Boycotting Israeli Academics? A Response to TSL
The American Studies Association (ASA), a scholarly group that publishes American Quarterly, announced in a statement Dec. 16 that it “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.”
The ASA’s statement was strongly criticized by the greater world of academia, with dozens of universities and university presidents, including Pomona’s President Oxtoby, condemning the move. President Sean Decatur of Kenyon College stated that the boycott contradicted the concept of academic freedom, which he defined as “the unfettered exchange of ideas.”
This response repudiated the burgeoning movement in some realms of academia to define academic freedom as “the unfettered exchange of ideas – so long as those ideas adhere to a left-liberal orthodoxy. If not, utilize the existence of right-leaning beliefs to infer a degree of moral turpitude upon the person and engage in thinly veiled ad hominem.”
Admittedly this interpretation was also limited by its verbosity, but it still apparently holds some sway in the precincts of Pomona College, where an Opinions writer in the Feb. 7 issue of The Student Life took issue with President Oxtoby and dozens of other universities’ stance on the importance of academic freedom.
There seems to be some confusion on the part of this column about the facts on the ground. The author declared that Israel has “one of the most illiberal systems of education,” but then completely failed to mention a single university located inside the nation of Israel and seemed to interpret border security measures between warring states as a direct attack on Palestinian academia, and not as a larger part of being in a state of combat. In addition, the author does not mention that, at Israeli universities, students are admitted regardless of ethnicity or faith. Nor does the author mention that these institutions actually practice affirmative action to increase Arab attendance. In addition, the “most illiberal” charge becomes laughable when one considers that Israel has a free press and strongly independent judiciary, and that most of its neighbors are dictatorships that do impose limits on the press and academics, and engage in actual political oppression (see Iran’s hanging of sexual and political dissidents; Egypt’s targeting of Christians; everything Syria has done recently, etc.).
This confusion continues as the author notes that Israel’s activities “have been likened to those of South African apartheid.” The passive voice here is important, because the author can simply make the insinuation without substantiating it in any way. To clarify, ethnic minorities in Israel can serve in government, vote, and benefit from Israeli social services. The only conceivable similarity is that the bulk of Palestinians are physically separated from the Israelis, but unlike South Africa, their separation stems from the fact that they have two (or three, depending on how one categorizes the Hamas-Fatah split) de facto national governments and distinct, if disputed, territory. The two are in conflict with one another, but the history, attitudes, and policies are very different from those in South Africa.
The writer also trotted out a point that claims Israel has violated more UN resolutions than any other nation. What he does not explain is that these resolutions were issued primarily by the General Assembly, a generally petty and vindictively political body, and were also non-binding, a term that should not need defining but apparently has some nuance that escaped our TSL author. The only thing this little statistic tells us is that the General Assembly has a disproportionate interest in the nation of Israel. In addition, the UN frequently ignores the transgressions of its authoritarian member-states in favor of attacking the politically vulnerable. For example, in a recent report, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child condemned the Holy See for its treatment of children and further demanded that the Vatican abandon several of its long-held political and moral positions in favor of the UN doctrine. It is rather surprising that this was the most pressing issue for this UN committee, but considering that it is made up of members from human rights stalwarts such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Tunisia, Sri Lanka, Egypt, and until last year, Syria, its judgments should probably just be held as sacrosanct. In reality, however, the UN is hardly an authoritative body to appeal to in this instance.
None of this is to say that Israel is blameless, or that it has not committed transgressions in this conflict. Very few countries can actually claim and hold the moral high ground, and attempting to develop a simple “good/bad” dichotomy, on either side, serves no practical purpose. To do so would simply drive one party from the negotiating table. This is the primary issue with the ASA’s boycott and the TSL author’s support for it. The boycott attempts to ideologically isolate one side, which will likely lead to belief polarization and continued conflict. This is a region with political, religious and ethnic conflicts that span millennia. However, the TSL author seems to think that isolating Israel further will make them more likely to negotiate. This seems unlikely, because while the author heavily emphasized the Palestinian liberty interests, he failed to note that the Israelis also have pressing liberty and security concerns. The Israelis are already isolated, considering that countries that they have fought against on multiple occasions in the last 70 years surround them. In addition, several of their neighbors have also denied their right to exist at various points in time. Isolating them further will not convince them of the security of their position, nor is it at all justified in the context of this conflict. Free academic exchanges will keep international influence ensconced in both countries and improve the likelihood of a real solution. Only an incredibly tendentious reading of history can justify defining this conflict in an absurdly simple and dualistic manner and make a boycott a reasonable response. A real solution means bringing both sides into negotiations, not just one.
[This article has been edited to reflect the fact that The Student Life article referenced is an opinion piece rather than a news article.]