"Repugnant"; "Morally bankrupt"; "Orwellian anti-Semitism"; "politically correct' assault"; "Jihadist professors" ; "Wrong in principle, politically impotent, intellectually dishonest and morally obtuse."
This is just a few of the names the American Studies Association (ASA) have been called since its historic vote to "endorse and honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions." Irrespective of a campaign of misinformation and misrepresentation, the resolution is a boycott of Israeli academic institutions only by ASA (and not individual scholars). It is about supporting the march to peace and justice; its about demanding freedom for all.
Notwithstanding these attacks, and a culture of intimidation, I stand with ASA because "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." I stand with ASA because too many families and communities are confined to enclaves of despair and poverty in Gaza and West Bank; I stand with ASA because of the denied freedoms to Palestinians and African immigrants; I stand with ASA because of the systematic violation of human rights; I stand with ASA because it is responding to calls for Palestinians inside and outside of academia; and ultimately I stand with ASA because I believe it is the right thing to do and because I believe it is a rightful path to justice. I believe it is a small step, one that hopefully will foster conversation and engagement in ways that the current state affairs are unable to facilitate. I support the ASA resolution because lives are at stake.
I stand with ASA because history teaches us that divestment and boycotts work. Weeks after the world mourned the death of Nelson Mandela, we should be reminded that in 2012, that ANC voiced its support for B.D.S., declaring, "The ANC is unequivocal in its support for the Palestinian people in their struggle for self-determination, and unapologetic in its view that the Palestinians are the victims and the oppressed in the conflict with Israel."
Its outrage and its condemnation was not limited to the systemic violence experience by Palestinian people, but also experienced by African immigrants inside Israel: "The ANC abhors the recent Israeli state-sponsored xenophobic attacks and deportation of Africans and request that this matter should be escalated to the African Union."
The treatment of Africans, especially under the Netanyahu administration, has been reprehensible. In 2012, he announced, "If we don't stop their [African immigrants'] entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence... and threatens the social fabric of society." He is clearly not the only Israeli politician who has given voice to anti-African sentiments. "The infiltrators along with the Palestinians will quickly bring us to the end of the Zionist dream. We don't need to import more problems from Africa," notes Eli Yishai. "Most of those people arriving here are Muslims who think the country doesn't belong to us, the white man." One member of the Israeli parliament called out Africans as "a cancer in our body." Heeding Miri Regev racist rhetoric, demonstrators turned to physical violence, "attack[ing] African passersby while others lit garbage cans on fire and smashed car windows." As reported by Belen Fernandez and David Sheen, present-day Israel is engaged in multiple wars: on Palestinians and African immigrants. The discrimination faced by African immigrants is widespread:
These range from verbal and physical abuse - including, for example, the pelting of African women and children with bottles, cassette players, and other impromptu projectiles and the firebombing of homes and daycares - to long-term incarceration in inhumane conditions without trial, to the mass secret forcible repatriation of Sudanese asylum seekers in violation of the UN convention on the status of refugees.
Yet the many "thought leaders" who have called ASA "repugnant" and hurl baseless attacks have been silent on these injustices. Where is their outrage regarding the systemic violence directed at African immigrants? Where is their concern about the treatment facing Palestinians in Gaza, in the West Bank, and within Israel. The silence and the selective deployment of discourses of freedom are telling.
As noted above, there are many reasons why I support ASA's call for an academic boycott, all of which reflect my identity as a scholar, as an activist, which has been thrown around as an insult, as a teacher, as a commentator, as a white American Jew, and as someone committed to "freedom dreams." Whereas others see the boycott as antithetical to democracy, education, scholarly engagement, or even Jewishness, I see it as reflective of my values and commitment to all people having the right to live freely, to justice for all.
And before you pull your anti-Semitism card, let's put everything on the table: Opposing the policies of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic. Not only does this derail any discussions about questions at hand -- the useful of boycotts, the treatment of Palestinians -- but silences anyone who dares to challenge the status quo.
Likewise, claims that ASA is singling out Israel belie reality; ASA and its members engage in scholarship, teaching, and community work that promotes justice in a myriad of locations -- critique and criticism is not in short supply. And for those who merely like to spotlight the atrocities taking place in China, Syria or Darfur as an argument of convenience, I wonder what are they doing for the people of Syria, Sudan, or Eritrea? Are they supporting boycotts or protest in places in these countries; or are they engaged in academic exchanges that promote peace and justice, demanding educational and government support? Does it matter that there is endless media coverage, political discourse, protest, and public scrutiny regarding human rights violations in China, Russia, or North Korea amid silence, denial, and defense of Israel? Does it matter that in some cases, official sanctions from the U.S. government in fact thwart engagement? I must have missed university presidents collectively denouncing the lack of academic freedom with regards to Cuba. The hypocrisy is crystal clear. It seems that the atrocities facing the people of Syria or Sudan are only of concern when justifying the policies of Israel (minus its immigration policy). These sorts of arguments have redefined Dr. King's quote to be "injustices elsewhere proves that you don't have to deal with injustices in our backyard."
