The Israel Boycott Is Working—to Prevent Peace

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Ten months after the American Studies Association adopted a formal resolution—supported by a minority of the association’s membership but avidly embraced by the organization’s leadership—to boycott Israeli academe, the results are readily apparent. In fact, the repercussions were felt immediately here at Tel Aviv University. They clearly point to the boycott’s success. At the same time, they also raise questions about what that success means, both in terms of the Palestinian cause and the future of Israeli policy. These questions have become even more relevant in the wake of this summer’s war in Gaza and the attendant atrocities, which have incited new demands to boycott Israeli universities.

The ASA’s first victim was a Ph.D. student at Tel Aviv whose adviser was unable to recruit qualified outside readers to review his doctoral thesis because it was written at an Israeli university. That this same student is a Palestinian (in this case, an Arab citizen of Israel) contributes an element of dark comedy to an already unhappy situation.

Not long afterward, several members of the American-studies department unsuccessfully sought to organize a conference on the subject of “Realism and Faith” in the American literary imagination. None of their invitations to scholars in the field were accepted. While no one declined on explicitly ideological grounds, the blanket refusal raised suspicions among the organizers. The resulting paranoia and second-guessing here were certainly a direct effect of the boycott.

Most recently, steps have been taken to organize another American-studies conference at Tel Aviv, this one devoted to the history of segregation. The hope is to generate a comparative discussion about racial and ethnic discrimination as practiced over the past century or so in the United States, Europe, India, Africa, and Israel. It is still not clear whether these efforts will bear fruit. Recent experience raises serious doubts.

And so, I think it fair to say that the ASA boycott has achieved pointed success in crippling the quality of the only American-studies program in Israel, both for faculty and students. The resulting demoralization has political as well as professional ramifications.

In deepening the sense of beleaguerment among Israeli academics, the ASA finds itself in bed with a sordid group of political allies determined to delegitimize the humanism and internationalism which predominate on Israeli campuses. This campaign is part of an organized effort to isolate the Israeli left and prevent it from forging alliances with Palestinians and the Arab world, as well as among Western political parties and NGOs. Legislation has been proposed, for instance, that prohibits Israeli organizations that are openly critical of the country’s foreign policy—and first and foremost, the policy toward Palestine—from receiving contributions from foreigners. Meanwhile, groups that are openly supported by neoconservative and fundamentalist Christian organizations from abroad have been pursuing a neo-McCarthyite program, inspired by such American-born efforts as Campus Watch, of intimidation and surveillance against university faculty members suspected of what they describe as politically subversive behavior.

The crusade to discredit Israeli academic culture finds numerous other expressions. One series of incidents focused on Tel Aviv University’s president, Joseph Klafter, who has extended official approval to student organizations seeking to hold demonstrations on campus commemorating the Nakba, the day of public remembrance of the Palestinian defeat in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. The anniversary and its name, which means “catastrophe” in Arabic, have a particularly powerful resonance within Israeli public life since they effectively seek to turn the establishment of the state—a redemptive moment in most secular Jewish narratives—into a cause of mourning. It was very significant, then, that Klafter, president of a public university whose budget is almost wholly controlled by the state, saw fit to include the Nakba within the boundaries of legitimate political expression on campus.

Needless to say, he came under fire from the country’s right-wing groups for such a demonstrative failure of patriotic sentiment, if not “betrayal” of the national interest. They had good reason to target him. Recognition of the Nakba’s place in Israeli public culture—a program embraced in recent years by the Jewish left—will go a long way toward conciliation and future coexistence. But instead of congratulating Klafter for his courageous stand, the ASA has declared unconditional war on his institution, offering succor to the Israeli right and its allies in the United States who have laid siege to our universities. Indeed, if Klafter eventually caves in, I fully expect the ASA to point to his capitulation as further justification for its boycott.

What is the source of such inanity? Why is the ASA determined to do its utmost to aid the forces of reaction in Israel while weakening those struggling on behalf of peace and coexistence? Is it a case of muddled thinking and a stubborn dissociation from concrete political experience? Is it an updated version of the Ugly American, a globalization of an American-style politics of black and white as applied to the rest of the world? Or are Israelis, and even Palestinians, entirely beside the point in what should best be understood as an exercise in radical chic?

I suspect that all these motives are at play. They certainly all found expression in a missive that circulated on the eve of the ASA vote rehearsing a laundry list of Israeli aggression and transgression. Sure enough, among those crimes against humanity justifying the banishment of Israeli universities from the international family of teachers and scholars was Israel’s attack on—its universities. Admittedly, such dialectics are beyond my more elementary grasp of politics. But the results are as plain as can be, and wholeheartedly endorsed by the ASA’s allies on the jingoistic right, in both Israel and Palestine.

If the ASA is genuinely interested in practicing rather than performing politics, it should seek to help the sides talk with each other rather than boycott one another. But in so doing, it will have to discard the fundamentalist and nationalistic clichés by which the ASA interprets the world and, instead, recognize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is itself something of a misnomer. The real schism runs down the center of both societies, dividing each of them into opposing camps of war and peace, as was so manifestly demonstrated during this summer’s bloodletting in Gaza, a war between rival messianic movements—an Israeli government controlled by West Bank settlers and the Jihadist-Hamas alliance—who hold their respective populations hostage to a shared cult of death and the zero-sum politics of all or nothing.

I would urge the ASA, instead, to extend its hand to the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps and help them surmount the barriers of hate and suspicion imposed by their incendiary opponents. (And let’s face it, the Palestinians are no less trapped than the Jews in a post-traumatic cycle of death and self-destruction which has to be overcome before any progress is made.) The American Studies Association should reformulate its woeful position, which undergirds the violent status quo, and replace it with a vision of change. It should do so by initiating scholarly and pedagogical projects—not just in the field of American studies but throughout the humanities and social sciences—that are explicitly contingent on Israelis and Palestinians forging dialogue.

The ASA should organize cross-border cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian academics. It should fund seminars for Israeli and Palestinian faculty on subjects of common relevance such as peace studies, pluralism, and human rights. And it should establish scholarships, even a joint graduate program, in American history and culture for Israeli and Palestinian students. This would strike at the heart of the right-wing campaign to perpetuate the war by keeping us from talking to each other.


The Israel Boycott Is Working—to Prevent Peace

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