The Moral Incoherence of an Academic Boycott Against Israel
JNS.org – Seeming to give credence to George Orwell’s wry observation that “there are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them,” the fatuous members of the Virginia Tech Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS) passed a “Resolution to Divest in Compliance with the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions Movement,” tendentiously pronouncing their solidarity “with the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation from Israeli apartheid, colonialism and military occupation.” Resolution 2021-22N3 calls on the university administration and staff, Virginia Tech administrators, and employees to “immediately begin to implement the academic and cultural boycott of Israel” by “adopting as a general principle a boycott of all Israeli academic institutions complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and the denial of basic Palestinian rights.”
The poisonous and historically inaccurate language of the GPSS resolution, including such loaded terms as “apartheid, colonialism and military occupation,” was troublingly similar to that found in the dozens of unctuous statements that oozed from university departments, faculty unions, student groups and other organizations in the wake of the latest Gaza war in May. All of the blame and condemnation for the ongoing conflict was assigned to Israel, and conveniently, for instance, no mention was made — either in this resolution or the many solidarity statements in May — of the more than 4,000 lethal rockets Hamas had fired into Israeli towns with the express purpose of murdering Jewish civilians, nor any recognition that each of these instances of rockets being fired constituted a war crime, or that Israel had every legal right under the laws of war to suppress such aggression and to retaliate in an effort to protect its citizenry from attack.
What was different about the Virginia Tech resolution, however, is that included a demand for Virginia Tech to join the BDS campaign since, the resolution claimed, “academic institutions are not neutral arenas of knowledge production, exchange and dissemination” and, therefore, “academic institutions are demonstrably key sites of contestation that can either uphold or challenge Israeli apartheid and colonialism.” Moreover, any consideration that an academic boycott, in practice, constricts academic freedom should be ignored because, the resolution asserted without providing any evidence, “it is clear then that the existing status quo is not one which upholds academic freedom, but rather is one which violently denies Palestinian academics the ability to freely participate in academic institutions and conferences around the world.”
While they would never accept an attempt to boycott themselves — in which individual academics are tarred not only by the institutional behavior of their respective universities, but also for the actions and policies of their governments — that is precisely what the GPSS boycott does to Israeli academics and why it is so intellectually grotesque. Because they heeded the call from Palestinian “civil society” to implement a boycott against Israel, the GPSS has become a group of academics boycotting fellow academics, even though GPSS members are shameless in their assertion that this is not actually an academic boycott, that it targets institutions not individuals, and that, at any rate, it is critical because the Palestinian cause is so profoundly important to the world that it is reason enough to abandon fundamental academic values. “BDS does not,” the resolution fatuously claimed, “constrain academic freedom, but rather promises to open a path to support Palestinian academics as they resist the oppression they face at the hands of complicit Israeli academic institutions.”
In other words, Israeli scholars are too privileged to enjoy the same academic freedoms as anyone else, and especially the perennially suffering Palestinians, whose fate is clearly, at least in the opinion of the GPSS, the responsibility of Israel. Statehood, academic freedom, national sovereignty, the rule of the law — all these are brushed aside by the ideology of the left in their pursuit for social justice for the ever-present victim, a way of thinking critiqued by James Burnham in his insightful book, Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism. The academic virtues — the “exceptionalism” of the United States and Israel that GPSS members dismiss and demean — are, according to Burnham, precisely the “ideals and institutions that liberalism has criticized, attacked and in part overthrown as superstitious, archaic, reactionary and irrational. In their place liberalism proposes a set of pale and bloodless abstractions — pale and bloodless for the very reason that they have no roots in the past, in deep feeling and in suffering.”
There is another, far darker and more pernicious aspect to the call for a boycott of Israeli universities. Because what such a boycott does is to effectively silence the scholars of an entire country —a group comprised of what the GPSS seemingly defines as racists, imperialists and colonial interlopers on stolen Arab land. Israeli academics would be suppressed and robbed of the ability to speak.
