Why I’m Voting to Boycott Israel
Editor’s Note: In response to Michelle Goldberg’s post about the American Studies Association’s proposed boycott of Israel, we have convened a variety of responses. Alex Lubin writes in support of the boycott below, and you can read Ari Y. Kelman’s argument against it it here.
I was raised to believe you never cross a picket line.
The National Council of the American Studies Association recently endorsed a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions and has asked its members to vote. We would do well to read what the resolution actually calls for: “It is resolved that the American Studies Association (ASA) endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It is also resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.”
Boycotts are the weapons of the dispossessed; they are pleas for global solidarity from people who have few other forms of power. They are peaceful attempts to disrupt business as usual by setting up a global picket-line and by asking us not to cross that picket line. The ASA National Council has heeded Palestinians’ call for an academic boycott, and ASA members have been asked to give their endorsement.
The boycott movement has clearly defined goals of ending the occupation, ending discrimination against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and ending forced exile and ongoing expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. All three of these place profound restrictions on Palestinian academic life.
Although we commonly think of universities as spaces of academic freedom, where the unfettered exchange of ideas exists apart from the partisan sphere of politics, universities are also inherently political institutions. In Israel nearly all universities are state institutions. In Israel and Occupied Palestine, Arab scholars’ mobility is restricted by identification cards. Some Arab students and professors have mobility across Israel but can’t travel to the West Bank, while Palestinian scholars who live in the West Bank cannot travel to Israel unless they have a Jerusalem ID. Mobility is a key component of academic life; it enables scholars to attend conferences, to visit archives and to collaborate with colleagues in their field.
Throughout the West Bank and Gaza, academic life is more precarious. In 2008, Israeli forces bombed Gaza’s Islamic University, using US-made F-16 aircraft. At Al Quds University in Jerusalem, the illegal Israeli security wall bisects the Abu Dis campus, leaving 6,000 Al Quds students on the “wrong side” of the wall and unable to attend classes on the other side. Israeli soldiers arrested 400 Birzeit University students between 2003 and 2009. Nine thousand students at An Najah University have to cross one or two Israeli check-points in order to travel between their homes and the University. At any time, and in any location of the West Bank, Israeli soldiers can close roads leading to universities or can detain students and scholars at check-points. Bombings, partitions, check-points and closures restrict academic freedom, not to mention more basic fundamental human rights.
As former ASA President Amy Kaplan has pointed out, the occupation is a de facto Israeli boycott of Palestinian academe, and Americans pick-up the bill. While the ASA boycott asks members not to establish relationships with Israeli institutions, it does not prevent Israeli scholars from attending the ASA conference, nor does it prevent ASA members from collaborating with Israeli scholars. Most importantly, the boycott acknowledges and seeks to address the actual and ongoing violation of Palestinian academic freedom.
The ASA boycott targets Israeli academia for legitimate reasons. The United States and Israel share a “special relationship” that links American taxpayers to Israeli state policies and hence to the occupation. Israel is the single largest recipient of US foreign aid, and the US has frequently used its veto in the United Nation’s Security Council to prevent international condemnation of Israeli violations of international law in the state’s treatment of Palestinians. In this way, the US is a third, indeed an interested, party to the Israeli occupation.
It’s not just because the boycott resolution targets academia that it is so contested. Israel’s creation in the violent crucible of the European Holocaust allows it to always appear vulnerable, regardless of its oppressive actions. American attitudes toward Israel and Palestine are vexed because of the tragic irony that Palestinians, as Edward Said once wrote, have been exiled by exiles.
For many ASA boycott supporters the history of European anti-Jewish racism compels us to support the boycott resolution, to speak out against the occupation, and to stand with Palestinians who are being persecuted based on their nationality and claims to a homeland.
Academic freedom means very little when it takes place in a context of segregation and apartheid. Change came to the Jim Crow South not through academic dialogue, but through protest and, in some cases, through boycotts of the institutions that fostered segregation. Change came to South Africa’s apartheid system not through academic dialogue, but through protest, resistance, and an international boycott. Those of us who value academic freedom must always struggle to ensure that the world surrounding academia provides the basic human rights that enable academic life.
The ASA’s boycott resolution has punctured a longstanding silence; it places a picket line in front of us and demands that we choose a side.
Read Next: A forum on Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions.