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ASA’s Anti-Israel Gesture Politics

“Big Win for Boycott Movement” reads the headline of the Inside Higher Ed report on yesterday’s decision by the American Studies Association (ASA) to shun collaboration with Israeli academic institutions. The report correctly points out that this is the second time this year that an academic body in the U.S. has endorsed the boycott, following a similar decision in April by the Asian American Studies Association. The report goes on to observe that the ASA move,

…is seen as a major victory for the movement for an academic boycott of Israel. The academic movement to boycott Israel has considerable support in Europe, but has been largely opposed by major academic associations in the United States, citing longstanding objections to countrywide boycotts as antithetical to academic freedom…Supporters of the boycott have argued that just the discussion of the idea at a meeting as large as the American Studies Association marks a significant departure for American academe.

It is certainly true that supporters of the boycott are now hoping for a ripple effect elsewhere in academia. As one boycott activist remarked on Twitter, “these victories don’t exist in a vaccuum (sic)–they’re part of a much larger movement.” Still, when understood in the context of recent history, the ASA decision looks much less like a “victory” and much more like a demonstration of the kind of futile gesture politics beloved on the far left.

Recall that the proposal for an academic boycott was first launched in 2004, by a group calling itself the “Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel,” or PACBI. In its founding document, PACBI made it very clear that the ambition of the boycott is not to secure an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, but the comprehensive dismantling of the Jewish state. This position was reflected in PACBI’s denunication of the “Zionist ideology” underlying “Israel’s colonial oppression of the Palestinian people” and the “denial of its responsibility for the Nakba–in particular the waves of ethnic cleansing and dispossession that created the Palestinian refugee problem.”

Almost ten years later, the academic boycott aimed at the destruction of Israel has signally failed to make an impression outside of those university bodies that were already predisposed to support it–labor unions on European campuses controlled by far left elements, as well as groups like ASA, who regard scholarship as a mission to perpetuate the pernicious, if fading, influence of the New Left in our classrooms. It has also failed to foster the kind of general public revulsion toward Israel that was inflicted upon the old apartheid regime in South Africa. Indeed, if this was the “big win” heralded by Inside Higher Ed, then we might expect Cornell University to immediately reconsider its decision to build a sparkling new technology center on Roosevelt Island in collaboration with Israel’s Technion; as things stand, it is doubtful that the executives involved with this project are even aware of the ASA decision.

Rather than being a mass movement that has electrified universities globally, the academic boycott is more accurately seen as an irritant that generates the occasional ugly scandal, such as the decision by Jake Lynch, a professor at Sydney University in Australia, to engage in racial discrimination against Professor Dan Avnon of the Hebrew University, or the withdrawal by the renowned scientist Stephen Hawking from a prestigious conference hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres. If we remain under the impression that the academic boycott punches far above its weight, that’s in part because the first serious attempt to implement it, undertaken by British academics in 2005, generated a slew of reportage and shocked comment on major outlets like the BBC, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. Contrast that with this year’s ASA decision, which has mainly been covered by Israel-fixated anti-Semitic websites like Mondoweiss and the Electronic Intifada. Beyond the ranks of the faithful, then, the academic boycott of Israel just isn’t that exciting anymore.

There will be those who counter that we cannot be complacent, and that we must continue to challenge and counter the boycotters. I have no quarrel with that, but I don’t expect those arguments to get very far. For example, the unarguable truism that there are far worse offenders in this world than Israel leaves the boycotters unmoved, for two principal reasons. Firstly, the boycotters don’t understand the profound moral difference between totalitarian regimes and democratic Israel: asked by Insider Higher Ed why ASA wasn’t boycotting Syria or North Korea, its president, Curtis Marez, replied that he wasn’t aware of boycott demands being made by the “civil society” in those countries. Someone who thinks that “civil society” even exists in these citadels of torture is clearly a lost cause.

Secondly, a large number of boycotters actually support these foul regimes, viewing them as progressive bulwarks against American and “Zionist” global domination. Max Blumenthal, the propagandist who currently serves as the poster child for anti-Zionists everywhere, recently published a rant targeting “hardline anti-Castro activists” pushing for the “overthrow of Cuba’s socialist regime”–a regime which habitually locks up dissidents both inside and outside academe.

The ASA decision is therefore an indication of the far left’s frustration. Unable to impact policy decisions, it turns instead to largely symbolic acts like a boycott, enabling those who endorse it to feel like they are “doing something.” So, yes, we must remain vigilant, but we must also happily recognize that a decade of anti-Zionist propaganda has very little to show in the way of concrete achievement.


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