SANTA CRUZ Gabriel Brahm said he began to sense an anti-Israeli movement in academia as a UC Santa Cruz graduate student in the 1990s. Brahm, then an English doctorate student, said he had marvelous teachers, but worked in a oppressive culture of political correctness.
“Western civilization was always wrong, European culture always uniquely guilty,” said Brahm. In others’ minds, Israel was associated with Western colonialism — a troubling stigma. Student rallies and one-sided talks demonized Israel, said Brahm, who also taught at UCSC from 2006 to 2008.
Now a visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Brahm has co-edited a book titled “The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel,” a collection of essays opposing the ban by hundreds of U.S., European and Palestinian universities on Israeli universities.
Since 2008, nearly 1,000 U.S. professors, largely from the humanities, have endorsed the boycott, said Brahm.
What that actually means is unclear and enforcement has been lax, since proponents are careful to say that they boycott Israeli universities, not individuals. To say otherwise would be too close to a civil rights violation, Brahm said.
In essence, the boycotts are an effort to blacklist Jewish Israeli academics, he said, who receive fewer invitations to conferences and journal editorial boards.
In sum, boycotts prevent Jewish Israelis from participating in academia, Brahm said.
“The threat to academic freedom and to the rights of professors to share knowledge based on their nationality is a concept we considered offensive and possibly racist, and even maybe, just maybe, anti-Semitic, considering that the boycotts are aimed at the Jewish state and not any other country,” he said.
Brahm said the book idea came in January, when the Modern Language Association, a 28,000-member group to which he belonged, considered a boycott. Before voting, the group held a panel, comprised entirely of boycott supporters, he said. In protest, Brahm and others held an opposing panel across the street, which included Cary Nelson, emeritus professor of English at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Brahm’s co-editor.
Brahm said the conference had two positive outcomes: the Modern Language Association voted against the boycott, and Nelson and Brahm began plans for the book.
Released Nov. 3, the book includes about 30 essays by academics, including UCSC lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin.
Unlike much of the Middle East, Israeli universities are bastions of liberalism, Brahm said. Students wear Che Guevara shirts and keffiyehs, or Arab scarves, and argue politics.
“If you boycott academic and cultural institutions of Israel, you’re putting up barriers to the sharing of ideas,” he said.