Reject boycott of Israel

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An American academic organization is poised to begin sweeping a respected  segment of academia into the dustbin of intellectual and moral irrelevancy.

At its annual meeting this week, the 30,000-member Modern Language  Association will hold a session aimed at strategizing how to mount academic  boycotts against Israel, and will consider a resolution critical of Israel for  the violation of academic rights while ignoring the immensely greater violations  of academic rights, as well as far more basic and universal rights, in dozens of  countries around the world. This could well presage a future MLA resolution to  boycott Israeli universities.

If the MLA were the first academic body to take a stand against Israel, that  act would be of limited consequence. But three others, hijacked by political  activists, have already voted to boycott Israeli universities. If the MLA sets  out on a similar path, it will deeply damage the claim academia has to  intellectual and moral leadership in America.

In April, the  Association for Asian Studies voted to boycott Israeli universities. In  December, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association announced its  boycott. And the next day, the American Studies Association (ASA) said that its  members had voted to boycott as well.

The boycott effort has been led by the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions”  movement. Spearheaded by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural  Boycott of Israel, it has sought to enlist the world’s academic organizations to  label Israel an “apartheid state.”

In parts of academia, this movement has a receptive audience. Many academics  in the humanities and social sciences are partial to theories and ideologies,  such as postcolonialism, that incline them to see the world as having been  ravaged by Western imperialist powers. In their eyes, the worst current offender  is the United States. And, the BDS activists insist, another is Israel – which,  they argue, victimizes Palestinians through occupation and the violation of  their human rights. This movement has had enormous success in Europe, and is  beginning to have it in America.

This isn’t a harmless, quixotic enterprise. Academics have immense influence  through their public actions and pronouncements and on the students who  ultimately become the politicians, journalists, writers, and other artists who  will define their country’s political and cultural agendas.

But boycotting Israeli academic institutions not only trashes the sacrosanct  academic principle of the free exchange of ideas; it’s also hypocritical and  wrong. Most egregiously, it targets Israel to the exclusion of countries with  immeasurably worse human-rights records.

What about targeting China, which long ago occupied Tibet, imported Chinese  settlers into it, and has set up a system that the Dalai Lama has called  “Chinese apartheid”? Chinese officials put their dissidents in “black prisons”  and psychiatric hospitals, fire academics, and hound journalists and artists who  dissent from the party line.

What about targeting Saudi Arabia? It disenfranchises its women, forbids  political parties, punishes homosexuality, and sharply restricts freedom of  movement, expression, and religion.

What about targeting the many other countries that carry out human-rights  violations enormously greater and graver than Israel’s – Russia and Iran, for  example?

What about targeting American universities? They take money from the U.S.  government, which some academics have excoriated for human-rights violations and  other evils. In fact, many members of the boycotting societies take federal  funds for their salaries and work. Why don’t they boycott themselves?

They should listen to Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian president of Al-Quds  University in Jerusalem, who said in response to earlier British efforts to  boycott Israeli academics: “If we are to look at Israeli society, it is within  the academic community that we’ve had the most progressive, pro-peace views and  views that have come out in favor of seeing us as equals.”

They should listen to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who  said, during Nelson Mandela’s funeral, that Palestinians “do not support the  boycott of Israel.”

And they should listen to Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University,  who, in response to a British academic union’s vote in support of the  anti-Israel boycotters, said that the union “should add Columbia to its boycott  list, for we do not intend to draw distinctions between our mission and that of  the universities you are seeking to punish.”

Since the ASA’s boycott vote, the presidents of at least 125 universities,  including Penn, Drexel, Haverford, Swarthmore, and Princeton, have rejected it,  and at least five have withdrawn their institutional memberships from that  group. It’s urgent that many more academic leaders speak out quickly and  forcefully against this betrayal of the values that for so long have sustained  higher education in this country – and against the politicization of the  academic enterprise.

If they do, one hopes the MLA’s leaders and members, and other academics,  will listen. The good name of American academia will depend on it.

Reject boycott of Israel

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