January 22, 2014

KAIREY: The Boycott to Nowhere

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What do Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benajamin Netanyahu and Cornell University President David Skorton have in common?

They all oppose the boycotting of Israeli academic institutions, a key feature of the Boycott, Divestment, and, Sanctions campaign. The movement calls for a boycott of all Israeli institutions and their faculties regardless of whether or not they are directly complicit in what campaign supporters call “Israeli apartheid.” It does not just want to prevent official partnerships with Israeli institutions — such as Cornell’s construction of a new technology campus with Technion University on Roosevelt Island — but also to keep academics affiliated with such institutions from having contact with other universities. The goal is to get Israel to change its policies towards the Palestinians — including extending a “right of return” to Palestinians displaced during the conflict.

Is the movement going anywhere?

Supporters of the boycott believe that the passage of a supportive resolution by the American Studies Association last month has breathed new life into their campaign. They argue that the “taboo” against any discussion of a boycott of Israeli institutions has finally broken. Thankfully, however, as the movement gains some steam in the halls of academia, its fundamentally misguided nature and major flaws have become more apparent to a larger community.

The first thing that boycott supporters fail to explain is why they choose to single out Israel. It must seem strange — even to some of the most loyal boycott supporters — that all this negative attention is paid to a country that is not just the only democracy in the Middle East, but is among the most protective of civil liberties in the region. Boycott supporters will usually counter by saying that being a democracy that is laudably protective of important rights, particularly gay rights, does not give Israel the right to engage in the purportedly immoral acts against the Palestinians.

This is true, but misses the point. If a country’s violation of international human rights norms is enough grounds to have all of their academic institutions boycotted, then there are dozens of countries that deserve boycotts far more than Israel. If we were to boycott every nation with serious human rights abuses, we would have to avoid contact with a large part of the world.

But, even when it comes to academic institutions in particularly repressive places like China or Iran, what good would come from boycotting their universities because of the actions of their governments? After all, governments violate human rights in ways that academic institutions cannot stop and often fight against. We should seek to maximize interactions between academic institutions around the world. By doing the opposite, we limit our ability to create change through peaceful academic exchange.

Second, the boycott is ultimately counter-productive to the goals of the movement. The boycott makes no distinction between those scholars who support the Israeli policies that boycott supporters find so odious, and those who do not. Therefore, Israeli scholars who want to find a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be caught in the boycotters’ wide net. The boycott, to the extent it is successful, will only serve to hinder dialogue, harden positions and prevent reconciliation from occurring. Those who oppose Israeli policies will now have less of an ability to change the minds of ardent Israeli supporters. Furthermore, by restricting dialogue, the movement for an academic boycott of Israel has made the side of the conflict that they seek to help seem obstinate and unreasonable – two qualities the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has seen enough of.

The third problematic element of the boycott campaign is the painfully obvious hypocrisy of many of its members. Those members of the American Studies Association that supported the resolution favoring a boycott of Israel also believe that the United States is complicit in Israel’s human rights crimes through its support in international institutions and its financial assistance. If that is the case, and we believe that every institution within a country should be held responsible for the malfeasance of its government (arguably a form of collective punishment, which I thought BDS supporters opposed), are not the professors who supported this resolution under an obligation to boycott their own universities?

They will surely not take that strong of a stand. Picking on Israel is far easier than engaging in principled activism that actually affects one’s own life. But if they truly believe in fighting injustice everywhere, why shouldn’t that fight start at home?

So will the movement go anywhere? I am hopeful it will not. The ASA’s resolution has done more to unite universities around the principle of academic freedom than anything else in recent memory. Those who believe that academic freedom – and the free exchange of ideas that it fosters – can be thrown away for the sake of an ideology or political objective are in the minority.

That is the message sent loud and clear by universities like Harvard, Yale, Northwestern, Cornell, Brandeis, and countless others that have swiftly and categorically condemned this campaign. It is both appalling and saddening that academics who owe their careers and livelihoods to being able to use the university as a means of sharing their research and expressing their opinions with scholars from other universities are so willing to deny to other academics the right to do the same thing.