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December 30, 2013 8:25 am

Wrong on Both Counts: Academic Boycotts and Israel

avatar by A. Jay Adler

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.)

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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.

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