Peter Beinart recently argued that the “The Real Problem with the American Studies Association’s Boycott of Israel” is neither its singling out of Israel nor the threat it poses to academic freedom, but its efforts to deny the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state. I agree that those who pushed the boycott seek to delegitimize the State of Israel rather than to work for peace and security for all. But he’s wrong to minimize the other arguments against the boycott: that boycotting Israel does not constitute a double standard and that academic boycotts are not “inherently misguided.”
The campaign to delegitimize Israel is, I believe, the lens that colors the others. Leon Wieseltier and Mark Brilliant have already parsed the ASA’s rhetoric to reveal this motivation. What has not been reported were the actual events at the conference. The “ASA Town Hall: The United States and Israel/Palestine,” one of the meeting’s featured events organized by Curtis Marez, the association’s president, was a vitriolic anti-Israel event that served as a platform for promoting the boycott resolution, not for open debate. One of the authors of the proposal (J. Kehaulani Kauanui) was on the panel, participants in the Activism Committee were pointed out to audience members, and the resolution was handed around the room of nearly 500 for signing. Each of the six speakers articulated the same ideological message about ending the settler-colonialist Zionist project and America’s complicity in maintaining an Apartheid state. It’s putting it mildly to say that there was little debate about how Israelis and Palestinians might constructively work toward peace and to improve the plight of Palestinians. This pro-boycott rally was followed by an award ceremony — given to Angela Davis, an outspoken opponent of Israel – and then the Presidential Address, which Marez used to advocate for the boycott.
If, as Beinart concedes, the ASA’s boycott and the BDS movement more generally are set on “denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one,” then the singling out of one nation’s academic institutions looks a lot more ominous than Beinart suggests. Yes, people are “morally inconsistent” and “[s]ome forms of injustice bother them more than others,” but that assessment far too easily slides into the sloppy justification of targeting Israel alone given by Marez: “One has to start somewhere.” In fact, Beinart’s admission that BDS represents an intolerable attack on the Jewish state vitiates the blasé relativism he espouses elsewhere: After all, what other nation—what other people—is being called upon to justify its very existence?
Beinart’s unwillingness to recognize the inherent danger of academic boycotts is also a problem. Infringements on academic freedom should be deplored whether they come from Brandeis University cutting off its relations with Al Quds University in response to a Nazi-esque rally, Lawrence Summers suggesting that administrators deny funding to academics wishing to attend an ASA conference, or the Israeli government suppressing free speech at its own universities. As an Israeli academic colleague said to me, if you want to boycott something, boycott an orange, not an idea. Don’t insist that an entire professional association boycott ideas, particularly when its constitution claims that it is dedicated to “the strengthening of relations among persons and institutions in this country and abroad…and the broadening of knowledge…about American culture in all its diversity and complexity.” That is, you shouldn’t do so unless you want to turn what was once a scholarly organization into the political party it has become.