Academics should boycott Israel: Growing movement takes next step

A major scholarly group affirms a boycott over Palestine. They're right and ethical -- and widely misunderstood

Topics: Israel, boycott, Palestine, Education, Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions, bds, American Studies Association,

Academics should boycott Israel: Growing movement takes next stepEdward Said (Credit: Reuters/Mohamed Azakir)

In recent years, we have seen greater recognition in the United States that religious acrimony and ancient blood feuds are not the source of the Israel-Palestine conflict, whose progenitor in fact is Jewish colonization. As this recognition grows, along with corresponding support for Palestinian human rights, unprecedented pressure bears on Israel’s defenders to maintain the once-dominant narratives of Israeli victimhood and Palestinian terror.

These days, Israel is an extremely difficult state to defend.

It should be so. Israel continues to make a mockery of the “peace process” by constructing new settlements and insulting American leaders. It tolerates politicians who routinely make racist statements. And it continues to be in violation of at least 77 United Nations Resolutions and numerous provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The latest challenge to these violations comes from the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement, which has attracted the attention of pro-Israel advocacy groups and the Israeli government itself, thus validating the efficacy of the tactic. A specific element of BDS, academic boycott, was recently ratified by the Association of Asian American Studies and enjoys overwhelming support among the membership of the American Studies Association, whose National Council today voted to affirm a resolution honoring the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli universities.

Although at first glance academic boycott seems vengeful and arbitrary, its mission is rigorous and ethical, perfectly concordant to comparable boycotts that earned widespread support in the United States (against apartheid South Africa, for instance, or Arizona when it refused to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day).

Academic boycott entails specific principles that are widely misunderstood or misrepresented. Boycott of Israel does not mean shunning everything or everybody Israeli, nor is it a radical commitment to national destruction. It is not an abrogation of academic freedom. It does not demand that we smash our laptops because they contain Israeli processors. One can boycott Israel and still care about oppression in other parts of the world.

Academic boycott, quite simply, is a rejection of complicity in the Israeli government’s brutalization of Palestinians, a form of nonviolent resistance at the nexus of the globe’s greatest confluence of geopolitical power. It asks individuals and institutions to refuse Israeli state funding, to decline invitations to visit Israeli institutions (either by avoiding those institutions or choosing to travel to the West Bank or Gaza instead), to cease hosting representatives of Israel directly or indirectly sponsored by the state, and to reject institutional partnerships with Israeli academe.

Since its inception in 2005, BDS has profoundly altered the discourses and debates around the Israel-Palestine conflict in the United States.

* * *

The greatest worry around boycott is the possibility of restricted academic freedom. Such worry is unfounded, however. Academic boycott targets institutions and does not preclude collaboration with individuals. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel is explicit that Israeli citizens are able to serve on editorial boards and as external referees, submit research to any forum of their choosing, and travel without restriction. Nor are editors or search committees to reject articles and applications based on citizenship. Disparate rules based on ethnicity are solely the domain of the Israeli state.

The boycott actually seeks to preserve academic freedom by challenging punitive campus cultures that punish critics of Israel. Boycott is likewise an expression of academic freedom because it enables individuals to decline participation in sites of injustice by inscribing this sort of dissent as a form of protected speech.

You Might Also Like

At a recent conference hosted by a large professional association, I attended a wonderful talk by a Palestinian citizen of Israel, whom I will call Kareem. Kareem was invited by the conference organizers to speak on a panel about academic boycott. Although fellow panelists explored the subject, Kareem merely discussed the various forms of entrenched discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian minority, which he had unearthed in state archives.

I have changed the scholar’s name for the same reason he declined to endorse boycott: because in Israel, where Kareem would return after the conference, any support of boycott is illegal, punishable by a fine and denial of benefits, and subjecting violators to civil lawsuits.

To recap: An Israeli citizen was invited to speak on a panel exploring boycott, but had to limit his speech because the fear of incrimination by Israel.

Who, then, is restricting academic freedom?

In terms of its ability to prevent recrimination, academic freedom is largely mythological. Dissentient speech can be contained by dominant standards of erudition and respectability. The economies of tenure and promotion coerce obeisance to those dominant standards. Academic reward systems are set up to punish deviation. Nothing is more deviant than criticizing Israel.

Dozens of scholars have suffered the wrath of orthodoxy due to their criticism of Israel, including Joseph Massad, Nadia Abu El-Haj, Terri Ginsburg, Tom Abowd, David Shorter, Ilan Pappe, Neve Gordon, Teddy Katz, William Robinson, David Klein, Mona Baker and Sami Al-Arian. Terrorists once torched the Columbia University office of eminent Palestinian scholar Edward Said.

In practice, there has never been academic freedom vis-à-vis the Israel-Palestine conflict, at least not for those who support Palestinian human rights, and not if we grant that an important element of academic freedom is the ability to carry on a career free of intimidation and harassment.

