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Review of books

December 2014
The ignorance of the boycott brigade
The ignorance of the boycott brigade

Joanna Williams

The boycott-Israel brigade undermines the university

BDS-supporting academics make a mockery of academic freedom.

On 16 December 2013, a pre-eminent academic disciplinary body, the American Studies Association (ASA), used the occasion of its annual conference to push through a boycott of Israeli universities. This unprecedented attack on academic freedom came on the back of campaigns organised by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which, in its most recent incarnation, began in Britain in 2005 and rapidly migrated to the US. Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), describes the BDS campaign as ‘the most influential current version of a long-term effort to delegitimate the state of Israel’.

The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, a collection of essays edited by Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm, aims to provide an immediate and badly needed response to the ASA boycott. This impressive volume successfully counters every argument made by BDS proponents as well as providing extensive context to debates around both academic freedom and the state of Israel. Nelson draws upon his knowledge of the AAUP, an organisation founded in 1915 with a key objective of enshrining the importance of academic freedom in higher education. The historical comparisons highlight the parlous state of academia today, and help explain why the BDS movement has gained such traction in universities. The contributors to this volume rescue the concept of academic freedom, and through it the idea of scholarship itself, from the sneering contempt of the boycotters and their attempts to redefine academic freedom beyond all recognition.

The book contains numerous examples to illustrate the deleterious effect boycotts have upon academic freedom. We’re told of authors who refuse to have their books translated into Hebrew, Israeli academics pulled from the editorial boards of journals, PhD students prevented from taking up scholarships, as well as many more mundane examples of academics not being able to speak at conferences or take part in collaborative research projects. Steven Salaita, a leading BDS advocate who is now more famous for recently having his tenured position at the University of Illinois rescinded, is quoted as saying he is ‘tepid about academic freedom as a right’. This was before he accepted money from the AAUP to help him fight his own case on the grounds of academic freedom. Perhaps more scurrilous are the Orwellian attempts of the likes of Sunaina Maira, editor of The Imperial University, to promote the boycott on the grounds that it ‘enlarges academic freedom for all’. Presumably, this is all except Israeli academics.

In his contribution, David Hirsh argues that the ASA’s boycott is built on a notion of ‘the collective guilt of Israeli intellectuals’. He provides a thorough analysis of the ‘myth’ of the institutional boycott, exploring how, in reality, it is a wholesale attack upon individual academic freedom. Russell Berman notes the inherent dishonesty of the BDS proponents’ suggestion that individual Israelis can exempt themselves from the boycott if they use private finance for international conference attendance and denounce the policies of their government towards Palestinians. He notes the irony of a boycott being ‘premised on that strangely neoliberal illusion that one can strip away [institutional] infrastructure without harming the individual scholar at all’. 

The AAUP reminds academics that universities should be ‘institutions committed to the search for truth and its free expression’. At the heart of the BDS movement lies the opposite belief – that academic freedom should be conditional on the identity or political views of the individual scholar. Presumably this requires a morally attuned elite to sit in judgement on their colleagues and decide whether denunciations of Israel are expressed with sufficient veracity. We are reminded that the AAUP ‘cannot endorse the use of political or religious views as a test of eligibility for participation in the academic community’. This point is reinforced by Martha Nussbaum: ‘For a group to say that journals and academic conferences have a litmus test, namely a particular position on the actions of the government of Israel, is infinitely more threatening than if it simply boycotted all Israeli scholars alike.’

The BDS-driven notion that academic freedom should only be afforded those with the ‘correct’ political outlook reinforces the belief that knowledge cannot be judged objectively, that its worth, rather, is based on the identity of the originator. Academics-cum-activists bring this argument from their classroom, where they suggest to students that what passes for knowledge is merely a reflection of the perspectives of dominant social groups. Many of the contributors to this book recognise injustices towards Palestinians and are quick to point out problems with the Israeli government’s policies. But the point made repeatedly is that solutions to oppression are always to be found in more objective judgements – that is, in more academic freedom, not less.

