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Even in Academia, Boycotting Israel Is a Hard Sell

The weekend before Thanksgiving the American Studies Association, at its annual meeting, considered an academic boycott of Israel. As of Thanksgiving, the ASA’s National Council had not taken action, though the proposed resolution had wide support at the meeting. I have written on ASA and the Boycott Israel resolution here and here. But it’s worth focusing on just one false yet revealing claim.

Supporters of the resolution say that the ASA meeting should be considered “historic,” whether the resolution passes or not. It is very “controversial to talk about Palestinian solidarity activism, in most American settings, especially an academic one” (my emphasis). So the mere fact that ASA members were “talking about things like Israel’s various apartheid systems” was an event of national, if not world-historic, significance. At last, the ASA has shown that it is possible “to speak and to hear others speak publicly about an issue that has for so long been the third rail not only of US politics, but of academic discourse.”

Because anti-Israel activists so regularly trot out this storyline, that criticisms of Israel and especially calls for a boycott have been stifled in academia, let’s put it to rest. While I don’t expect leading boycott propagandists to stop making the claim, perhaps others will be reluctant to repeat it when they learn that it is demonstrably false.

It is demonstrably false because Israel’s critics and boycott proponents are mainstays of the academic lecture circuit. Almost three years before the “historic” ASA meeting, Max Blumenthal was invited to debate BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) at Princeton. More than two years before the “historic” meeting, Omar Bhargouti, a founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), spoke at NYU, Columbia, Princeton, Rutgers, Brandeis, Harvard, and Brown. And remember the controversy over a BDS event at Brooklyn College back in February? Students have since been graced with Ben White on “Israel: Apartheid, not Democracy,” and Josh Ruebner, national advocacy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, who observed that “the Israel lobby sets the agenda in Washington” and argued in favor of a boycott.

In short, when Israel’s critics complain about being suppressed on college campuses they complain into microphones provided by America’s most prestigious colleges.

Although I am aware of no recent polls that ask faculty members what they think of Israel, a 2012 survey by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute indicates that more faculty members put themselves on the “far left” than put themselves in the far right and conservative categories combined. Overall 62.6 percent of respondents called themselves far left or liberal, while 11.9 percent called themselves conservative or far right. Sympathy for the Palestinian side in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians runs much higher among liberals than among conservatives, and academics are much more liberal than the general population. In this context, the assertion that “Palestinian solidarity activism” is more controversial in an academic setting than elsewhere, or that the Palestinian cause cannot get a hearing, is delusional. Is there any academic who thinks that it would be more controversial to offer a BDS resolution at a faculty meeting than it would be to offer a resolution expressing support for Israel?

Still, the constant complaints of boycott supporters that they are being suppressed are revealing. Why do proponents of a boycott feel compelled to put forward such a transparently false assertion? Perhaps they are reaching for an explanation for why academic organizations have been reluctant to take up the “Boycott Israel” call. If the American Studies Association adopts the resolution, it will be just the second notable U.S. academic organization to do so, the other being the Association for Asian American Studies. By claiming that there are powerful forces working to silence them, boycott opponents can divert attention from the extent to which joining their movement entails opposing academic freedom, adopting odious comparisons of Zionism and Nazism, and plumping for a one-state solution that would put an end to the Jewish state. Thankfully, even in academia, that position remains a hard sell.



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