Correction: In the original version of this piece, I mistakenly attributed Omar Barghouti’s words about academic freedom to Judith Butler. I came across the quote in Judith Butler’s journal article “Israel/Palestine and the Paradoxes of Academic Freedom.” In the original, from Radical Philosophy, Barghouti’s words are clearly set off to indicate that they are, in fact a quotation. In the version I read, at the European Graduation School website, that formatting is absent, making them seem as if Butler authored them. I regret the error and sincerely apologize to Butler. (Editor’s Note: The text of this blog post has been changed to correct this error.)
Here is something confusing about the debate over the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel: its supporters, in general, have lesser expectations for its concrete impact than its opponents do. The people fighting for it also minimize it as largely symbolic.
On Wednesday, the ASA’s national council voted unanimously in favor of boycotting Israel. In an unusual move, the council then threw the question to the ASA’s approximately 5,000 members, who have until December 15 to vote. If it passes, the ASA will become the second significant American academic association to boycott Israel, after the Association for Asian American Studies, which joined the boycott in April. It will be a sign that the BDS movement, long far more influential in Europe than in the United States, is gaining a real foothold in American academia.
That’s likely to be alarming to many Israelis, even if they’re not particularly concerned with the opinions of radical American professors. Indeed, one of the strongest arguments in favor of BDS is the degree to which it seems to be shaking the Israeli establishment. As Haaretz editor in chief Aluf Benn wrote in June, “Netanyahu is worried about the growing international boycott against Israel….He hears warnings in the business community about the damage the diplomatic impasse is causing…. If he thought it was harmless noise, he would ignore or minimize the problem. But Netanyahu apparently fears being remembered as the leader during whose time Israel was distanced from the family of nations.”
Many in Israel were shocked earlier this year when Stephen Hawking, acceding to the boycotters, pulled out of Israel’s prestigious President’s Conference. Discussing the reaction of Israel’s leadership, former Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner wrote, “Behind closed doors they’re laughing at Kerry’s peace mission; they’re not laughing at Stephen Hawking or BDS, are they?”
So BDS appears to be working. But even if you believe, as I do, that the Israeli occupation is a great crime, the movement presents real ethical problems when it’s applied to academia. It’s repellant to contemplate Israeli professors being shut out of conferences or barred from journals for no reason other than their ethnicity, or forced to prove sufficient opposition to the occupation to be part of international intellectual life. Arguing against the resolution, New School History professor Claire Potter, who runs a blog called “Tenured Radical” at The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote, “Scholars of any nation ought to be free to travel, publish and collaborate across borders: I consider this to be a fundamental human right, and so does the United Nations. We in the American Studies Association cannot defend some of those human rights and disregard others.”