I was appalled to read the article “What Does the American Studies Association’s Israel Boycott Mean for Academic Freedom?” in The Nation online. Michelle Goldberg erroneously attributes to me a position against academic freedom and for the boycott from an article I wrote in 2006. In fact, if anyone were to consult that piece in Radical Philosophy, it would clearly be seen that at the time I did not support the cultural and academic boycott of Israel, and that the position attributed to me was one that I was characterizing for the purposes of explicitly disagreeing with that view. This is shabby journalism, and it points to the high level of irresponsible accusation that has marked the effort to demean the American Studies Association’s principled and courageous stand. I believe that the only version of BDS that can be defended is one that is compatible with principles of academic freedom. That is my published view, and it has remained the same throughout my concern with this issue (I began to support the boycott in 2009). I believe Michelle Goldberg should retract this article or offer a public apology.
Although I was not involved in the American Studies Association debates, I believe that the association should really be widely commended for soliciting and supporting such an open public debate. It was a clear step forward in fostering debate and discussion on such an important issue, very different than the speak out at UC Berkeley a few years ago that erupted in name-calling and physical attacks. So already, it seems to me, that it means something quite remarkable, namely, that voicing a viewpoint on this topic has become something that is worth hearing and debating, that there are reasonable views on several sides, and that many people are now in the process of figuring out what they think, what they wish, what aspirations are most important to them and how best to realize those goals. This new emergence of debate surely confirms the principle of academic freedom and militates against the spirit of censorship and the practice of calumny that would cut off debate and engage in debased caricatures.
Although the attacks against those who support BDS have had a machine-like quality, reiterating the same claims, hurling the same accusations, showing an obstinate indifference to the specific arguments made on behalf of the BDS, they have also changed in time. And when it is not an individual who speaks, but an entire organization, then a discourse is opened, and an injustice becomes more clearly delineated, known and opposed. In fact, in the last year or so, it is less and less the case that those who openly support the boycott are immediately allied with “terrorism”; and it is no longer the case that those who openly discuss one- or two-state solutions for Israel/Palestine are charged with genocidal views. Even within Israel, the “boycott me” movement has supporters like Neve Gordon and Gideon Levy. And now in the United States, South Africa, Sweden and Hawaii, and among indigenous movements across the world, the BDS movement has gained support precisely because (a) it is a nonviolent movement that focuses on illegal forms of dispossession, constraint and disenfranchisement, (b) it is the largest Palestinian nonviolent civil movement, paralleled perhaps only by the prisoner rights movement and (c) it is a call issued by Palestinian intellectuals, academics and activists, all of whom have come to the understanding that nation-states and international bodies refuse to enforce those international laws and norms that would bring the state of Israel into compliance. BDS is the option that non-state actors have, that populations have who are operating in universities, social movements, legal organizations, citizens, partial citizens and the undocumented. The BDS movement has become the most important contemporary alliance calling for an end to forms of citizenship based on racial stratification, insisting on rights of political self-determination for those for whom such basic freedoms are denied or indefinitely suspended, insisting as well on substantial ways of redressing the rights of those forcibly and/or illegally dispossessed of property and land (even as there are open debates at the present about what form that should take.)