Wrong on Both Counts: Academic Boycotts and Israel

December 30, 2013 8:25 am 10 comments

An ad published by a pro-Israel group opposing an academic boycott of the Jewish state.

Statements rejecting calls for an academic boycott of Israel, such as that recently resolved by the academic American Studies Association, generally resort fully only to one of the two arguments that can and should be made against such ill-conceived and ill-intended resolutions. The first argument is principled, the second substantive, and one argument offered in the absence of the other deprives proper advocates for Israel of a common defense of academic freedom and Israel together, and  it is just such a common defense that provides the full ethical force of the condemnation that those who traduce Israel in this way deserve.

There are those who endeavor to restrict the anti-boycott argument to, in Stanley Fish’s words

a limited, guild notion of academic freedom … the freedom to pursue scholarly inquiry, not the freedom to advance justice and equality on university time.

There are those, unhappy, say, with this past year’s disingenuous evocations of academic freedom for political purposes at Brooklyn College, who might rush to embrace Fish’s limited conception. (Except that Fish, getting it wrong then, too, fully supported Brooklyn College and its political science department.)

Fish begins in the right place, a “limited, guild notion” that is “the freedom to pursue scholarly inquiry.” That freedom, like so many in so free a nation as the United States, is often taken for granted, its significance and origins lost to the non-scholarly, scientific, or intellectual. But history’s most famous attack on intellectual freedom – the conviction by the Roman Catholic Church of Galileo Galilei for heresy, for propounding heliocentrism – should serve for all time as the sole necessary reminder of the importance of this principal. The freedom of scholarly and all intellectual inquiry is instrumental to the advance of civilization and was to the advent of the Enlightenment. So it is basic to intellectual activity developed into guild work, into the professional work of the academic. Yet Fish’s “limited guild notion” is just the workaday action of a profoundly political idea.

It may be that the more particular and esoteric an academic field or specialty may become, the easier it is to lose sight of the greater idea. Fish observed that his critics were emphasizing the element of “freedom” over the “academic,” and the latter does name the professional parameter. The “freedom” accentuated, on the other hand, is the leverage boycotters and activists use to bring the weight of their academic work to bear on external political matters, as in a boycott. However, it is academic freedom, the two words emphasized equally together, that names neither the professional nor the contemporaneous political interest in isolation, but the greater political ideals — of individual freedom exemplified by mental freedom, freedom of speech at the intellectual apex of thought and speech, of independence from authority, and from authoritarianism.

To claim, then, that academic freedom is best conceived as a non-political freedom is fundamentally wrong. No advocacy of freedom is non-political. The question is what are the politics? What do they stand for? What ends do they pursue? What methods do they use? With whom are they aligned? Whom do they oppose? Academic freedom stands for the unfettered life of the mind and of individual autonomy against the authoritarian center.

Conceiving academic freedom in this way, it will be difficult ever to defend an academic boycott. In the most closed and repressive conditions, the free mind, finding an opening, will seek its freedom. No body is freed by imprisonment. No mind can be opened deprived of contact. Yet the American Studies Association has argued in its statement proclaiming the boycott that it

represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.

That is, as a political tactic to achieve a social end, the ASA advocates the restriction of a right now (among some people) in the name of its greater enlargement (among others) in the future. This represents, of course, as a belief and methodology, the purifying utopianism of twentieth century totalitarianism, in which dictatorships of the proletariat now would lead to human liberation later, terror now would create the stateless, classless society of the future. But, then, those animating the ASA’s activism, from without and within the association, are thinking out of just that tradition of theoretical critique elevated above actuality.

Academic freedom thus conceived, like all intellectual freedom, is not properly understood as narrowly apolitical – it is the essence of the political. It is not a mere procedural norm, stripped of the history of intellectual striving that produced it; it is the representation in practice of that striving and of the values that gave rise to the principle.

The question, then, as always, is not whether those values are political in nature, but whether they are the right politics, free thinking, egalitarian, just, and socially progressive politics. It was the desire to promote such values that directed the one boycott now raised regularly as our ethical exemplar, that against apartheid South Africa.

