THE BLOG
12/21/2013 12:21 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2014

The Academic Boycott of Israel: A Well-Intentioned Bad Idea

The American Studies Association, a group that represents about 5,000 scholars, has adopted a resolution boycotting Israeli academic institutions. This is the second major academic group to adopt such a boycott, following the Asian Studies Association. The ASA boycott resolution states that "the United States plays a significant role in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the expansion of illegal settlements," that "there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation, and Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students," and that the ASA is "cognizant of Israeli scholars and students who are critical of Israeli state policies" and the ASA is dedicated to the right of students and scholars to pursue education and research without undue state interference."

Therefore, the resolution declares, "It is resolved that the American Studies Association (ASA) endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It is also resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement."

That last clause about "research and public speaking" is significant. The ASA is presumably making a reference to the Anti Boycott law that Israel adopted in 2011. Under this law, anyone who participates, speaks in favor of or even publicizes the existence of a boycott of any Israeli business or group (e.g. settlement-operated businesses) is subject to civil liability, loss of all government privileges such as tax exempt status and exclusion from eligibility for all government support. Such as, for example, the kind of support for research on which scholars depend. These determinations are made by Ministry of Finance officials without any trial or hearing or presentation of evidence. The debate over this bill was explicitly couched in terms of free speech, and the successful sponsors argued that free speech has no place in Israel because there is no constitution, and for courts to try to protect rights would be "undemocratic."

In other words, to some degree the ASA's action is presented as a retaliation against Israel's previous denial of academic freedom. This puts supporters of Israel who are also supporters of academic freedom in a bit of a bind. Of course, it is perfectly possible -- indeed laudable -- to simultaneously stand in support of a country and nonetheless criticize its government. That's what free speech is all about.

Plenty of the ASA members who voted for the boycott are Jewish. For that matter, there are both Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis who have come out in support of the ASA's academic boycott. And of course the boycott affects both Jewish and non-Jewish Israeli academics. All of which might make one think it would be very difficult for Israel's American advocates to dismiss the ASA's action as anti-Semitism. One would be wrong, of course: the pro-Israel lobby has geared up its usual machinery to tar anyone who supports the ASA as an anti-Semite.

But the fact is that criticisms of the ASA have fallen in to a dispiriting mindless pattern should not detract from three important points: the ASA academic boycott is an extremely poor strategy it establishes no coherent precedent, and it is a betrayal of the very principles that the ASA purports to be defending.

As a way to put pressure on Israel to reform its ways, an academic boycott of Israel is a poor strategy precisely for those people who oppose the actions of the Israeli government. The reason is simple: academia is one of the few sectors in Israeli society where one finds a critical public voice supporting liberal democratic principles. Israeli academics have been eager to criticize their own government's actions. Peace Now has a Facebook page called "sue me, I support the boycott" and Professor Mordechai Kreminitzer of the Israel Democracy Institute published an angry editorial that among other things points out the law's chilling effect on free expression and the total lack of due process protections that it provides. For the ASA to declare a kind of academic war on Israeli academics and universities is to attack the people who are fighting for freedom of expression on the front lines.

Second, this is a very difficult precedent to set. As critics of the ASA have been quick to point out, no similar effort at a boycott has been undertaken with respect to academics in China, Russia or any number of other states whose records on matters of human rights and academic freedom are at least as suspect as Israel's. Jeremy Suri (who unfortunately also plays the anti-Semite card) makes a nice point: "the sponsors of the ASA resolution condemn both the United States and Israel, but they only exclude the Israeli institutions from their organization. The sponsors continue to collect their paychecks and defend their own tenure in American universities. By their logic, why shouldn't they boycott American universities too?" (Of course, Noah Chomsky never minded taking research funds from the Pentagon).

Third, and most important, an academic boycott is a contradiction of the very principles of academic freedom that the ASA purports to be upholding. The resolution states its opposition to "undue state interference," but states are not the only actors whose actions can chill free expression and inquiry. The ASA's actions require its members to cut off lines of inquiry and investigation, sever research and intellectual relationships, ignore resources and information central to their research ... in short, the ASA is calling on its members and American institutions to shut down lines of inquiry and teaching on ideological grounds. This is as direct as it gets; the fact that there is no state sanction behind the effort goes to its effectiveness, not the nature of what is being attempted.

One does not need to be a knee-jerk AIPAC supporter to reject the ASA's action. I support a boycott of settlement products, for example, and I similarly support withholding contributions to organizations that provide support for illegal settlements. (Dear settlement businesses: sue me, I support a boycott!) But for American academics to declare a kind of war on Israeli academics is wrongheaded regardless of one's position on the larger issues.