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Having Boycotted Israel, American Academics Must Now Boycott Themselves

On the tricky logic of assigning guilt

Liel Leibovitz
December 05, 2013

The American Studies Association decided yesterday to boycott Israel, a move endorsed unanimously by the academic organization’s national council. If the association’s members are serious about their purported moral commitments, their only logical next step would be to go ahead and boycott themselves. This actually makes sense.

To hear the American Studies Association tell it, the act is largely symbolic, an expression of “solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.” The move, so spake the ASA’s national council, “is warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and the support of such a resolution by many members of the ASA.”

One could, of course, wonder, as I and others have before, to what Israel owes the exclusive honor of having been singled out; violating international law and human rights, sadly, is a game in which the Jewish state is bested by many, many, many other nations. That’s a legitimate concern, but it’s not at the crux of the discussion. The real question we must pose to the boycotters is what exactly it is that they hope to achieve.

The ASA’s statement, sadly, leaves little room for doubt. In claiming that “Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights” it seeks to dismantle not the occupation but the state itself. Had the goal truly been the end of the occupation—a policy which many, myself included, consider illegal and immoral—then the ASA ought to have supported the growing movement of Israeli and other intellectuals calling for a boycott on the settlements by refusing to perform, teach, or shop east of the Green Line. The ASA has gone much, much further. Ironically, as Todd Gitlin and Nissim Calderon noted in an earlier denouncement of another boycott, in failing to differentiate between the university in Ariel and the one in Tel Aviv, the ASA has adopted the hardest of hard lines espoused by none other than the settler leadership, believing, like the Yesha Council, that there is no fundamental difference between the country’s biblical borders and its internationally recognized ones, and that the nation is defined by nothing else save for its hunger for territorial conquest in the hills of Judea and Samaria.

This is atrocious stuff, but it’s hardly the gravest of the ASA’s failings. As the association’s statement draws to its close, particularly attentive students are treated to one more bit of anti-intellectual buffoonery. “The ASA,” reads the statement, “also has a history of critical engagement with the field of Native American and Indigenous studies that has increasingly come to shape and influence the field and the Association, and the Council acknowledged the force of Israeli and U.S. settler colonialism throughout our deliberations.” Colonialists, as anyone who had stayed awake during an introductory history course in college may remember, arrive from faraway lands to inhabit parts unknown to which they’ve no other claim but that seized by force, and proceed to strip the land of its resources for the benefit and glory of their Motherland overseas. It would take a particularly muddled mind to argue that Jews, even those returning to Zion after centuries in exile, fit this criterion, what with the Bible and all. And it would take an even bigger dunce to suggest that the Jewish pioneers who tilled the fields and tended the groves and built factories and roads did so for any other reason than to cultivate the land itself.

Such fine distinctions are lost on the esteemed scholars of the American Studies Association, but an even grander one is lost as well. Let’s assume—and we’ve no reason to assume otherwise—that the ASA’s council members are sincere in their outrage, that they believe—as they state repeatedly in their statement—that U.S. financial and military support for Israel is a key engine of the occupation, and that they wish to stand strong against American and Israeli colonialism alike. If they truly believe all that, why not start at home? A bit of morbid math, for example, will reveal that Israel has killed, according to Israeli human rights organization B’Tzelem, 6,722 Palestinians between September of 2000 and October of 2013, while in Iraq alone, the United States Army may have claimed the lives of more than half a million civilians. It’s hardly an anomaly: Even America’s fiercest defenders have to admit that while striving to live up to its promise as earth’s last best hope, this great nation has, on occasion, succumbed to greed, bloodlust, bigotry, and other serious ills. If the ASA is boycotting colonial powers, then it must boycott America, too—a move that would have even greater symbolic effect, since it would be done by an American organization of scholars employed by American universities and dedicated to American studies.

And why wouldn’t the ASA boycott America? After all, a large part of the organization’s decision is predicated on the notion that “Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights.” Several of the ASA’s national council members, for example, teach in the University of California system, which owes 18 percent of its total budget to U.S. government contracts and grants. The University of California, then, is just as implicated in America’s policies and violations of human rights as the Hebrew University, say, is in Israel’s. The same is true for virtually every university by which the esteemed members of ASA’s national council are currently employed.

That being the case, then, two choices present themselves. The first is for the ASA to realize that politics and morality alike are both deeply complex fields that only very rarely benefit from a decision to halt all conversation and deem a group of people untouchables. The second is to follow their own logic to its obvious end, and boycott not only Tel Aviv and Haifa but also Davis and Santa Barbara. If that’s the case, the members of the ASA’s national council should next boycott themselves and promptly resign their positions lest they continue to serve the same policies that clearly trouble them so much. Anything else would reek of hypocrisy, a terrible trait for anyone entrusted with the beacon of free inquiry and the burden of educating the young.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.