In truth, however, the boycott of South Africa, both economic and academic, was always controversial, if not, among most people and nations, regarding the justness of its intent and of its deserts for the ruling white Afrikaner regime and supportive population, then for its effectiveness and potential for greater harm. We have the example of Cuba for how futile even the longest-term economic sanctions can be in opening a society to the free intercourse of people and ideas. We have the example of North Korea for how a nation may turn itself into a virtual prison for its own population and survive for decades as a closed society.

Still, not every act, we may sometimes feel, need be productive of an end. Some acts are properly symbolic. We will not, we decide, be friendly with the neighbor cruel to spouse or children. We stand for and against some things, and will be known to do so, even if we see no reason to believe we can change them. So many people came to feel this way about South Africa, and we may usefully ask why – why South Africa and not, for instance, the Soviet Union or China? Certainly both nations oppressed and destroyed the lives of many more people. In sheer numbers of deaths and the magnitude of the inhumanity, those two nations far exceeded South Africa. Why were they not the objects of a now historic organized and global demonstration of worldwide opprobrium?

Besides the low, economic reasons that weakened the South Africa boycott just like other sanction regimes, the explanation is clear. Whatever their true tyrannical and totalitarian natures, both the Soviet Union and China professed principles of social equality and justness. They claimed to seek a new, greater human freedom of mind and body, through labor. They lied, of course, (as do lie all the decades-long Arab foes of Israel, including the Palestinian Authority, in invoking the vocabulary of human and civil rights in their political campaigning against Israel) but in the manner observed by Oscar Wilde, their hypocrisy was  the homage vice paid to virtue. The difference, in contrast, was that South Africa’s white, Afrikaner regime, and the nation’s white population generally, was avowedly racist. Institutionalized apartheid professed and enacted a belief and a policy of dehumanization against a discrete group within a nation’s broader populace, and by so doing openly declared South Africa a moral outlier among nations, fit thereby to be outcast.

For this reason, South Africa became the target of the contemporary world’s one great global boycott. (For this reason, perhaps, in a far different world, capable even less often of concerted global action, Nazi Germany should have been boycotted long before the Anschluss.) While the USSR and China long had their allies and defenders, in political philosophy as well as policy, the only arguments made against boycotting Apartheid South Africa were of a tactical variety, still opposing apartheid.

In all these considerations we find the grounds for opposition in principle, with a clear and circumscribed exception, to academic boycotts. If one has no great interest in Israel, is even highly critical of Israel as a political actor, but retains a clear understanding of what academic freedom most profoundly means, then the argument in principle will serve and satisfy. But from the perspective of all who recognize the historicity of the Jewish people in Israel, who know the full history of Jewish willingness to compromise and accommodate competing claims, and who know, too, the contrary history of Arab rejectionism and rank anti-Semitism, who are not blinded by animus to Israel’s vibrant democracy, in contrast to the utter illiberalism surrounding it – for all such people, an argument in principle alone cannot be sufficient, is even a dereliction.

A boycott against Israeli academics and institutions is wrong not just because academic boycotts are very nearly always wrong, but because the argument for such a boycott applied to Israel is a moral outrage. While none actually argued in defense of South African apartheid – supported the philosophy or policy and upheld the moral character of the regime – free, good, and honest peoples all over the world recognize the nature of the Israeli state and the circumstances of its history and creation, and offer moral support against its foes. But it is in the nature now of those swept along by the kinds of political currents that so often rush over the intellectually fashionable not to recognize what it must mean that Israel, even beleaguered, has its true defenders among the democratic and free.

It is no matter of happenstance that Israel’s traducers have adopted, among a variety of slanderously false epithets, that of  “apartheid state.” They seek with characteristic dishonesty to tie Israel linguistically to that sole justifying historical precedent. Among the many deceptions embedded in the lie is the analogously false suggestion of any institutional nature to the separate treatment of Palestinians. It is, to the contrary, otherwise well known that the twenty percent minority Arab population of Israel is the freest Arab population in the Middle East, as free as any people in the world – free, too, to emigrate if they feel themselves persecuted.  In contrast, in the years after Israel’s re-establishment, nearly eight hundred thousand Jews fled Arab lands, leaving those lands, now, nearly absent of Jews, and it is the expressed intention of Palestinian Authority leadership – in contradistinction to another great lie, demographically refutable, of ethnic cleansing by Israel – that a Palestinian state would be, as the Nazi’s called it, Judenfrei.