* * *

The other main objection to academic boycott (and to BDS generally) is that it “singles out” Israel. This objection not only lacks merit; it also performs the same singling out of Israel its adherents claim to abhor.

Of all the world’s settler colonial projects, Israel is uniquely protected from wholesale condemnation in the United States.

When Zionists respond to BDS by asking “why don’t you boycott [insert oppressive state]?” they merely affirm Israel’s bad behavior by eliding responsibility and asking other countries to answer for Israel’s violence. The elision is hypocritical, suggesting that it’s acceptable to criticize, say, China, while criticism of Israel is unfair simply because Zionists, on behalf of all Jews, have outfitted the state with a specific ethnic character.

The ultimate goal of academic boycott is to compel Israel to abide by the human rights conventions and international laws to which it is beholden, but one of its effects is to undermine Israel’s status as an exceptional democracy beyond the reproach of less enlightened nations.

The only people singling out Israel in this debate are those opposed to BDS.

* * *

Boycotts in themselves are not especially controversial among academic communities. In other words, BDS isn’t controversial. Criticism of Israel is controversial.

Even those who opposed boycott of South Africa or Arizona understood that white folks weren’t the victims of inequitable economies and legal systems. What sets Palestine apart is the persistent notion that the colonizers, those with nuclear weapons and land and resources and legislative power and the full support of the United States, are the oppressed party, that they largely suffer the pain and indignity of the conflict, that BDS is furtively anti-Semitic, that Israel is a special case in history. Remove this duplicitous reasoning and most rationalizations for rejecting boycott go away.

Here are the facts: No evidence has ever been presented that the Israeli government is interested in a viable solution to the conflict. Instead, Israel has persistently built illegal settlements, intensified its Judaization programs, shot and arrested children, appropriated land, destroyed olive groves, flaunted international law, tolerated pogroms against black immigrants, and passed overtly racist legislation, all of it with indisputable, institutional participation from Israeli universities.

More facts: The people of Palestine have been subject to a project of settler colonization for nearly 150 years, as long as the French occupied Algeria. Over a million Palestinians live in refugee camps throughout the Arab World, many in severe poverty. Palestinian citizens of Israel inhabit the lower level of a two-tiered legal system that limits their rights to employment, land ownership, education, mobility, free expression, political participation and public services. The Gaza Strip is destitute and overcrowded, victim of an Israeli campaign to strangulate its economy with the express purpose of making its residents starve and suffer. The West Bank is carved into hundreds of inaccessible geographies separated by segregated highways, settlements, checkpoints, military installations and concrete walls.

Despite these horrible realities, this antediluvian system of biological determinism, we’re told repeatedly by those opposed to BDS that the desires of the colonizer supersede the rights of the colonized. They rarely say it outright, but it’s the primary assumption underlying the mistaken argument that boycott harms innocent Israelis. By this logic, the black boycott of Montgomery’s bus system would have been unjustified because it might have harmed the drivers.

The most innocuous-sounding but insidious of these colonial apologetics assails us about the need for dialogue, not rejectionism. Yet boycott hasn’t emerged from ahistorical circumstances. It has arisen from a need for action as a result of failures of dialogue over multiple decades, a dialogue monopolized by Zionist voices.

Anyway, boycott constitutes a form of dialogue, one in which the Palestinian people finally participate. Their contribution to this new dialogue is the announcement that they will never tolerate dispossession and will never accept their fate as expendable in the Zionist narrative.

* * *

My maternal grandmother lost her home in Ein Karem, outside of Jerusalem, in 1948. She has never been compensated. Her loss has never been acknowledged by Israel. She refuses to visit an artsy, upper-class, Jewish suburb of Jerusalem that was once a Palestinian village — her ancestral home. She has neither forgotten nor forgiven. I haven’t forgotten, either. I am perfectly willing to forgive, but only in the presence of justice. Oppressors aren’t allowed to ask for forgiveness if they refuse to relinquish any of their ill-gotten power. They will not, they have shown repeatedly, relinquish that power voluntarily.

I practice BDS because it’s the only power I have in the face of the tremendous military and economic might of Israel and its American sponsor. It is a largely symbolic power, a nonviolent act of simple defiance, void of guns and platforms and legislation, but if enough people participate, it has the potential to topple a colonial empire, one that yearns for the acceptance and affirmation of the same people it dismisses and displaces, and one that hasn’t yet learned that friendship is based not on force but on respect earned through introspection and compassion.

I will teach my son the history of Palestine. He will teach it to his children. Our stories will outlast Zionism.

Israel doesn’t want to be boycotted? Fine. Then Israel needs to practice true democracy. That is all BDS asks of it. It is by no standard an unreasonable demand.

Steven Salaita is an associate professor of English. He tweets at @stevesalaita.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...