Many contributors explore how boycotts not only restrict academic freedom but are often anti-Semitic in intent, if not in effect. Those campaigning for boycotts are often less bothered by success than they are with creating a moral climate where specific demands can change while the general opprobrium goes unquestioned. Paul Berman argues campaigners are trying to convince themselves that their mission is ‘modern and progressive’ rather than ‘disgraceful and retrograde’. Some chapters point to the historical precedents of boycotts directed against Jews, which the current crop of BDS campaigners reiterate and present anew. Nelson cites work by Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler to suggest the boycotters, or at least their most influential spokesmen, ‘argue for the ultimate BDS solution - dissolution of the Jewish state’. Emily Budick reinforces this point with her claims that ‘many of those who support the BDS movement against Israel do not actually believe that Israel has any right to exist’.

We learn of authors who refuse to have their books translated into Hebrew, Israeli academics pulled from the editorial boards of journals, PhD students prevented from taking up scholarships…

One of the most difficult questions for the authors of this book to confront is why Israel is singled out in this way when other nations show even less regard for human rights and have been responsible for worse atrocities. When this question was posed directly to one of the ASA boycott proponents, the blithe answer was: ‘Why not?’ Brahm and Romirowsky suggest ‘Israel simply had to be deemed somehow uniquely to blame for something - and so it was’. Sabah A Salih digs deeper and has a far more satisfactory answer. He points to an ideological shift which has taken place in the West since the 1970s, wherein the US is considered to be out to impose its hegemony on the world. And ‘as a colonial creation, Israel plays an indispensable role in this dirty effort’. Salih suggests the most virulent criticism of Western culture today originates from within the West itself: ‘The achievements of the Enlightenment are now routinely the subject of ridicule. … The revolutionary project that liberated humanity from the monarch and feudal lord… is now generally derided.’

The impact of ‘reason and its accomplishments’ now being perceived as a problem by many within universities is, as Salih notes, the repositioning of culture from an affirmation of universal values to a confirmation of identity. This creates a climate receptive to the demands of the academic-boycott movement. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin points out that 48 per cent of boycotters are affiliated to humanities departments compared to only seven per cent within science disciplines. Of these humanists, by far the largest proportion specialise in English or literature, and 92 per cent of this group have research interests that include class, gender, race or empire. In his chapter, Berman suggests the roots of much of this can be traced back to Edward Said’s ‘shoddy, theoretically incoherent and factually inaccurate proto-BDS primer, Orientalism’, which, Brahm and Romirowsky argue, encouraged the presenting of the Arab-Israeli conflict solely through the lens of anti-Zionism, as to do anything else would make one ‘orientalist’.

Said’s Orientalism, however influential, can’t be held solely responsible for the destruction of liberal academic values. What’s being argued here is the bigger point that Israel, considered the embodiment of Western imperialism, became a sitting target for the scholars Berman characterises as being ‘against scholarship’, and for whom the academic, political and personal had been wrapped up into one moral mission. The BDS movement emerged in a context of increasingly predominant anti-racist and anti-imperial scholarship that, as Musher notes, reinforces a connection between ‘academic and political commitments’. Nancy Koppelman argues that many contemporary humanities scholars ‘reduce colonialism to simple matters of European cruelty and power’. This means that whatever the political intentions of certain key individuals, the academics and students swept up in the BDS campaign are ‘passionate about justice, sometimes without knowledge of the facts and consequences’.

Ultimately, many of the arguments presented in this book are also moral. But as Budick, citing Todorov, reminds us, no moral courage is needed to take a position with which everyone else agrees. Instead, she urges each and everyone of us ‘to investigate the truth and examine for ourselves what constitutes “the good” and what does not’ . This book does far more than make the case against academic boycotts of Israel: it reminds us what academic freedom actually means and its crucial importance in underpinning the entire scholarly edifice. We abandon this at our peril. At the same time there is also recognition that this alone is not enough to counteract the BDS movement. Equally as important is the need to mount a defence of liberal academic principles more broadly: to argue that knowledge is more than just identity and perspective; to assert the aspiration towards, and the possibility of, seeking truth; and to draw a distinction between scholarship and activism.  This book is a vital step in this direction.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, by Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm (eds), is published by Wayne State University Press. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Wikimedia Commons.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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