The boldness of these lies, the magnitude of their departure from the truth and demonstrable reality, both stuns the imagination of Israelis, Jews, and all honest and informed people and serves, remarkably, as only the foundation for a swarm of monstrous lies. That where Palestinians do confront impediments to full autonomy, it is not within Israel, as an institutionally separated and oppressed population as was present in South Africa, but as a belligerent foreign population on disputed territories that has refused, amid a near century of anti-Jewish massacres, wars, and campaigns of terror, ever to make peace, by agreeing to the compromise and accommodation to competing claims that Israel has, for its part, numerous times offered. That the organized campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, with whose U.S. arm the ASA now allies in mutual support, has as its most well known founder Omar Barghouti, who is equally well known – in light of the ASA’s declaration to act in “solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom” – to have earned a masters degree in philosophy from Tel Aviv University. That Barghouti, far from seeking resolution to conflict, opposes a negotiated settlement to conflict and supports the elimination of Israel as a state.

The campaign of lies to which the American Studies Association has now allied itself in support still only begins with these examples. As the world’s current prevailing example of the infamous “big lie,” its provenance is the same, and now three American academic associations, of which the ASA is the largest, serve as purveyors of it. Influenced, in part, by theoretical constructs that have become, in application, completely untethered from reality, these academics add now not their scholarly contributions, but their measure of ill to the world. To counter this foolish contribution, this signal misguidance, it is no longer adequate to argue only from principle, however great we think that principle to be, that academic boycotts are wrong. It is necessary to argue firmly and clearly that an academic boycott of Israel is wrong. It is important to know and to state, without faltering, why.

10 Comments

  • Dian Kjaergaard

    The two Barghouti references are priceless. To them I can add the following:

    In December 2003, before the BDS movement was officially started (9 July 2005), Omar Barghouti called explicitly for “the one-state solution… a unitary state solution”, a “unitary state, where, by definition, Jews will be a minority”.http://www.counterpunch.org/2003/12/12/relative-humanity-the-essential-obstacle-to-a-just-peace-in-palestine/

    And 10 years on? Omar Barghouti has recently participated in a meeting called “Strategies for change”. An enthusiastic analysis of his talk can be found here: – along with a link to a 16-minute video of the talk .

    Omar Barghouti is deeply interested in the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Friere’s work with the pedagogy of the oppressed, and starts by saying that the oppressed must, of course, not become oppressors. Mr Barghouti wants (1:32 – slightly paraphrased): A secular unitary state in British Mandate Palestine, recognizing the inalienable rights of indigenous Palestinians and “acquired rights of colonialist, indigenized Jewish settlers after they no longer have colonialist privileges”.

    I disagree with the “colonialist” label, but that’s not the most important point here.

    After discussing the three cardinal goals of BDS, Mr Barghouti says (5:40 – slightly paraphrased):

    “A Jewish state in Palestine – any shape or form – cannot but contravene the basic rights of the indigenous Palestinian population and perpetuate a system of racial discrimination. It should be opposed just as we oppose a Muslim state, or a Christian, or any kind of exclusionary state –”

    At 5:50 he seems to back down a bit in his opposition to Muslim or Christian states, and says:

    “most definitely do we oppose a Jewish state. No rational, not-sell-out Palestinian will ever accept a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.”

    Approximately 8:00:

    ”…. post-colonialism – after justice – we must envision integrating into a common nation that can determine its future together.”

    Elsewhere Mr Barghouti has admitted that substantial minority protection in Muslim majority states is seldom seen, but he believes that the “Arab Spring” suggests that there is potential for a better situation.

    My evaluation is that Mr Barghouti is either dangerously naive – or dangerously manipulative.

