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Israel Boycotts and the Lure of Notoriety

Here on the blog, Jonathan Marks has been covering the ongoing saga of the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel, leaving off last week with a note about the possible next target for academics’ anti-Israel zealotry. He wrote that the upcoming conference of the Modern Language Association, which has a larger membership than the ASA, will host a roundtable on the topic stacked with pro-boycott voices. The “playbook,” he comments, would normally have this year’s conference used as the backdrop for a boycott resolution at next year’s conference.

The trend does indeed usually go in one direction. But perhaps there is reason to hope this trend will slow dramatically at this point. The pushback against the boycott from American academia has been swift. On Sunday night, William Jacobson posted at Legal Insurrection the latest tally of schools that had rejected the boycott and/or terminated their membership in the ASA. There were over thirty schools and counting to reject the boycott, and Yair Rosenberg has been noting the additional schools to come out against the boycott over the last couple of days, including Smith College and the University of Cincinnati.

At first glance, it might seem obvious to reject such a boycott: it flies in the face of the principles of academic engagement. The pro-boycott voices have taken a stand against the free flow of ideas and in favor of ethnic discrimination, a strange position for a university to take up–or, at least, it should be. But anti-Israel activists have been known not for their intellectual pursuit but for their extremism. Even Mahmoud Abbas opposes the boycott, making these activists and academics more extremely anti-Israel than Yasser Arafat’s successor.

And so the condemnation of these fanatic purveyors of hate came not only from the right but even from the left, which has become increasingly uncomfortable with Israel but which has not gone so far as to surpass the Palestinian Authority in its opposition to the current Israeli government, unlike the ASA. Today the Washington Post reported on the universities’ attempts to distance themselves from the ASA’s extremism:

Schools including Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Princeton and Boston universities and the Universities of Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Texas at Austin  and others have slammed the boycott, issuing statements similar to one by Harvard President Drew Faust that said that academic boycotts “subvert the academic freedoms and values necessary to the free flow of ideas, which is the lifeblood of the worldwide community of scholars.”

Penn State University at Harrisburg and Brandeis University have said they are withdrawing their memberships from the American Studies Association, and other schools are considering doing the same thing. In addition, two major associations of institutions of higher education, the Association of American Universities and the Association of American University Professors, have issued statements rejecting the boycott.

The Post includes some of the university presidents’ statements supporting dialogue over exclusion, such as from the University of Connecticut’s Susan Herbst:

Academic leaders at UConn will continue to visit Israel and Arab nations, invite Israeli and Arab scholars to our campuses, encourage our students and faculty to study in these nations, and pursue research collaboration with the many outstanding Israeli universities. We do this with pride and a productive focus on social justice, to forge the very critical dialogues that will someday lead to the peace we all seek.

That is the true essence of a university — to foster dialogue and develop solutions to problems without regard to political, racial, and cultural differences.

You can sense a kind of exasperation in some of these statements, as though the presidents of major American universities can’t quite believe they have to explain the basic principles of academic engagement and the rank senselessness of boycotting the Jewish state–and only the Jewish state, as opposed to non-democracies, unfree societies, etc.

Will it matter? How will this response factor into the decisions of groups like the MLA, who will be considering whether to codify their commitment to ethnic discrimination? There are two possibilities.

The first is that they will read the statements from presidents of dozens of universities expressing the embarrassment these boycotts bring to the good name of American academia and take the ASA’s experiment as a cautionary tale in letting their organizations be hijacked by anti-Israel extremists. Rather than choose sides, they will choose academic open-mindedness.

The second option is to embrace the opprobrium as confirmation of their wacky ideas about Zionist conspiracies. That would be the Walt-Mearsheimer path. When the two academics first proposed their silly ideas about the Israel lobby as a magazine piece, it was obviously wrongheaded but taken as an interesting conversation starter. When they expanded it into book form, it was dismaying to the pro-Israel community at first, because the authors had realized how lucrative it is in this day and age to peddle conspiracy theories about Jews.

When the book came out, however, there was much relief: the book could be easily criticized without consideration of the authors’ motives because it was of such shoddy scholarship as to be self-discrediting. The authors had their facts wrong, and clearly didn’t understand even the basics of Middle Eastern politics. From an academic perspective, the book was a complete failure, an embarrassment to the very idea of serious scholarship.

But that didn’t matter: anti-Zionism sells. Of course the facts weren’t on the authors’ side, but it soon became clear that was never a consideration. You can go from being an academic to a sought-after household name by dedicating your career to catering to the conspiracy-theorist fringe. Thus academic groups similar to the ASA may come to their senses and remember their mission is to educate. Or they may anticipate the notoriety that comes with abandoning that mission and embrace it for the sake of fame and intellectual martyrdom. The blowback against the ASA may be the end of this nonsense, in other words, or it may only be the beginning.



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