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Friday, January 31, 2014

[haw-info] Debating the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel

Dear HAW members and friends, 
On behalf of the Steering Committee, I am sending you two recent articles, presenting different perspectives on the movement to support an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.  The first is a December 31 editorial in The Chronicle of Higher Education by three historians, Linda Gordon, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Elaine Tyler May, arguing that an academic boycott is not the best way to pressure Israel to change its policies. The second is a January 24 Washington Post op-ed by Vijay Prashad, a historian and a leader of the US Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI). Several Steering Committee members have also recommended an article by Robin Kelley upholding the ASA resolution, so that is added as a weblink at the bottom.
We take this action in light of the furor over the endorsement of the boycott by the American Studies Association, and another resolution now before the members of the Modern Language Association, criticizing violations of academic freedom by the Israeli government.  The Steering Committee believes that HAW members and friends should debate whether HAW should take a position on the boycott and if so, what position it should take. Before we come to a decision, however, all voices should be heard. We invite comments either in response to this post on our blog at http://blog.historiansagainstwar.org/ or on our facebook page https://www.facebook.com/groups/2216182861/.
We look forward to hearing your thoughts,
Van Gosse, for the Steering Committee 
1)  "Don't Cut Off Debate With Israeli Institutions--Enrich It Instead"
By Linda Gordon, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Elaine Tyler May
December 31, 2013, The Chronicle of Higher Education
The recent decisions of two learned societies to support a boycott of Israeli academic institutions represents understandable frustration with Israeli government policy of appropriating Palestinian land and resources and violating human rights ("Scholars Debate Significance of American Studies Assn.'s Vote to Boycott Israel," The Chronicle, December 16).
We doubt that we need to detail these policies applied to land occupied by Israel -sponsoring tens of thousands of settlers on Palestinian lands; withdrawing water resources; bulldozing Palestinian homes, orchards, and farms; arbitrary closures of Palestinian universities; building roads for the exclusive use of Israeli settlers while subjecting Palestinians to roadblocks that keep them waiting for hours and make traveling among Palestinian towns a protracted and ever-changing frustration. These policies not only victimize Palestinians, they also cause Israel to become less open, more militarized, and less committed to the historical values of democratic diversity of which we as Jews are so proud.
Many Israelis, including scholars and writers, have protested these policies. We know and applaud the many progressive projects in Israel that attempt to create the bases on which Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians in occupied territories could jointly create a peaceful future. We fear that the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions, in the unlikely event that it were to become successful, would cut off the exchanges that might strengthen these progressive developments.
Instead of cutting off debate, we should be enriching it, strengthening engagement with Palestinian academics by promoting greater possibilities for scholarly exchanges, funding collaborative projects with Palestinian academics, developing initiatives that bring Palestinian scholars to our conferences and seminars. We should encourage Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. students and teachers to study and work together, and encourage joint projects of inquiry. We did this, more or less successfully, with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and we are doing it with China now.
We also believe that a better focus of protest by American scholars would be the U.S. policy of unquestioning support of Israel. The Congressional Research Service's most recent summary (from April 2013) shows that the United States has given Israel a cumulative total of $118-billion, mostly in military aid, and that Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. aid since World War II, although it is neither among the most needy countries nor the least stable. The 2013 budget asked for $3.1-billion. Private investment in Israel is also substantial. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, as of 2008 foreign investors accounted for roughly two-thirds of Israeli private equity-venture capital.
We would call on those concerned for the future of a democratic Israel to concentrate on what our own country does in supporting Israeli policy toward Palestinians and their lands. Several American Jewish organizations aim to do this, but our politicians are still far too subservient to the money and threats from lobbyists who support Israeli policy. Concerned scholars need to support these organizations and ratchet up the pressure on the American government to change its policies of blind support for Israeli policies that make it ever harder for Palestinians to move toward a positive future.
2)  "Understanding the Boycott of Israel's Universities"
By Vijay Prashad
January 24, 2014, Washington Post
The growing movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israeli universities has struck a chord in Israel. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said recently that the boycott campaign, which drew new attention when it was joined last month by the American Studies Association (ASA) , " is moving and advancing uniformly and exponentially." If Israel does not respond, Livni said, it will turn itself into " a lone settlement in the world."
Livni meant that criticism of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands should be taken seriously. Finance Minister Yair Lapid concurred, writing, "The world seems to be losing patience with us. . . . If we don't make progress with the Palestinians, we will lose the support of the world and our legitimacy."
The boycott movement is a caution to Israel that it must be less obdurate in its relations with the Palestinians — a position far removed from the toxic response to the ASA within the United States, where many groups long have opposed any discussion of the reality of Israel's occupation. In 2010, the collegiate group Hillel informed its members that its branches were not permitted to invite speakers who "support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel."
After Swarthmore College's Hillel club decided to allow open discussion on various matters — including on inviting critics of Israel to campus, the national president of Hillel, Eric Fingerhut, reiterated that " 'anti-Zionists' will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances." Swarthmore students plan to defy these guidelines. Their action is a piece of the changed climate among young people, many of whom want a serious debate on the occupation.
The boycott developed in 2005, when 171 civil society organizations in Palestine called on the international community to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Among other tactics, these organizations called for the boycott of Israeli institutions that colluded with the occupation, including Hebrew University, which illegally built parts of its campus in the occupied territories. Supporters were asked to raise awareness of Palestinians' lack of academic freedom, not only in the occupied territories but also within Israel's 1948 boundaries. Within the Israeli academy, there has been little care for this lack of freedom: In 2008, a petition on behalf of Palestinian academics was sent to 9,000 Israeli academics; only 407 signed it. One reason Western academics have invested in the movement is to offer our fellowship with Palestinian academics whose voices have been drowned out.
The overreaction to the ASA resolution stems from a simple truth: The movement is having a major impact in the West. This impact comes, as Peter Beinart wrote last fall, because the movement is ­fueled by "interactions with Palestinians living under Israeli control. American Jewish leaders don't understand the power of such interactions because they rarely have them themselves." Such interactions, seldom reported in the media, include Palestinian civil society activists on tour in the United States, International Solidarity Movement activists and religious groups in the West Bank and Gaza, conversations at international gatherings such as the World Social Forum and discussions among Palestinian and Western musicians on the difficulty Palestinians face in their everyday lives.
U.S. academics are not in the lead here. Matters are far more developed in Europe, where faculties have fought to divest and boycott Israel and where the European Union is moving toward labeling products from illegal Israeli settlements. But U.S. academics recognize a special mission: Israeli institutions that benefit from the occupation do so with impunity granted by U.S. financial, military and diplomatic support. If the United States underwrites the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lives, then U.S. scholars have a responsibility to call that support to account. That is why the ASA acted. I, for one, am glad it did.
3) "Defending Zionism Under the Cloak of Academic Freedom"
Robin D. G. Kelley, January 4, 2014
Mondoweiss

