Engage, Don’t Boycott: An Open Letter to the American Studies Association
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. Ari Kelman writes in opposition to the boycott below, and you can read Alex Lubin in support of it here.
I want to make three things clear from the outset.
1. I am a proud member of the American Studies Association, and a proud holder of a PhD in American Studies (NYU, 2003, if you’re interested).
2. I am as troubled as just about anyone by many of the current and past policies of the Israeli government with respect to its ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
3. I’m as frustrated as just about anyone by the stunted peace processes that I regularly hope will help create a long lasting, sustained, and, most of all, just peace for Israelis and Palestinians.
That said, I oppose the American Studies Association resolution supporting an academic boycott of Israeli institutions for the following reasons:
1. I got into the academic business because I treasure the fundamental value of intellectual freedom. It allows those of us fortunate enough to call scholarship our profession to do the work we do. A boycott of Israeli intellectual and cultural institutions seems to run counter to this basic premise of academic life and the commitment to increasing, not limiting scholarly conversation and engagement.
2. Boycotting universities, as places that host scholars and our work, seems like cutting off our noses to spite our faces. Instead of building transnational coalitions between scholars, a boycott unilaterally seems to foreclose such options. Instead, let me point to a few articles that demonstrate the kinds of work that Israeli universities support. These are not kind toward Israel or its policies. Nevertheless, these examples of scholarship are products of Israeli scholars of different ethnic backgrounds. They demonstrate some of the work that is possible at Israeli universities, and suggest that a more responsible response to the Israeli Occupation and the entrenched political stalemate is to leverage our positions as scholars to foster such work. In other words: let’s use our positions as scholars to do better scholarship in partnerships that cross political lines. Now that would real academic activism.
3. I understand the inherent political imbalance of my previous point, namely: that Palestinian scholars and students are often excluded from Israeli universities or prevented from travel that would allow them to participate in conferences and research. Those realities, combined with the closure of Palestinian universities, speak to fundamentally unequal ways in which academic freedom plays out on the ground in Israel and Palestine. But a resolution to support our Palestinian colleagues and advocating for their rights to academic freedom is a very different statement than a boycott of Israeli universities. I wholeheartedly support the former because I believe that it could advance our collective efforts, while I believe the latter to work in direct opposition to the value of academic freedom, good scholarship and critical intellectual discourse.
4. Targeting Israeli universities misses the political mark entirely and could even punish those we wish to support. Israeli universities are actually some of the very few places in Israeli society where Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel interact as equals. Singling out universities for boycott targets precisely the places where interaction can and does take place, and forecloses opportunities for potential political transformation that can result.
5. Israeli higher education is publicly funded. This allows Jewish and Palestinian (and Druze and bedouin) citizens of Israel to go to university with relatively little expense. The boycott, then, might punish not only the scholars to whose work I referred to above, but the Palestinian students whose areas of residence ended up inside the borders of the State of Israel.
6. I recognize that the language of the American Studies Association resolution (as with most language from the broader BDS movement), focuses on institutions, not on individuals. This is, I think, a distinction without a difference. Judith Butler, in her response to Michelle Goldberg in the pages of The Nation carefully parses his distinction, but even she falls prey to its murky logic when she writes:
Concretely, that means that US or other institutions can offer to pay for an Israeli citizen who usually relies on institutional support from his or her own country, that non-profit organizations can be solicited to cover travel costs, as they would for others who do not have the means to come to conferences, or that Israelis might pay from their own personal funds, as some already have elected to do. It also means that when Israeli scholars invite those of us who support the boycott to Israeli institutions, we decline, explaining that until those institutions minimally take a public stand against the occupation, we cannot come and support that silence, that status quo.
Her defense is eloquent, but slips a little too easily back and forth between individuals and the institutions that support their work. The hypothetical invitation in Butler’s explication is extended by one scholar to another, both of whom, presumably, are housed in academic institutions (and supported by them). The work of academics is the work of individuals and (more or less) cooperative teams. Our intellectual labor, though supported by our universities, belongs to us, as individual scholars. This, again, is one of the fundamental tenets of academic freedom. For better or for worse, we work as individuals, not as institutions. Her proposal that Israeli academics “might pay from their own personal funds” is sheer folly if they are employed by a University. At what point in the exchange of funds does the money stop belonging to the university and start belonging to the individual payee? Does that same logic apply to research or travel grants?
I appreciate the effort of the ASA to both take a principled stand and to exert appropriate political pressure on our peer institutions in Israel, but this stipulation does neither, punishing individuals for the inaction of the institutions that employ them.
7. If we are to attempt to make the world a better place through our work as scholars, intellectuals, and activists, then we would do ourselves and our profession a service by doing better what we claim to do already:
a. Engaging in informed scholarly debate with people with whom we disagree.
b. Advocating and agitating for more academic freedom, not less.
c. Increasing our scholarly collaborations through shared areas of concern and across geopolitical lines.
d. Deploying the tools of our trade—rigorous research, thoughtful argumentation, reasoned critique—to influence public opinion and policy.
The ASA resolution does none of these things. Instead, it supplants all of them with a weakly worded statement whose only outcome is to cut off discussion, limit cooperation, and stunt scholarship.
That’s why I’m not signing.
Ari Y Kelman
Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies
Stanford Graduate School of Education
Member, American Studies Association