Why the Academic Boycott is Immoral

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) recently approved at its business meeting a resolution to boycott Israeli Academic Institutions to be placed on the April electronic ballots for vote by the general membership. The resolution largely adopts the boiler plate language of PACBI and links the Academic Boycott as part of the larger boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

The resolution presents itself as in response to Israeli state transgressions and complicity by academic institutions in such transgressions, it also claims to be in response to some the call by some vague “vast majority of Palestinian civil society organizations.” But it is no secret who the backers and leaders of this effort are, and that many, if not most, of the leaders of BDS, most prominently Omar Barghutti, have made it clear that BDS’s unambigous goal is and should be the elimination of the state of Israel, and that it is the deligitimation element of BDS that will lead to this goal.

Some of the sponsoring organizations have provided apologist explanations that the movement contains a broad range of motives, including a one state solution that would eliminate an Israeli entity, but that once all conditions are fulfilled (including Israel giving up “all Arab lands” and allowing all Palestinians to return to all territories), the rest – as if there would be anything left – would be up to the parties to determine. This is at best an unacceptable moral compromise and at worst a sanction for ethnic cleansing. To claim that one can support BDS while also be for peace, is to pretend either that Israeli Jews will accept living under Palestinian majority rule and give up any aspirations of their own country, or that they will conveniently decide to self-deport. And it is simply not morally defensible to accept and legitimate aspirations for ethnic cleansing as a legitimate cost to secure Palestinian rights.

There is simply no alternative to a 2-state solution if one is committed to peace. I am aware that many boycott supporters, including some Jews, do not take for granted any inherent right of Jews to their own homeland. But that is morally irrelevant. The BDS path is a path to existential war and ethnic cleansing regardless of one’s position on Zionism or Palestinian nationalism.

While I object to academic boycotts on other grounds, I suppose one could make a moral case for them if they had clearly definable and achievable goals that would be verifiable, and targeted at the actual institution empowered to address the targeted actions. This is of course a very, very far cry from what this academic boycott resolution is. But it is the affiliation with BDS and the morally indefensible aim of its backers that makes it completely unacceptable, regardless of one’s position on Israeli state policies.

Joan Scott’s Change of Mind on BDS – Trajectory of Progressive Dogma

Joan Scott, the prominent and influential Cultural Historian, wrote a short article a few years ago, which I think captures that mood of current academic-based progressive sensibilities. She starts with a conversion narrative as the justification for her change of mind: she argues that it was the successful lobbying effort at censorship from Israeli and conservative-Jewish interests of an AAUP conference on academic boycotts supposedly only aimed at discussing the concept, that made her re-evaluate whether a traditional defense of academic freedom as justification for opposing boycotts makes sense in a context where even discussing boycotts is subject to censorship. But the conversion narrative immediately falls apart, in my opinion, as she continues:

What did it mean, I wondered, to oppose the boycott campaign in
the name of Israeli academic freedom when the Israeli state regularly denied academic freedom to critics of the state, the occupation, or, indeed, of Zionism,and when the blacklisting of the state’s critics is the regular tool of state authorities against Israel’s own academic institutions?
That line of argument is not just straight from the BDS literature, but the passing reference to Zionism as an assumed legitimate object for criticism already contains within it the presumed judgement of its illegitimacy. In other words, Scott was already strongly predisposed towards BDS.
Scott continues the article with a principled defense of an Academic Boycott as logical in the context of a broadened definition of Academic Freedom:
Such a boycott refuses to accept the facade of democracy Israel wants to present to the world. It is not a boycott of individuals on the basis of their national citizenship. Quite the contrary — it is an institutional boycott, aimed at those cultural and educational institutions that consistently fail to oppose the occupation and the unequal treatment of non-Jewish citizens. It demands evidence that these institutions provide academic freedom to Arabs as well as Jews, Palestinians as well as Israelis, within the borders of Israel, the occupied West Bank, and Gaza, and support it for Arabs and Jews equally. It says that, in the face of an apartheid that violates both the principles and practices of equality and freedom for all, a principled opposition to boycotts as punitive or unfair makes no sense. In fact, such an opposition only helps perpetuate the system. The boycott is a strategic way of exposing the unprincipled and undemocratic behavior of Israeli state institutions; its aim might be characterized as “saving Israel from itself.”