  • I FIND THESE LONG STORIES TO BE A MOST PATHETIC WAY TO RESPOND TO BDS. SHORT FOCUSED FIGHTING BACK ARGUMENTS WITHOUT PHILOSOPHY IS BETTER THAN THIS LONG DOCUMENT THAT I COULD NOT READ FULLY. THIS DOCUMENT DOES NOT ACCOMPLISH ITS GOAL, ONLY MAKES THE WRITER LOOK SO SOPHISTICATED, SO ERUDITE, SO WELL SPOKEN, SO WELL PREENED, SO HANDSOME.

    • The issue, without philosophy is: Israel Academia has to be punished because injustices done to Palestinians. This is the official ASA explanation. The question is what injustice was done to the Palestinians? What injustice was done to the Jews of Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia etc. Do you know what Farhud is? Killing hundreds of Jews on 6/1/1941 by Muslim Nazi. Do you know what DHIMMI is? So don’t preach me about Apartheid. Apartheid exists in every Muslim country. All infidels are dhimmis. Learn the word.

    • Dian Kjaergaard

      We need all kinds of responses – and offensives. Yes, some long pieces are pathetic – but this one isn’t and it has some important information that other people on our side can use.

  • 34% out of 5000 eligible voters casted their vote through a computer system that was not supervised and led by zealot leaders who knew ahead of time what the result of the vote is going to be. You expect academics to know what “scientific” means. An article in ant scientific paper would have been rejected. Why does any body, New York Times and alike pay attention to ASA at all? Answer: The media decided what the result ought to be…..and the rest is history

  • while I agree with the content, the essay as presented is confusingly written and loses impact because of that.

    • I agree – a sadly tortuous presentation and a radical departure from the usualy highly informative and incisive op-eds contributed by Dr Adler.

      • In refering to South African apartheid, I, as a South African, must agree about the injustice system in my country.

        It was like Nazi Germany. Where the apartheid was”Kein Juden” Juden Rous”
        in South A frica, it was white s only.
        Schools, shops, cinemas, beachess, restauraants, buses,hospitals.

        The police were brutal to the non white population.

        We whites lived well. Our servants were black and colured.

        Yes, we whites enjoyed the situation.

        However, since we abolished apartheid, crime has gone out of proportion.

        We never heard of babies being raped.WE could live without fear, as the non whites were not allowed into white residential areas.

        Today, we all have high security walls, with electrified fences, cars driven with locked doors and windoes closed.And that applies to the non whites as well.

        Stopping at a traffic light, just last week, our lady mayor, who is coloured, nearly died of shock.
        The passenger side window was smashed and her handbag stolen.

        This never happened in the aapartheid days.

        The prisons are over full. Prisoners are raped.

        You have to be a member of a gang, or “else”!!.

        The government is ccorrupt to the core. Presdent Zuma had his house built with tax payers money. R200million.\And his own people are starving. Unemployment, I believe, is something like 40%.
        The former police commissioner was sentenced to 15 years behind bars for crime and corruption.
        And then we have the worst anti Semite. Nobel Peace prize winner, Archbishop Tutu. That man is evil, but adorned all over the world.
        He so hates Jews and Israelhat he will preach hatred of Jews and Israel.

        Some years ago, while visiting Yad Vashem, in the Memortial Hall, at the eternal flame, he said “The Jews must forgive the Nazis for what they did.
        And the Jews died an easy death in the gas chambers.
        Tutu is only interested in Tutu. He loves to have his photo in the oress, wherever he goes.

        Still, I love South AFrica, with all it’s problems.

