12/20/2013 06:05 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

The ASA Boycott of Israeli Universities: Defenses and Doubts

Much of the commentary on the decision of the American Studies Association (ASA) to boycott Israeli universities has been incendiary. This is evident in the response of Larry Summers, who styled the boycott "anti-Semitic in effect if not in intent," and of Leon Wieseltier, who called it a "travesty of academic freedom"--the latter quickly earned a commendatory tweet from John Podhoretz: "Bravo, Leon." In such a climate we should remind ourselves just what is being boycotted. As the text of the resolution and the council's explanation make clear, this is not a boycott of individual Israeli academics. It is much more limited, proscribing what in diplomatic terms would be called high-level discussions: the association will not have "formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions," none of which has taken an official stand against the occupation of Palestine. American academics observing the boycott will not accept invitations from Israeli universities. If Israeli academics are invited to speak here, it is on the condition that their travel not be supported by Israeli government funds. The boycott imposes no further restriction on communication with individual Israeli faculty or on the dissemination of their scholarship, so the cries of destroying the flow of ideas and assailing academic freedom seem overblown. Supporters of the boycott will be quick to point out that the obstacles imposed upon Israeli faculty pale in comparison to those faced by their Palestinian counterparts.

The attempt to target institutions rather than individuals is, as Judith Butler notes, consistent with the BDS movement. And this particular action responds to the requests of such groups as the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which has been active since 2004. What statement would the ASA be making if it were deaf to such a request? The ASA's move should also be read alongside growing recognition that ending the occupation will require much more expansive sanctions than have been adopted to date. As Gideon Levy recently observes, boycotting businesses located in the settlements is too limited in scope; every Israeli industry is implicated in the occupation and settlements, and nations end such practices only when they feel that they are paying a heavy price for them.

Also compelling are the conditions set for lifting the boycott in the council's statement on the resolution: "until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law." Human rights and international law are a basement, not a ceiling: they are the minimum standards that nations must observe, and expecting them to do so is neither radical nor unreasonable. Reading this I was immediately enthused that the ASA was a scholarly organization that takes such obligations very seriously and that holds nations to account, including, one would expect, the United States. This sent me racing to their website to discover what sort of related resolutions they have made in the past. I was surprised by what I found. Was there an ASA resolution on the United States' refusal to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women? No. Or a resolution decrying the American vote against the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? No. How about a resolution against the spiralling incarceration of African-Americans and the structural racism of federal laws requiring draconian mandatory minimum sentencing for piddling drug offenses? Or the mass detention of undocumented immigrants? Or the extrajudicial killing and indefinite detention that have become policy in the "war on terror"? No, no, and no. The ASA, in fact, lists exactly two resolutions under the heading "Public Issues": a 2006 resolution on the Iraq War, and a 2005 resolution on academic freedom in the Americas. If we're feeling generous, we might add to these the association's resolutions on academic freedom: a cluster adopted in the wake of the Occupy movement, covering student protest and intellectual freedom in a time of economic crisis, and one adopted in the wake of 9/11, treating intellectual freedom in a time of war.

Even the most expansive reading of past resolutions will thus determine that the association has a thin track record indeed of promoting adherence to human rights and international law. If not growing out of standing commitments, what purpose does the present boycott serve for the association itself? It is largely, as the ASA council statement itself describes it, a "symbolic action." So let's read it as a symbol. The "Israel" it has in mind is in no small measure not the actual nation but the symbolic one, which, in the collective imagination of many, represents the inequities of western imperialism generally and of US imperialism in particular. Focused on this object of reproach, a group can solidify its self-identification as united in the cause of justice. Or, to borrow from René Girard's 2011 book Sacrifice, this kind of collective condemnation of a symbolic enemy allows for a community's sense of its own just action, no matter what relationship the condemnation bears to actual principles of justice. It may be no coincidence that for very good reasons academic organizations like the ASA no longer strongly believe in the virtues of promoting a national tradition, leading to a conflicted sense of purpose. As an organization devoted to studying the world's most heavy-handed superpower, some within the ASA must also have anxieties about the complicity of the association's errand with the kind of national mythography that is the cultural lifeblood of empire. More complicated still are the sympathies of left-leaning Jewish-American members of the association, especially the generation currently at mid-career, who, as WR Mead suggests, are anxious to distance themselves from an Israel that has grown into a monstrous Likudistan deeply at odds with the ethical thought that is the finest portion of the Jewish tradition. Read this way, the boycott symbolically pummels and expels an embodied evil in an effort to consolidate the membership's own self-identification as enlightened and just.

There is a word for such a symbol: scapegoat. And there is a community of people all-too familiar with the way that kind of symbol operates, having been accused of, and given heavy sentences for, everything from the death of Jesus, to the failure of crops in Poland, to the greed of capitalism. It is of course the very community whose ancestral homelands are, mutatis mutandis, represented by the modern State of Israel. That is why the conversation surrounding the boycott has gotten so heated, and occasioned discomfort even among those who would readily concede that the State of Israel has a very spotted human-rights record. Though the ASA boycott is not anti-Semitic, its participation in a certain kind of symbolism can feel to many very much like anti-Semitism.

Anything one writes on this topic is bound to be misinterpreted. So let me close by being as clear as possible. Cultural sensitivity must not lead us to give Israel a "free pass" on its abuses of human rights and international law. We should oppose abuses of human rights wherever they occur, especially when those abuses are widespread or systematic and thus approach the legal standard of crimes against humanity. But there are two separate questions that the ASA boycott forces us to confront. The first is whether such boycotts are legitimate. In many respects I think the BDS movement does pass muster as a principled and nonviolent response to the occupation, though we should recognize the important concerns about academic boycotts raised by the AAUP. The second question is whether the particular group endorsing the boycott is acting out of clear and well-established principles. This is where the ASA case becomes more ambiguous. If there is a problem with the ASA boycott, it is not a problem of activism, but a problem of haphazard activism insensitive to the implications of its irregularity

Other, smaller associations who will now contemplate joining the boycott should weigh that second question carefully. Academics can be faddish in their politics, and I worry that boycotting Israeli universities will quickly become the way to appear au courant. It makes sense in many ways for the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association to have joined the boycott, but does it make sense for many others? As a guiding principle on such matters, I think academic associations would do well to look first within their purview in contemplating activism. Doing so will not only place them on surer ethical ground, but also yield more productive conversations on the complex web of obligations obtaining between intellectual work, one's object of study, and the world at large. Even those supporting the ASA's decision can concede that the association might have been wiser to focus its activism on this nation, where injustices are not in short supply.