This quote, I think, contains the heart of modern (academic) progressive sensibilities (and where I think it actually differs from Palestinian aims and goals, whose ultimate goal is exactly the realization of a particularistic nation-state that would make Western progressives uncomfortable):

  • State-nationalism as an instrument of oppression
  • State as an instrument of selection of empowered vs excluded; citizens vs others
  • Democracy as a justifying ideology of oppression rather than a reflection of practical reality
  • Privileging of a human rights and equality frame
  • The privileging of universalist (“Human Rights” frames and rejection of separatist ones (as in “Apartheid”)
  • The academic as the spokesperson for the victims of nation-state policies
  • Refusal to accept the legitimate terms of engagement with the state through its own tainted mechanisms of legal and political dissent, since the way they are set up is exactly to exclude, rather than exclude
  • The state as exercising its domination through its institutions – including academic ones
  • An understanding of institutions as inherently legitimating of the state apparatus, unless they explicitly denounce and resist the state
  • The confidence in the ability of the progressive activist to manage individual harm and fallout from attacks on state institutions
I have a feeling that if Scott had to write this all over again she would likely remove the sentence of “saving Israel from itself” as unnecessary and inconsistent with a post-nationalist progressivism (that is actually more consistent with a position of the Zionist left).
The question is whether there are any actual facts that would make a difference to this stance. Scott goes on to list a number of violations that academic institutions and the state of Israel are guilty of, but the list is pretty much copied from BDS propaganda literature, is highly anecdotal, and would not stand up to any rigorous and comparative analysis. I think it is irrelevant. And I think it is exactly irrelevant because as long as Israel exercises a nationalist ideology that excludes the claims on rights by some based on that ideology, there is really nothing that Israeli academic, academic institutions, or even the state can do to sway such academic progressives.
But while I have a lot of sympathies for this type of progressivism, it is too crude an instrument to pass muster for a reflexive social criticism and activism that aims at just change, and encodes a primitive and rather naive understanding of the state and social institutions, and of the positive and empowering, and also terribly dark aspects of national solidarity. I don’t think it makes sense to speak of human rights only as a function of a well-established nation-state. Palestinians have their own quasi-state institutions, several at deadly competition with each other – and the terribly dark side of how human rights are managed by them needs to be part of activism as well, which means a more sophisticated understanding at how claims are apportioned and managed by which institutions. The concept of “Palestinian civil society” is an elision BDS adopts I find morally objectionable exactly because it serves to paper over such dynamics.
It also is supremely incapable of understanding how institutions and states are themselves fractured, and the fissures in Israeli society itself over the definition of the nation and who should be included – including a vigorous counter frame in Israel that rejects the particularistc aspects of the state polity, and pushes for inclusive, non-religious, and non-ethnic political and social rights. And it is incapable of understanding variations and alliances within Israel and across Palestinian and Israeli political landscapes for both complicity and effective resistance to settler-Zionist ideology (which is only one among many competing nationalist and non-nationalist ideologies).
And I think an uncritical embrace of the academic progressive ideology, fails to understand nationalism itself as a redemptive and protective ideology. Nationalism is itself a response to disenfranshisement and oppression because modern individual rights and individual agency are inconceivable outside a nation-state framework that empowers it. This is what scares many Israelis and Zionist Jews when confronting the passionate denial of a right to Jewish national self-determination from BDS supporters. It is a denial of their own right to agency and meaningful existence. I think progressives have a moral responsibility to take Jewish and Israeli history into account and understand the painful implications of a tactic of national delegitimation aimed at Israel.
But it does make me wonder if there is any room today for academics to claim the mantle of a progressive (and be recognized as such) while retaining a concept of progressive national solidarity and self-determination. It may be that strong Jewish and/or Zionist identification is too tainted, both because of the association between nationalism and an inherently oppressive state apparatus, and because of the rejection of any kind of separatist and particularistic group identifications, because of suspicions that its positive solidarity is potentially exclusive of others, all the more so if it seen as carrying privilege. It may be that embracing a more critical position of progressivism requires the acceptance of a certain degree of denunciation by the prevailing progressive culture club.