    • Phoenix Angelfire

      I’d have to agree that this article was extremely verbose and confusing. It was written as if it were to be presented before a philosophical society debate. While I agree with the intent and content I think it could have been presented more simply, more effectively. I think that perhaps the author may have adopted that approach for several reasons: to avoid the rebuttal for simplification that would necessarily follow by the radicals at ASA, and to define his own credentials through his writing in the process. Additionally, I think that the piece was specifically balanced to evidence more neutral, academic and less biased approach to the topic. As for my own opinion : I think that they are “mixing their brushes” (a pretty self explanatory French expression, I’ve forgotten the English equivalent strangely enough), The political agenda they have adopted, imposes upon their membership the adoption of a particular orientation. This runs counter to the principles of critical thinking, and free choice and is not reflective of their guiding principles and mission as I understand them. There have been academics in the past who have taken a stance on specific political issues, however they did so, usually, individually and not as part of a misguided collective. I am sorry but, I see such a position as little more than academic fascism by the liberal left. This is an insidious process, a cancer, which has eaten its way into an otherwise neutral field, that of academia. Lest we forget the highest ideal and true purpose of the academic pursuit is the expansion of knowledge and the promotion of critical, individual thinking. In conclusion, I must say I am pleased that I am not a member of this nefariously biased organization, and would never wish to be.Happy 2014 to one and all.

    • Dian Kjaergaard

      Yes, it is tortuous – I wonder what caused Dr Adler to write this way? But I still wouldn’t cause it pathetic, because there is important information that can be used in other contexts.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Music US & Canada Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Pop superstar Lady Gaga on Thursday accepted an award from Jewish human rights group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on behalf of her Born This Way Foundation, which strives to combat bullying among young people. “Your philosophies are so in line with ours,” she said of the ADL upon accepting the Making a Difference Award in a videotaped message, which was shown at a ceremony in New York City. “We want to help young people know that their feelings and who they are on [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    JNS.org – Eighty years young, Leonard Cohen fits many descriptions—singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, monk. From his Jewish upbringing in Canada to the present day, Cohen has always explored his spiritual side. This month, the singer-songwriter released the CD (May 12) and iTunes (on May 8 of this year) formats of his latest album, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, which features live recordings from his world tours in 2012 and 2013. Last year, Cohen’s Popular Problems was voted by Rolling Stone [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    JNS.org – Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) head Sepp Blatter said during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that contrary to Palestinian complaints, Israel has not violated any FIFA statutes and should not be suspended from international soccer’s governing body. “We should not come to one federation saying we will exclude them,” said Blatter, the Jerusalem Post reported. “If the national association is fulfilling its obligations then there is no need to intervene,” he said. “I’m on a [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Middle East Sports Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish human rights group the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) said on Tuesday it was “appalled” by a Palestinian Football Association initiative to suspend Israel from FIFA, calling it another “front waged in the context of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign.” “We are appalled at the temerity of the Palestinan Football Association (PFA) demand that FIFA suspend Israel at your forthcoming Congress in Zurich,” wrote the group’s international relations director, Dr. Shimon Samuels, in a letter to FIFA President Joseph [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    The lead actor in Son of Saul, an Auschwitz thriller featured at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, told the UK’s The Guardian that he believes God was “holding the hand” of each Jew who died in the Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. “I do not for one nanosecond like to pretend that God is off the hook. He could and should have stopped it at a much earlier stage,” Géza Röhrig, 48, said. ”But I would not be able to get [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys singer Howie Dorough took to Instagram on Tuesday to marvel about climbing the famed Masada fortress with his band during their visit to Israel, where they will perform this week for the first time. The group’s second day of sightseeing in the Jewish state included the Masada hike, and taking a mud bath at the Dead Sea. A picture from the band’s official Twitter page shows the five singers covered in mud. While relaxing in the Dead Sea, [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews US & Canada ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    A new book and its upcoming film adaptation tell the true story of how three former yeshiva students who habitually smoked marijuana scored a $300 million contract from the U.S. government to supply weapons for the Afghan Army, the New York Daily News reported on Sunday. Arms and the Dudes details how the Miami Beach potheads became “the most unlikely gunrunners in history,” according to the book’s author, investigative reporter Guy Lawson. The tale begins with Efraim Diveroli, nephew of [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater Natalie Portman: Israel-Themed ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ Not Political

    Natalie Portman: Israel-Themed ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ Not Political

    JNS.org – Natalie Portman, who directs and stars in the new Hebrew-language film adaptation of author Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, says that despite Oz’s record as a vocal left-wing critic of Israel, her film is not political. Like the book on which it is based, Portman’s film is about a young boy at the time of the founding of the state of Israel. “I think the movie is very much about this very particular, specific family story. Of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.