The Intellectual Hypocrisy of Anti-Israel Academic Boycotts
Among the many examples of the shameful degradation of values in academia, few are more intellectually grotesque than academic boycotts. And these boycotts, in their present form, are almost exclusively targeted at Israeli scholars and institutions.
In the latest example, the members of the American Historical Association (AHA) recently debated two petitions. The first, which was ultimately rejected by the AHA’s Council, urged the AHA to review and investigate “credible charges of violations of academic freedom in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories,” whether by “constituting a fact-finding committee, authorizing a delegation or issuing an investigative report.”
The second petition recommended that the AHA issue a statement, which it did, affirming “the rights of students, faculty and other historians to speak freely and to engage in nonviolent political action expressing diverse perspectives on historical or contemporary issues.”
Putting aside the absurdly paranoid notion that any anti-Israel activism is suppressed or otherwise limited on campuses anywhere, what actually terrified these intellectual hypocrites, it seemed, was the possibility that — once they had publicly announced their enmity for Israel, Zionism and Jewish affirmation — they would be held accountable for their toxic views. They worried that they would be named for what they are: anti-Israel activists whose rabid ideology can, and should, be made transparent, exposed and understood.
The AHA statement made this hypocrisy clear when it meretriciously asserted, “We condemn all efforts to intimidate those expressing their views. Specifically, we condemn in the strongest terms the creation, maintenance and dissemination of blacklists and watch lists — through media (social and otherwise)—which identify specific individuals in ways that could lead to harassment and intimidation.”
The so-called “blacklists” and “watch lists” that they reference are such databases as Canary Mission (mentioned specifically), Discover the Networks, Campus Watch, the AMCHA Initiative and other similar organizations — all of which provide students, faculty and others with information on the ideology, scholarship, speeches and writing of radical professors and students. These are individuals (and groups) who have very public records of pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activism and whose words and behavior have been catalogued so that the politicization of scholarship can be exposed, and that students can avoid courses taught by professors with a predetermined and evident bias against Israel.
The craven AHA members are not the first representatives of the professoriate to recoil in terror at the thought of being included in one of these databases, even though they are perfectly willing, if not eager, to signal their virtue in the first place by publicly expressing their obsessive disdain for the Jewish state. In 2014, for instance, 40 professors of Jewish studies published a denunciation of a study that named professors who had been identified as expressing “anti-Israel bias, or possibly even antisemitic [sic] rhetoric.”
The 40 academic “heavyweights” claimed that while they rejected antisemitism, of course, they were equally repelled by the tactics and possible negative effects of the report, which was produced by the AMCHA Initiative. (The report was a comprehensive review of the attitudes about Israel of some 200 professors who signed an online petition during the last Gaza incursion that called for an academic boycott against Israeli scholars, who they claimed were complicit in the “latest humanitarian catastrophe caused by Israel’s . . . military assault on the Gaza Strip.”)
Calling “the actions of AMCHA deplorable,” the indignant professors were insulted by the organization’s “technique of monitoring lectures, symposia and conferences,” something which, they believed, “strains the basic principle of academic freedom on which the American university is built.” That was a rather breathtaking assertion by academics — just as it was when the AHA members repeated the same idea; namely, that it is contrary to the core mission of higher education that ideas publicly expressed by professors should be examined and judged.
The professors claimed that by even applying some standards of objectivity on a body of teaching by a particular professor “AMCHA’s approach closes off all but the most narrow intellectual directions.” And, in a sentiment similar to that found in the AHA statement, the 40 Jewish studies academics did not want the content of their intellectual output to actually be examined for the quality of its scholarship, because, as ideological bullies are always fond of saying, such a review “has a chilling effect on research and teaching.”
Specifically, reports like the AMCHA product clearly indicate which professors have demonstrated a clear bias against the Jewish State; in fact, the professors have gone even further with that enmity by mobilizing as part of the global boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement to turn Israeli academics in intellectual pariahs by excluding them from the intellectual marketplace of ideas. Not Syrian academics; not Iranian academics; not North Korean academics; not Saudi Arabian academics; not the scholars of many other countries with despotic regimes and a prevailing absence of human and civil rights, not to mention academic freedom. Only Israeli academics.
Can anyone believe that had the AMCHA Initiative or other organizations issued a report that revealed the existence of endemic racism, homophobia, sexism or Islamophobia in university coursework, that these same 40 feckless professors or the AHA’s historians would have denounced such reports as being “McCarthyesque” or somehow undermining the civility of higher education?
Why should a professor’s political attitudes not be known to students, especially, as in these cases, when those anti-Israel attitudes are extremely germane to their area of teaching — namely Middle East studies and history?
None of the organizations I mentioned investigated the private lives of the 200 professors, or historians, or campus radicals; nor did they hack into emails accounts, or take testimony from anonymous sources, or delve through association memberships, reading habits, or private writings without the individuals’ knowledge or consent. They were not spied upon, and their courses were not videotaped furtively by students.
The findings were based on the public utterances, published works and social media posts of professors and students — behavior and speech they apparently had no problem with making public. In fact, as often happens when anti-Israel academics are called upon to defend their libels and intellectual assaults against the Jewish State, they are happy to freely pontificate on the many perceived defects of Israel but do not like to be inconvenienced by being challenged on those often biased, and intellectually dishonest, views.
Instead of defending their assertions and ideologies, they retreat from actual discussion, contending — at least in the Israeli/Palestinian discussion — that when their views are challenged, it is not done in good faith (an actual scholarly debate), but only as a way of suppressing their opinions.
More hypocritically, these morally self-righteous historians denounce their placement on so-called blacklists but want to do the very same thing to Israeli scholars by proposing to essentially blacklist an entire nation’s professoriate for the actions of that country’s government. And the extent of their blacklist is more onerous and less intellectually honest, since they are blacklisting an entire group of academics, irrespective of ideology, without any distinction between those who might share their views and those who hold views that are ideologically opposed to theirs.
In its indiscriminate nature, this academic boycott is morally perverse, since, unlike the efforts of Campus Watch, the AMCHA Initiative, Discover the Networks or Canary Mission (which deal with specific individuals and their publicly professed and articulated beliefs), an academic boycott against a whole nation of scholars is so random and untargeted that it has to be more about anti-Jewish bigotry than a sincere effort to effect productive change and move the Israelis and Palestinians towards peace.
The call for a blanket boycott against a nation’s academics is as unjustified as it is misguided. It says that one country on earth, and one alone, is deserving of condemnation and expulsion from the community of scholars. It assumes, falsely, that all Israeli scholars are unworthy of being part of the academic marketplace of ideas because they live in a particular state — and assigns guilt to them all.
There is no surprise that an academic association like the AHA would call for a boycott against only one country (Israel), because a large number of its ranks are evidently steeped in a world view defined by post-colonial, anti-American, anti-Israel thinking, and are dedicated to the elevation of identity politics and a cult of victimhood. That they profess to hold high-minded, well-intentioned motives does not excuse the fact that their efforts are a betrayal of what the study of history and the university system should stand for: the free exchange of ideas, even bad ones, without political or ideological litmus tests.
“People we used to think of as harmless drudges pursuing mouldy futilities,” observed the wry Edward Alexander, speaking about a professoriate that has lost its intellectual compass, “are now revealing to us the explosive power of boredom, a power that may well frighten us.”
Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.