As the holiday season approaches, it is also time for annual meetings of different scholarly associations. Recently, the usual activities –presenting research, networking and job hunting — have been augmented with the latest academic fixation: Israel bashing. Two years ago, the American Studies Association [ASA] voted to boycott Israel’s academic institutions. At the end of last month, the American Anthropological Association passed a similar resolution and now awaits the full membership’s approval. In addition, the National Women’s Studies Association announced its support for BDS — the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign. A condemnation of Israel, but not an academic boycott, is on the agenda for the upcoming meeting of the American Historical Association.
The public at times takes their cues from scholars who, they assume, form opinions about world affairs based on rationality, diligent investigation of conflicting evidence, and moral and factual expertise derived from their scholarship. Unfortunately this is not the case. Academics are often guilty of the same irrationality and extremism as those with less education. The record of academic folly – and worse – in responding to world affairs is as long as it is dispiriting to anyone hoping for good judgment and even simple morality from eminent thinkers.
German academics were among the most fervent supporters of Hitler’s Third Reich. Philosophers (most notably Martin Heidegger), historians, and scientists rallied to the Nazi banner. Nobel prize winning scientist, Philipp Lenard, “greeted the coming of the Third Reich with enthusiasm, celebrated the removal of Jewish professors from the universities, and published a four-volume textbook on German Physics in 1936-7 which he clearly hoped, ” historian Richard Evans writes,” would provide the foundation for a new, racially based ‘Aryan physics’ that would eliminate the Jewish doctrine of relativity from German science altogether.”
American universities were slow to recognize the menaces of the Nazi regime. A German Harvard alumnus who was a fervently anti-Semitic member of Hitler’s inner circle was an honored participant at that university’s commencement in 1934 despite protests against his presence. Harvard and other leading America universities sent official representatives to Heidelberg University to commemorate the 550th anniversary of its founding, notwithstanding Heidelberg’s expulsion of Jewish faculty and students. America’s preeminent diplomatic historian excused Hitler’s militarization of the Rhineland and denied that Hitler was a militarist.
Nor was the record better when it came to other tyrannical regimes of the 20th century. Stalin’s Soviet Union, despite a death toll running in the millions, proved a particular favorite of the intelligentsia. George Bernard Shaw wrote that “Stalin has delivered the goods to an extent that seemed impossible ten years ago; and I take my hat off to him accordingly.” In the midst of the great purges of the 1930s, the eminent English social scientists Beatrice and Sidney Webb hailed Stalin’s Russia as “a new civilization” and argued that “Stalin is not a dictator” and applauded Soviet society as “the most inclusive and equalized democracy in the world.”
Support for Stalin was strong among select prominent American intellectuals and academics, Hundreds of whom signed a letter to oppose to what it called the “fantastic falsehood that the USSR and the totalitarian states are basically alike” and insisted “that Soviet and Fascist policies are diametrically opposed” – just days before the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939. More recently, Richard Falk, Princeton Professor emeritus of International Law and Practice, wrote in a 1979 New York Times editorial, that Ayatollah Khomeini “may yet provide us with a desperately-needed model of humane government for a third-world country.”
As George Orwell famously wrote “one has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man can be such a fool.”
The current assault on Israel undermines the integrity of these academic associations and disqualifies them as credible opinion leaders. The anti-Israel resolutions are intellectually and morally dishonest. They are based on tendentious, easily disproven allegations that derive from an entirely one-sided perspective on the matters at issue. Context and balance – key components of all scholarship -are entirely absent from resolutions that simply ignore such realities as ongoing Palestinian terrorism or Israel’s many peace offers. There is a willful failure to recognize that academic boycotts are part of the BDS movement which seeks to delegitimize and entirely eliminate the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. As BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti has said, “We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine,” and to him Palestine includes all of Israel.
Furthermore, the call for academic boycotts violates what should be a bedrock value: academic freedom, exchanges, and dialogue. Indeed, the American Association of University Professors opposed academic boycotts even of apartheid South Africa. When a British teachers union considered academic boycotts of Israel in 2007, over 300 American college presidents condemned the proposal, stating that it was “antithetical to the fundamental values of the academy where we will not hold the intellectual exchange hostage to the political disagreements of the moment ….” When the ASA passed its academic boycott of Israel, over 250 university presidents and scholarly organizations condemned the move.
But these cautionary voices appear to be losing ground.
Given the horrors of the contemporary world, what can explain academics’ obsession with Israel and its notably independent institutions of higher education? As sociologist Paul Hollander observed about his own field, “In the decades which followed [the 1960s] even the striving for some approximation of impartiality has become suspect as not merely unrealistic but also undesirable. …The massive waves of social criticism issuing from that period produced a generation fully convinced that American society has been the most evil, hypocritical and corrupt that ever existed.”
What is true of Hollander’s field applies to recent trends in academia in general and provide the driving force behind the apparently accelerating campaign against Israel. We now face a growing attempt to hijack scholarly associations for a prejudiced political agenda directed against the only long standing democracy in the Middle East.
Hopefully more responsible and fair-minded heads will prevail as this pernicious boycott measure makes the rounds. Arab-Israeli issues are beyond the purview of these associations and it is noteworthy that only 16 percent of ASA members voted to endorse the boycott, and only 35% of members of Women’s Studies even bothered to vote. But it would be wise for the general public to remember that academics and their associations are not endowed with any more insight or knowledge than the rest of us, and it would behoove us to treat their pronouncements with skepticism.
Henry D. Fetter, Esq., a Los Angeles-based independent historian, contributed to this post.