There is no surprise that an academic association like the GPSS would call for a boycott against only one country — Israel — precisely because a large number of its ranks are steeped in a world view defined by post-colonial, anti-American, anti-Israel thinking, and dedicated to the elevation of identity politics and a cult of victimhood. That they profess to hold high-minded, well-intentioned motives, and speak with such rectitude, does not excuse the fact that their efforts are in the end a betrayal of what the university has, and should, stand for — the free exchange of ideas, even bad ones.
In its own 2006 statement, “On Academic Boycotts,” the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), was very clear in its belief that academic boycotts represent a strategy that is contrary to the purpose and ideals of academia. “Academic boycotts,” the statement read, “strike directly at the free exchange of ideas even as they are aimed at university administrations or … political parties in power. The form that noncooperation with an academic institution takes inevitably involves a refusal to engage in academic discourse with teachers and researchers, not all of whom are complicit in the policies that are being protested. Moreover, an academic boycott can compound a regime’s suppression of freedoms by cutting off contacts with an institution’s or a country’s academics.”
A boycott barring all Israeli academics from participating in academic endeavors with scholars from other nations is also defective because it necessarily must assume that all Israeli scholars, regardless of their political orientation and social values, are painted with the same moral brush. As such, they deserve to be condemned and excluded merely because of the perceived political sins of the nation in which they live.
If those calling for an academic boycott take the outrageous first step of denying Israeli academics any discourse at all in what is usually called “the academic marketplace of ideas,” of banishing them from the world of dialogue, research and learning, have not they already struck a fatal blow to the core guiding principle of the academy?
Since when has it been the responsibility of the university to control the actions of the state, or for its members to share culpability for the political decisions of a nation?
Also inherent in the GPSS resolution is the defective belief that Palestinian universities and scholars suffer and are suppressed academically because of Israeli policy and control — that the defects in Palestinian higher education, including its close involvement in the recruitment of terrorists and the development of weaponry, should lie at Israel’s feet. As is the habit of woke social-justice warriors in the West, victims like the Palestinians have no agency of their own, and their failure to thrive — economically, socially and culturally — is regularly blamed on Israel, the supposed oppressor.
But the Palestinians are singularly responsible for the sorry state of higher education in the West Bank and Gaza. In fact, as Cary Nelson fastidiously examined in his new book Not in Kansas Anymore: Academic Freedom in Palestinian Universities, despite the jaundiced view of GPSS and other of Israel’s critics, Palestinian higher education is defined by radical politics, rival political factions who use harassment, violence and intimidation to promote their views, alignment with terror groups such as Hamas, repression of opposing views, the use of terror cells within university facilities for weapons production, and violence against and even the murder of dissenting faculty who do not conform to the prevailing hatred of the Jewish state or the tenets of Islam.
According to Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it is the Palestinians themselves who shoulder much of the responsibility for the fragile state of academic freedom and free speech at their universities.
“The pervasive politicization and militarization of education that took place in Palestinian universities in the 1980s has left a legacy that is still relevant today,” wrote Nelson. A group like GPSS is wrongheaded when it “assigns the responsibility to protect academic freedom to Israel alone and ignores the primary responsibility the PA and the universities themselves must take. … Allying with a Hamas cell is not the same as joining a chapter of College Democrats or College Republicans on an American campus. In the West Bank and Gaza, we are not in Kansas anymore,” wrote Nelson, alluding to Dorothy’s iconic line in The Wizard of Oz.
Irrespective of blame, the suppression of academic freedom and the real, and potentially lethal, threats to free speech that both faculty and students face in Palestinian institutions of higher education are cause for alarm. It is not only Israel’s security that is threatened by the ongoing incubation of hatred and terrorism inside the universities’ walls. The integrity, value and moral clarity of Palestinian education are also victims to the systemic culture of violence, extremism and warring political factionalism — all with long-term, deleterious effects for Palestinian culture and society.
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and president emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.