the boycotters’ unstated mission to endlessly pump sludge into the minds of the young.

In the fourth section, “The Israeli Context,” authors like Shira Wolosky and Rachel Fish contextualize academic boycotts within the framework of historic anti-Israel activity and political fads (like calls for a “bi-national state”) that are constantly resuscitated as fresh, new ideas in both academic and political settings.  While each of these pieces (like every other essay in the book) is a must read, the pragmatist in me gravitated towards Ilan Troen’s “The Israel-Palestinian Relationship in Higher Education: Evidence from the Field” which dismantles every trumped-up charge that make up the case for an academic boycott of Israel.

A fifty-page “Concise History of Israel, ” “A Boycott Dossier” (that includes first-hand documents relating to academic boycott activity) and a list of online resources (both pro- and anti-BDS) closes out the volume, and while the history lesson will seem a little 101 for those familiar with the story of Israel and the Middle East, it seems like a wise move to provide a factual framework to those who may have only been exposed to the BDSers’ dystopian fantasies about the region.

The most obvious criticism of a work such as The Case Against the Academic Boycott of Israel is that making BDS the subject of academic inquiry might seem like the equivalent of bringing a legal brief to a knife fight.  That’s actually an image that came to mind when I read Donna Robinson Divine piece in the book entitled “The Boycott Debate at Smith” where she describes one set of professors defending the anti-boycott stance taken by the school’s president by utilizing many of the subtle arguments found in Nelson and Brahm’s book while professors critical of Israel fell back on sloganeering and discredited maps to pump a far less subtle (and non-true) message into the minds of students.

But for reasons most Divest This regulars can guess, I can think of no substitute for the kind of scaffolding provided by a strong intellectual framework for the fight against BDS, even if works like The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel don’t come with a kit that includes pithy slogans, catchy chants or evocative poster images that students can bring into the next pro- or anti-Israel rally or event.

Going back to an earlier case of immunization against the BDS virus, one of the reasons boycotts are no longer part of the BDS repertoire at food cooperatives is that the people who ran one such a coop (in Davis California) laid out a case against boycotts that demonstrated them to be in violation of the founding principles of the coop movement itself.  And while such an historic argument might seem “academic,” it provided every group fighting coop boycotts after that the grounding and ammunition they needed to drive BDS out of their communities.

Now BDS and the attitudes supporting it are far more entrenched at all levels of the academy, even if support for an anti-Israel agenda has yet to transcend a noisy and increasingly aggressive minority.  But if un-blinkered students and professors (who still make up the majority at all schools, even if they might lack the conviction of Israel’s defamers) are ever to make progress, they need to base their choices of action on a bedrock of ideas, including the powerful and compelling ideas that can be found on every page of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel.