Academic Boycott: Unjust, Simple-Minded, Unhelpful

The academic boycott campaign is a campaign to exclude Israelis from the intellectual and cultural life of humanity.  It is an effort to proscribe Israelis, and only Israelis, from the global academic community. It is also an initiative to proscribe all who have interchange with Israelis or cooperate with their institutions or lead students in study abroad in Israel from doing our work.

The academic boycott campaign seeks first to discriminate on the basis of nationality.  Are you an Israeli citizen working for an Israeli academic institution? Boycotters claim Israel, the Jewish state, is abnormally evil, a fulcrum of global imperialism, a colonial state, a uniquely racist state.  In this logic, the nation must be proscribed –and Israelis working in complicit institutions must suffer intellectual and cultural boycott too. Such human beings must be barred from the free and open international exchange of intellectual ideas.  Moreover, those who want to know as much as possible about Israel/Palestine, are also to be barred from cooperation with such people and institutions.

As Howard Jacobson has stated, the boycotters clap their hands over their ears and say Israelis should not be listened to – they will not have a hearing where these people can shout loud, or close down professional associations with boycott motions, or remonstrate with signs and slogans on North American campuses.  Moreover,  boycotters say, insultingly, intellectual life in our country and our universities will not suffer by the absence of voices and perspectives from Israel.

Most in the Boycott movement believe Israel was born in original sin.  For such folks, Israel  is not  another post-WWII state carved out of the complicated politics of post-imperial withdrawal and ethnic partition – like Cyprus, or India/Pakistan; the Israeli Palestinian conflict is unique and unlike other conflicts.  Boycott proponents present a mystified narrative in  which Israel is the colonial power rather than Great Britain, and the Israeli  state  is created as an alien Western imperial implant in Arab land.  Such mystification omits entirely that Jews were early inhabitants of the area, that Israelis were minority figures of oppression from wherever they came, mostly refugees from Empires, and that Israel came to be in the end,  in what was a colonial revolt against the last stages of the British mandate and a defensive war after statehood between competing nationalisms and surrounding nations.  Israel is the source of all evil; the Palestinians can do no wrong.  Complexity,  the multi-varied nature of Zionism, the side-by-sidedness of two conflicting national narratives and competing national aspirations is simply denied; a single narrative is offered instead, labels and overstated claims describe Israel, and one set of national aspirations is embraced and the other set is erased.

What is more, all in this mystified narrative is radically exaggerated – Israeli human rights abuses (they exist, I oppose them also) are not mere human rights abuses, they are “Nazi-like,” they look like South African apartheid; they amount to genocide.  Gaza is thought to be the Warsaw ghetto or, worse, a concentration camp; the embargo on Gaza is a kind of terror regime like the Nazis created in Eastern Europe. And it is taken for granted that an all-powerful Israel lobby or Jewish lobby manipulates and controls the largest superpower in the world and helps prevent Israel from being called to account.  All this runs dangerously close to and incorporates elements of classical anti-Semitism.

It is important that readers know from where this indictment originates. A sense of history since 1945 is warranted. The origins of this indictment and narrative are not in Israeli human rights abuses (many states commit human rights abuses or occupy the territory of ethnic minorities); we should want to ameliorate such conflicts, and get rights protected and recognized.   This view, however, stems first from  identifiable Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet efforts to proscribe Israel, enforce orthodoxy in restive east European “people’s democracies,” and win friends in the Arab Third World. Such initiatives led to the declaration that Zionism is racism, as the UN said in 1975.  The view stems too from Trotskyite and other Marxist efforts to substitute a new “campist” politics — a politics of “camps,” or of progressive states versus other states — for the failed politics of late 20th century socialism. The view has subsequently been picked up by retrogressive forces in the Arab world, neo-fascist regimes and Islamo-fascist movements which masquerade as pro-resistance forces, and which some on the radical left count as progressive forces because they are part of anti-imperial resistance.  The view is also spread by some voluntary international organizations and inadvertently by the dull stupid and non-discerning global media.

The academic boycott effort is also rooted in an implausible assumption, that all Israeli academic institutions are complicit in Israeli occupation of Palestine and all people working in such institutions are guilty.  It is indeed rather the case that most academic institutions are the centers of opposition to continued occupation of the West Bank and serve as the bases of Peace Now and other Israeli oppositional currents.  Were American universities complicit in Vietnam?  Yes, some were, including my own.  But were they more importantly sites of opposition to the Vietnam war? Yes, better believe it, and they helped to bring the war to a close.

Finally, the effort is a clear attack on the principle of academic freedom, which puts heavy premium on the need to hear and examine all sides, the importance of the free flow of communication and ideas, and the necessity to approach and to understand things in their complexity.  The principle of academic freedom means that no discrimination must be directed at colleagues on the basis of nationality, race, or religion. No side in the conflict, it is assumed, has a monopoly on truth, and therefore the effort to shut up Israelis, to clap hands tightly on our ears and shut their voices and views out from our consideration, is a totalitarian initiative to control thought.  It attacks Israel but mposes controls on us. What is needed is more freedom, more voices, more argument, not less.  Universities and professional academic associations that shut out thought cease to be real universities.

The irony here is that shutting out thought from such venues at the same time produces no real results in the search for peace.  Does it bring the parties together for negotiations?  Does it stop a single settlement?  Defray a single rocket?  Create a majority for peace in Israel?  Create a majority for peace in Palestine?  Does it get people talking together or testing and probing the basis of a workable, reachable two state agreement?

This brings me to my final worry. Wherever boycott is embraced and enacted, wherever mystic narratives substitute for complex and compelling ones, the thrust is toward normalizing exclusive or heavy focus primarily on Jews as fit targets for proscription and punishment. The policy of boycott is the product of a Manichean politics of demonization pitting evil against good, and positing supposed all encompassing power on one side and  all-innocent victimization on the other. In turn, it sets off and then supports a politics of interrogation, stigmatization, and exclusion in the very places it comes to hold sway – in academic departments, in unions, in professional associations, in graduate student bodies, and in colleges and schools.  Those who do not support it or stand against it are accused in turn of being insufficiently supportive of human rights, or even worse, of being pro-imperialist, pro-Zionist, pro-apartheid, uncaring about Palestinian rights, and pro-occupation.  They are  basically in league with the devil.

Boycott closes down discussion rather than opening it up.  It starts with limiting the academic freedom of others (Israelis) and winds up also limiting our own.  And it does so while increasingly pointing fingers primarily at Jews.



About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.