Coming on the heels of several spectacular successes of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and its global partners in recent months, the unanimous position taken by the National Council of the American Studies Association (ASA) endorsing the academic boycott of Israel provides fresh evidence that the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement may be reaching a tipping point on college campuses and academic associations. Already, the Israeli government is treating the movement as a “strategic” threat and US Secretary of State John Kerry has labeled it as an “existential danger” to Israel.
The academic and cultural boycott is part of the BDS movement, which represents the overwhelming majority in Palestinian society and seeks to realize basic Palestinian rights under international law through applying effective, global, morally consistent pressure on Israel and all the institutions that collude in its violations of international law, as was done against apartheid South Africa.
As Judith Butler describes it, “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.”
To understand why the ASA boycott prospects raised such a loud alarm in the Israeli establishment and among Israel lobby groups, one must examine the wider context of the growth of BDS worldwide. Israeli leaders were conspicuously absent in the week-long mourning for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, which raised a storm of coverage about Israel’s long history of alliance with the former apartheid regime. This has further amplified Israel’s isolation and the sentiment, especially in Israel, that BDS seems to be inching closer to crossing a threshold.
Academic boycott activists will remember 2013 as a year of many BDS “firsts.” Days ago, in a letter of support to the ASA, the University of Hawaii Ethnic Studies department became the first academic department in the west to support the academic boycott of Israel. In April, the Association for Asian-American Studies endorsed the academic boycott—the first professional academic association in the United States to do so. Around the same time, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland unanimously called on its members to “cease all cultural and academic collaboration” with the “apartheid state of Israel,” and the Federation of French-Speaking Belgian Students (FEF), representing 100,000 members, adopted “a freeze of all academic partnerships with Israeli academic institutions.” Also this year, student councils at several North American universities, including at the University of California Berkeley, called for divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation.