Academics against Israel

The boycott supporters represent only a small minority of American academics.

A student at the University of California, Los Angeles (photo credit: JONATHAN ALCORN / REUTERS)
A student at the University of California, Los Angeles
OVER THE past year, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in the US has been working to build support among academics for a boycott of Israel. On the surface, they’ve had very limited success. Last April, for example, the little known Association for Asian American Studies adopted a resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israeli universities to protest what it says are “policies that discriminate against Palestinian students and scholars.” The AAAS, however, has barely 800 members, and of those, fewer than 100 actually voted.
Then in December, the much larger American Studies Association also joined the assault on Israel’s legitimacy by passing (in an online vote, no less) a similar resolution. Another Pyrrhic victory for BDS backers, as the largely symbolic move has generated a serious backlash, with dozens of university presidents speaking out against the boycott and four universities quitting the ASA in protest.
Nonetheless, in the coming months other academic associations are likely to consider boycott resolutions, and calls for boycotts in other fields could follow should the peace talks break down and Israel be broadly blamed for their failure.
If, in combating the delegitimizers, we measure success in terms of the number of universities rejecting the boycott, then the pro-Israel side has so far won overwhelmingly. No US university is severing ties with the Jewish state. Even so, these seemingly insignificant inroads the BDS movement is making within American academia leave me feeling very uneasy, not only as a supporter of Israel but, also, as a Jew.
By endorsing the boycott, the ASA claims to be taking “an ethical stance” and helping to “solve world problems.” Of all the world’s problems, however, only the plight of the Palestinians has garnered the attention of these moral arbiters. Never mind that just across Israel’s border an estimated 41,000 Syrian civilians, including 6,000 children, have been slaughtered in the last two and a half years, mostly by their own government. But, since those atrocities weren’t perpetrated by Israel, they’re of no interest to the ASA.
In its resolution, the ASA cites as its main grievance the “Israeli occupation of Palestine.” It’s unclear whether “Palestine” includes pre-1967 Israel, but in a document entitled “Frequently Asked Questions about the Academic Boycott,” the ASA elaborates: “Israeli academic institutions are part of the ideological and institutional scaffolding of the Zionist settler-colonial project.”
That’s BDS-speak signifying not merely opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank but also a denunciation of Zionism in its entirety. Besides, if this were only about the occupation, why would the ASA target Israeli universities, the very places where criticism of Israeli government policies is most robust? If further clarification were needed as to the boycotters’ true motives, it was provided by ASA President Curtis Marez, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego. When asked by a New York Times reporter why single out Israel, he nonchalantly replied, “One has to start somewhere.”
Of course, history informs us that a protest that starts with the Jewish state inevitably ends with it.
The academic boycott of Israel has been condemned widely as a setback for the cause of academic freedom. Yet, given the boycott’s insidious nature, this condemnation doesn’t go nearly far enough.
To be sure, Israel’s human-rights record is far from perfect, but concern for human rights is just a subterfuge – the boycott was never about that. Rather, it’s a repudiation of the Jewish right to self-determination. Jewish sovereignty and power are anathema to the boycotters – Jews can be tolerated as long as they assimilate into American society (no dual allegiances allowed) or live submissively among an Arab majority in Greater Palestine.
Though the boycott supporters represent only a small minority of American academics, many of them teach at prestigious universities, including Yale, NYU, Northwestern, Stanford and Cal Berkeley, where they promulgate their radical anti-Zionist views among the next generation of political scientists, diplomats, journalists, and, possibly, national leaders.
What can be done to prevent those views from seeping into American mainstream thought? In the short-term, real progress in the peace talks could further marginalize the delegitimizers. In the long run, greater investment in Israel and Jewish Studies departments, active recruitment of visiting Israeli scholars to US campuses, and increased collaboration between Israeli and American universities are essential to making sure they stay marginalized.
Robert Horenstein is Community Relations Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Oregon