The question of academic freedom is a red herring, in that academic freedom is neither universal nor protected with equal fervor. Despite denunciations against the boycott because it purportedly stifles conversations, because it fosters isolation and division, the status quo certainly doesn't promote intellectual exchange and scholarly discourse. Worse yet, Palestinian scholars and students endure systemic denials of their academic freedom. As noted by Noura Erakat, Alex Lubin, Steven Salaita, J. Kehaulani Kauanui, and Jasbir Puar:
To bemoan the infringement of academic freedom as a result of the boycott is to assume that only Israeli scholars and students are entitled to it. It is to neglect the grisly experience of US-based scholars who have dared to speak on Palestine. Moreover, it is to completely erase the material reality of Palestinian students and scholars who are not eligible to enjoy academic freedom because of the limitation of their movement by checkpoints, the criminalization of their dissent, and death. Between 1972 and 1993, Birzeit University was closed on fifteen separate occasions amounting to over seven years. In 2004, due to the Bantustanization of the West Bank, there was a one hundred percent drop of students from the Jenin Governate who could register at Birzeit- meaning zero students could register because of movement restrictions. From September 2000-2004, Israeli military violence killed 196 students and thirty-eight teachers.
Denials to the rights of speech and movement, not to mention basic resources like food, medicine, and jobs, constrains not just academic freedom but the freedom to prosper and live. The ASA is simply shining a spotlight on these denials. Maybe had university presidents, the media, and countless others spoken out against the denied academic freedom of Palestinian scholars such a resolution would not be necessary.
While less severe, the silencing and bullying of anyone who challenges the particular orthodoxies surrounding Israel reveals the preciousness of academic freedom. The labeling of B.D.S., among others things, as anti-Semitic, as "a blow against academic freedom, in effect, if not in intent" certainly doesn't foster exchange, intellectual debate, and open-mindedness. The pulling of the "anti-Semitic card," the conflation of Israeli government-Israeli policy-Israelis-Israeli Jews-Jews throughout the Diaspora as a single entity, thereby erasing non-Jewish Israelis, and the presumption that to be Jewish is to be Zionist, silences and derails much public discourse. The fear of being labeled anti-Semitic constrains conversations, engagement, and scholarly exchange -- academic freedom. For example, more than 10 years ago, a colleague and myself planned to work on a "Critical Holocaust Anthology," which intended to promote critical conversations about comparative genocidal studies. The publication of the CFP led to ample backlash, name-calling, threats, and a chilling effect on us both. We scraped the project. To talk about academic freedom as an abstraction, as if power, disciplinary affiliation, race, nation, and countless other factors aren't in play is naïve at best.
The boycott, which seeks to spotlight the ongoing atrocities experienced by Palestinians, those living in the West Bank, Gaza, and inside Israel, along with the discrimination and violence directed at African immigrants, is built around promoting not only academic freedom but lived freedom. The systemic name-calling, the disparagement of the American Studies Association, and the lack of engagement with B.D.S/policy questions/the political questions at hand, curtails these conversations.
More than a decade ago, Judith Butler wrote,
If we think that to criticise Israeli violence, or to call for economic pressure to be put on the Israeli state to change its policies, is to be 'effectively anti-semitic', we will fail to voice our opposition for fear of being named as part of an anti-semitic enterprise. No label could be worse for a Jew, who knows that, ethically and politically, the position with which it would be unbearable to identify is that of the anti-semite. The ethical framework within which most progressive Jews operate takes the form of the following question: will we be silent (and thereby collaborate with illegitimately violent power), or will we make our voices heard (and be counted among those who did what they could to stop that violence), even if speaking poses a risk? The current Jewish critique of Israel is often portrayed as insensitive to Jewish suffering, past as well as present, yet its ethic is based on the experience of suffering, in order that suffering might stop.
For many courageous members of ASA, and most importantly Palestinian civil society, silence is not an option. In the face of name-calling, disparagement, intimidation, threats, and efforts to silence, they have shined a spotlight on suffering, demanding change. "True peace must be anchored in justice and an unwavering commitment to universal rights for all humans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, national origin or any other identity attribute" wrote Desmond Tetu in a letter to University California students involved in the B.D.S Campaign. Like those students, scholars in Asian American Studies, American Studies, Native American and Indigenous Studies and _________ (fill in name of next organization to adopt such a resolution) "are helping to pave that path to a just peace."