The weblog of Historians Against the War
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