8 Comments:

Blogger David Lelyveld said...

There is much to be said for well-focused boycotts of particular institutions and enterprises that operate within the occupied territories (the West Bank) -- SodaSteam, JohnDeer, the Ariel Settlement's academic center. But a boycott of all Israel, including centers of opposition to Israeli expansionism and discrimination, is self-defeating. There is much to condemn in this world -- including the global reach of the United States and its universities -- but boycotts should have some focused politcal strategy. BDS is ultimately motivated by a desire to delegitimize Israel and any form of Zionism (Jewish nationalism) altogether. That is not the road to peace.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Mim Jackson said...

Although I have a lot of sympathy with #2 and #3, I think Gordon, Kessler-Harris and May make the best argument. It might be good for HAW to take a position on this and if it does, I think we should call on members to lobby our own government to shift its odious policy. I had mixed feelings about the resolution, given my awareness of the impact of sanctions and my own Jewish (though anti-Zionist) background. Let's focus on our own badly-appropriated money and keep talking to israeli Jewish academics. We'll have enough trouble just battling AIPAC.

3:05 PM  
Blogger StanNadel said...

The ASA isn't even honest about who they are boycotting, they say only institutions but their FAQ contradicts that and calls for boycotting all [Jewish] Israeli academics. "However,
all academic exchanges with Israeli academics do have the effect of normalizing Israel and its politics of occupation and apartheid. Academics could consider whether equally valuable contributions might
not be made by non-Israeli colleagues; whether an invitation to a Palestinian intellectual might be preferable; whether the exchange is intellectually or pedagogically essential." So it is actually aimed at individual academics based on their nationality and ethnic identity--which makes it Antisemitic in practice.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Peter Rachleff said...

