The American Studies Association’s rushed deadline of December 15 to vote on boycotting Israeli universities has provoked intense debate about the move and the manipulative tactics deployed, including exploiting this time of year when professors are busy grading. But the boycott is one skirmish in a larger fight. In their sustained war against Israel, anti-Zionists have launched a war against academia itself, repeatedly desecrating academic ideals.
The academic world is majestically broad. Scholars delight in our range of disciplines, methodologies, and approaches. Still, despite our delicious chaos, most of us leave graduate school with certain guiding principles. Most academics remain committed to intellectual processes that: ensure information’s accuracy; appreciate the world’s complexity; defend ideas’ permeability; applaud diversity; and preserve scholarly objectivity. Since the 1970s, campus anti-Zionists have violated these standards – while trying to enlist organizations like the ASA as allies in this unscholarly war.
“Israel Apartheid Week,” the annual anti-Israel festival on dozen of campuses, is particularly outrageous. Israel’s critics could use many words to express their disapproval. However, all academics, wherever we stand politically, should object to the sloppy, demagogic use of “apartheid” to describe the national not racial conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. South Africa’s apartheid system was rooted in racial distinctions, defining individuals and determining their rights -- or lack thereof – based on skin color. By contrast, there are dark-skinned Israelis and light-skinned Palestinians. No Israeli legislation has ever been based on race or any biological difference.
This apartheid libel diminishes the true evil of South African racism through false analogizing. It continues the Soviet-Arab propaganda strategy from the 1970s to South Africanize Israel, now singling out one form of nationalism, Jewish nationalism meaning Zionism, as “racist.” During 1975’s General Assembly battle over Resolution 3379 calling Zionism racism, leading African-Americans feared the “incalculable damage” their struggle would sustain if the word racism were hijacked and reduced from a moral standard to a political football. Bayard Rustin, known as “Mr. March” for organizing 1963’s March on Washington, called the allegation “an insult to the generations of blacks who have struggled against real racism.”
Professor Noam Chomsky, despite his harsh criticism of Israel, acknowledged the resolution’s “profound hypocrisy, given the nature of the states that backed it (including the Arab states),” along with the unfair repudiation of Israel’s legitimacy by “referring to Zionism assuch rather than the policies of the State of Israel.” Similarly, the Palestinian academic Edward Said, in The Question of Palestine, said Israel’s achievements should “not sloppily be tarnished with sweeping rhetorical denunciation associated with racism.” These two scholars refused to let their fury at Israel blind them to anti-Israel exaggerations.
Moreover, as educators we should encourage weeks, even months, celebrating Palestinian nationalism. But focusing on negating Jewish nationalism is nihilistic and incendiary.
As a scholar, the simplistic sloganeering regarding the Middle East particularly offends. Our job is to appreciate the world’s complexity, life’s multi-dimensionality. Yet, the “Israel-Apartheid,” “Zionism is Racism,” “Boycott Israel” crowd reduces a complicated, layered conflict into a good versus evil morality play. Bad enough when students do it; but for academics to collaborate in this perversion demeans us professionally.
Similarly, academics benefit from operating in a global context wherein ideas can transcend borders. Boycotts threaten the permeability of thought. As a humanist, I am ashamed to say that scientists have often been the most passionate opponents of boycotting Israel – we saw this distinction a dozen years ago at Harvard and Columbia. While Political Correctness cowed too many humanities scholars – it was the silence of the tenured lambs -- scientists defended the free flow of ideas, methods, and innovations boycotts target. Even if Israel were not the “Start Up Nation” overflowing with so much medical, technological, and scientific ingenuity, imposing boundaries when we seek to transcend them would remain unacceptable.
Boycotts – and the entire, monolithic anti-Israel thought police that remains a small loud minority -- often discourage diversity even while waving that banner. The bullying that has occurred at San Francisco State, at York University, at UC Davis, at Concordia University, and elsewhere should give boycotters pause. Do they wish to be associated with perhaps the shrillest, most aggressive, most anti-intellectual, most menacing force on campuses today? Just as academics should be able to criticize Israel without descending into simplistic stick figures, they should be able to criticize Israel without allying with such fascistic forces.
Finally, even in this age of scholar-activists, most of us still believe in preserving scholarly objectivity. Objectivity is not neutrality or amorality; it means “uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices.” Most academics strive for fairness, seeking to assess situations free of conventional biases. The boycott movement against Israel is a case of selective prosecution. It is absurd for academics whose universities may run academic programs in dictatorships like China, with all the harm it has caused Tibet and millions of political prisoners, to single out Israel for special opprobrium.
When one country is so singled out, we should wonder why. Apartheid South Africa was an international outlaw, violating accepted international ideals. But in a world of Syrian, Sudanese, and Saudi Arabian abuses – and those are just some of Israel’s neighbors – the pile-on against democratic Israel, even with its flaws, is suspicious. Even those who overlook the cloud of anti-Semitism should acknowledge the longstanding Arab campaign challenging Israel’s legitimacy, now spreading its distorting prism to radical Progressives.
Boycotting is also inflammatory and counter-productive. Anyone who supports a two-state solution should learn from history. Delegitimizing Israel bolsters Israel’s radical right. The 1975 Zionism is racism resolution helped propel the Gush Emunim settlement movement. Similarly, the 1991 UN repeal of the Zionism is Racism resolution helped propel the peace process, resulting in the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Boycotts are as anti-peace as they are anti-academic. Scholars who oppose Israel can find more honorable vehicles and accurate terms for expressing themselves. Furthermore, as professional skeptics, if a political stance so contradicts our fundamental principles, we owe it to ourselves and our students to scrutinize the stance itself – and our motives for embracing it.