Boycotting Israel: The day Humanities died

We are too fractionalized and marginalized to respond and this will be our downfall if we allow it.

Israel boycott 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel boycott 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The vote by the membership of the American Studies Association (ASA) was entirely predictable, strategic and well planned based on the BDS’s careful assessment of what has been happening within the ranks of academia and the fact that faculty groups were finding themselves with leadership turnover, aging anti-boycott warriors and a tenacious commitment to a cause.  Between 2005 and 2010, when the issue of academic boycotts against Israeli scholars was raised, scholars from around the world ranging from over 40 Nobel Laureates to over 50 college and university presidents to leading scholars, academic organizations and institutions stepped forward, united, and asserted that academic boycotts were counterproductive, discriminatory, did not advance the cause of peace and most of all were disruptive to the highest precepts of academic freedom. Statements were signed and circulated for grassroots faculty endorsement and garnered thousands of signatures from members of the left, right and center. Think whatever you want about the rightness and wrongness of a government’s policies and practices; but disrupting academic and research cooperation was anathema and contradictory to the academic world.
Lulled into a false sense of security, many dismantled and abandoned their anti-boycott efforts, thinking that the strong doses of precision therapies of principle, level-headedness and reason had prevailed.
Unfortunately, several things happened which were being carefully monitored by the opposition, while the big lies continued to spread like cancer on colleges and university campuses, resulting in the recent vote of the American Studies Association to boycott Israel. The strategy has been brilliant and undefeatable. It is the old Goebbels strategy that if you continue repeating the lies, they will be believed and perceived as fact; and so the lies were perpetuated. In addition, early leaders in the anti-boycott movement paid personal and professional heavy prices for their efforts as a result of a number of legal, political and organizational assaults.
One leader was rebuked in court following losing a discrimination claim against a group that had mounted boycott campaigns, year after year, despite being told by their attorneys that such a boycott could be a violation of law. The toll on this leader has been heavy. Another leader, an aging and retiring professor, who had been very successful in unifying diverse constituencies to ward off the boycott efforts were excommunicated by the grassroots faculty organization he and other leaders had led. This was done by leaders more concerned with receiving massive infusions of funds from a donor with many ideological and structural strings, rather than building a big tent grassroots membership, and has become known as an organization with a distinct ideological bent, unfriendly to difficult discussions, broad perspective and finding common ground.
Instead of mobilizing faculty to action, they make political announcements and biased analysis generally blaming liberal and lefties, a tactic that is met with disdain and laughed at by most serious academics from both the right, left and center.  So they have chosen to go in a non-scholarly political advocacy direction, pretty much preaching to their own choir and losing support in the larger academic arena and fading from view.
Still, another important and highly visible academic was let go from a prominent center for the study of contemporary anti-Semitism for daring to assemble a conference of a wide variety of senior and influential scholars to address contemporary anti-Semitism, the content of which was not flattering to many because it was so truthful. The pushback was overwhelming and so they nailed him on a technicality. Being an uppity Jew in support of Israel meant paying a huge price for many of the anti-boycott players.
During this time of transformation following early victories against the boycott, leaders of the boycott movement kept looking for cracks in the wall, and found them in these and other vulnerabilities. Boycott activists have continually followed the pack looking for the weak members to pull out. They knew that multidisciplinary studies in academia were the weak link in the anti-boycott chain because they were relatively constructed not around core disciplines, but around several disciplines, by people with a common interest and therefore more receptive to what they were presenting as social justice issues. They picked the Humanities as the most receptive and vulnerable and within this, they first chose  Asian American ethnic studies to test their leverage and successfully. With consummate stealth they managed a pro-boycott vote by a handful of board members of the Association for Asian-American Studies.
Emboldened by this victory, the boycott movement went for all the marbles and went to the American Studies Association where there was tremendous receptivity by a new board (National Council). It unanimously passed a boycott resolution and final passage by a 2-1 margin of only 25% of the membership, despite appeals by eight past presidents of the association, appeals from the American Association of University Professors, a statement from 41 Nobel Laureates decrying academic boycotts and significant other attempts at interventions. What this meant is that with an underwhelming minority of members voting to support a unanimous vote by a bigoted and prejudiced board of directors, and counting on academics’ collective disinterest and complacency on such issues, a group of about 800 professors within a 5000 member group of American Studies Association was able to win a boycott vote by what was described as a 2:1 margin vote in favor of boycotting Israeli scholars.  This signals the launch of a new academic tyranny and the day the Humanities died.
We are going to see more and more of this as the boycott movement preys upon what it perceives to be weak links in the chain, and the fractionalization of the professoriate along ideological lines, instead of unification around universal academic principals. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out, and Omar Barghutti and his cohorts in the international groups that are laser focused on BDS are taking advantage. We are too fractionalized and marginalized to respond and this will be our downfall if we allow it. When we were more united we successfully warded them off, but as soon as this changed, we started losing the battles and the war is once again escalating.
Member, Steering Committee, International Grassroots Faculty Committee For Academic Freedom and Integrity: Walden University (Retired); President Emeritus, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and Past BDS Task Force Chair.