Although I have had little professional connection with the ASA, I recently renewed my membership because I wanted to be affiliated with an organization which could take a much needed stand on US and Israeli disregard for Palestinian humanity and human rights. I was also impressed with the ASA leadership's process -- a debate over more than a year's time, the solicitation of diverse points of view, and the invitation of member input, including voting. The ASA has modeled democracy and freedom of expression in ways that we can only wish governments, trade unions, and university administrations (including those who now pose as defenders of "academic freedom") would emulate. ASA's endorsement of BDS -- itself a form of speech -- has had a powerful impact on political debate, stimulating new consideration of Israel's suppression of the material conditions needed by Palestinians to enjoy advanced education, of Israel's denial of academic access and expression to Palestinians, and the shutting down of open debate about Israeli policies in Israeli and US universities. I hope yet to see this debate provoke increased scrutiny of the employment and administrative practices of the colleges and universities whose presidents have weighed in as defenders of "academic freedom." There are many skeletons in the academy's closets, and we would all be well-served by a much closer look.
I was proud to support BDS in the case of South Africa, and now, as an historian who teaches about the anti-apartheid movement, I recognize the impact BDS had on changing the course of South African history. I remain proud to be a member of ASA and a supporter of BDS.

3:45 PM  
Blogger David R Applebaum said...

For me, Omar Barghouti's book offers answers to some of the problems, issues and questions raised in this conversation. At a time when local and state initiatives (Philadelphia and Pennsylvania) to EXPAND collaboration with Israel are moving forward (especially with big Pharma) - it is time to recognize that the momentum for silence, indifference and profit is barely challenged. And it is also important to note the corporate-university links that are engaged in the collaborations. Neither labor Zionism nor revisionist Zionism provide meaningful answers to the barbarism and brutality of the occupations. BDS, for me, is a response to silences that are barely distinct from overt complicity in crimes against humanity.

11:09 AM  
Blogger chrisrushlau said...

Not being a "professional" academic, let me report instead of something that may bear on this debate. My theme is that it is the quality of the work that matters.
The failure of US academia to even notice the "Global War On Terror" is cataclysmic. Catastrophic.

I graduated from the law school here. A couple of years ago I went over to the law library and did an electronic periodical search for "Israel". You'd think the miracle of the "Jewish and democratic state" (Basic Laws of 1991) would attract some attention in the US legal scholarship community. Well, I hoped for something, even though my mentor at law school, James Friedman, had scoffed at the idea of legal scholarship. He told me I was quite unusual as a law student in that I was "educated". What I found in that search was one paper, published by a student, describing himself as Jewish, asking why there was not any study of Israel in US legal scholarship.

Now my main point. You may have seen the anthology, The Other in Jewish Thought and History. It's got some nice papers in it. The thing is that the nice papers all come from Israel. The papers from US sources are a nice blend of gobbledygook, bald effrontery, and incidental typographical errors...if I make myself clear.
Now that applies to this question today in this way. Just as the GWOT was fought (I was part of it as a National Guard cook in Iraq in 2004, blown up in a real miracle where the shrapnel, said the surgeon tartly who was to go looking for it, was, according to the radiologist, "in the vicinity of the heart", and the follow-up report in Landstuhl was that it had been "on, not in, the heart") under a general mandate to make that GWOT as stupid as possible, so is the US academic treatment of this entire policy area. My theory is that this is a classical dumb-yourself-down response to a sense of over-powering oppression. If nobody can even raise the slightest reasonable protest, the result is a general dumbing down, what African-Americans used to call "shining".
We already have--it suddenly strikes me--a boycott of Israel in US academics. We blah-blah, we don't analyze, we don't even talk.
This debate now is the closest that US academia has come to addressing this entire issue, and so I hope it can do so in a somewhat credible, coherent fashion. Let us remember Mortimer Adler's definition of an argument, and hear some good arguments.

9:13 PM  
Blogger StanNadel said...

It would help if the supporters of the ASA boycott measure were honest
> about it. They claim it doesn't target individual scholars, just
> institutions, but when you go to their FAQ for guidance as to how to
> apply it you find that this isn't true. Note the HOWEVER here which
> contradicts the "in principle" and effectively calls for a boycott
> against all Israeli scholars (unless, perhaps, they can claim to be
> "Palestinians"-- a category for what it is worth which would seem to
> exclude Jews):
>
> In principle, since the call is specifically for institutional, not
> individual boycott, such activities do not violate the boycott. However,
> all academic exchanges with Israeli academics do have the effect of
> normalizing Israel and its politics of occupation and apartheid.
> Academics could consider whether equally valuable contributions might
> not be made bynon-Israeli colleagues; whether an invitation to a
> Palestinian intellectual might be preferable; whether the exchange is
> intellectually or pedagogically essential.
> Stan Nadel
>

7:54 AM  
Blogger David Lelyveld said...

Note that the Steering Committee off HAW reached a decision without responding to or participating in this discussion.

6:23 PM  

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