When a social movement struggles to expand human rights for all, it seeks to oxygenate debate and dissent, it invites opponents to engage with the central moral and political issues of the day. Social movements that have the moral high ground are not threatened by rigorous debate, because the debate reinforces that it is doing something important and of social value.
When a social movement has lost the moral high ground, however, it goes into attack mode in order to shut down any conversation and to maintain its position; it resorts to epithets, ad hominem attack, and even legal threats to end discussion.
The American Studies Association’s courageous decision to endorse a resolution calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions demonstrates these lessons. The ASA resolves that it will not collaborate with Israeli institutions of higher education while those institutions violate Palestinians’ human rights.
The resolution does not prevent Israeli scholars from attending the ASA, nor does it prevent American scholars from working with Israeli scholars, or from traveling to Israel. The boycott is a simple statement that does nothing to violate academic freedom – a privilege that only some enjoy in Israel/Palestine – but does very much to raise consciousness about the very real Israeli violations of Palestinian human and academic rights.
The boycott is a statement of solidarity among members of the ASA and doesn’t obligate American Studies departments to do anything. The boycott targets institutional relationships and doesn’t preclude American Studies scholars from hosting Israeli faculty or recruiting Israeli students. Indeed, the boycott is about building bridges and expanding academic freedom.
Much of the opposition to the boycott has been fierce and predictable. We knew it was coming and we knew it would be ugly.
One common argument made about the boycott resolution is that it unfairly singles out Israel. Ironically, in arguing that places like Zimbabwe, Syria, Iran, and North Korea are worse than Israel, and should be the actual targets of the ASA’s boycott, opponents implicitly make the case that Israel is among an international cohort of human rights violators and that boycotts are legitimate tactics to address these violations.
Unlike the case of Israel, the U.S. levies harsh sanctions on these other violators and withholds massive sums of foreign aid. The U.S. singles out Israel by blocking any UN resolutions condemning Israel’s violation of human rights and by making Israel the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.
Among the most insidious and predictable of the criticisms have been accusations of anti-Semitism launched by Lawrence Summers, Charles Krauthammer and many others. The accusation is meant to silence dissent. Summers and Krauthammer know that the ASA’s boycott resolution says nothing about Jews, but only about Israeli state policies. Moreover, they know that there are Jewish Israeli organizations like Boycott from Within that have called for the boycott.
The opposition’s attempt to equate Israel boycott resolutions, and even boycott discussions, with anti-Semitism represents a politics that has lost the high ground and can only respond by silencing debate, undermining the ASA’s democratic decision-making process, and bullying its way forward. Its goal is to make us too afraid to speak out in support of human rights. It offers nothing new in the way of solutions to the problem of Israel’s well-documented violation of international law.
The ASA’s boycott resolution, on the other hand, focuses on institutions rather than individuals, opens up conversation about U.S. policy, and expands understandings of academic freedom to include Palestinians who study, teach, and do research within conditions of an unjust occupation.
There was, and remains, disagreement among ASA members over tactics – should we boycott, should we censure, should we divest? A large majority of ASA members endorsed the politics of the academic boycott.
Boycott supporters are open to discussion and new ideas about how to guarantee human rights for all. Can the same be said for caustic critics such as Summers and Krauthammer?