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How not to fight an anti-Israel boycott

Zionists can do a whole lot better than arguing that there are worse offenders than the Jewish state

There are many good reasons to oppose the American Studies Association (ASA) decision to boycott Israeli universities. But there are some bad reasons as well. Many arguments against the boycott play exactly into the hands of the pro-boycott propagandists and give them the ammunition they need to continue their poisonous campaign with renewed vigor and self-righteousness.

The two most dangerous “objections” to the boycott consist of these arguments: 1) There are worse violators of human rights in the world, so why pick on Israel? And 2) Israel is aware of her “crimes,” and is about to repent and behave.

These two arguments have been used as a crutch by many commentators, including several academics who wrote articles in the Jewish press, ostensibly opposing the proposed boycott. I consider such arguments damaging.

Proclaiming: “You caught me stealing, but there are bigger thieves in town” is precisely what the boycott cronies want to hear, and the ASA president’s response, “We have to start somewhere,” sounds more compelling than the plea for first chasing after the other thieves in town. After all, once we admit to being part of the Mafia, we have no business telling the police, or even self-appointed vigilantes, how to go about fighting crime, and we should not be surprised if we are the first to be arrested.

My purpose in this article is to assure students and readers that the case against academic boycott is not as flimsy as these arguments make it sound, and that the vast majority of faculty and researchers in American universities do recognize both the anti-academic character of the boycott campaign and the distorted substance of its allegations.

They recognize that Israel did not choose to occupy another people and that her forced presence in the West Bank cannot end unilaterally, without an end-of-conflict agreement.

The majority of faculty recognizes that, obviously, the occupation “has a negative impact on the working conditions of Palestinian researchers and students” (this is a quote from the ASA resolution). But it is also obvious that Israel cannot lift movement restrictions in the West Bank while she is intimidated daily, both rhetorically and physically, with existential threats; normalcy has its price — it must be symmetrical.

They recognize that while occupation is ugly and unsustainable, the Arab side shares (at least) equal responsibility for prolonging this conflict by nourishing a culture in which coexistence is a sinful thought.

In particular, Palestinian educators, researchers, students and academic institutions who now call for boycotting Israel are greatly responsible for perpetuating this culture of anti-coexistence, hence no less deserving of a boycott than their Israeli counterparts. Most academics would agree that, by any reasonable criterion, denying peoplehood to a people, for more than 65 years, is no less a crime than causing students at Nablus University to be late to class.

What ASA members should be most concerned about is their professional reputation, having let their organization be hijacked by the rhetoric of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement and its radical supporters. While the resolution itself may sound benign, ASA members should have taken a hard look at the purpose for which this document will be used in the future.

The leaders of the BDS movement do not hide that purpose: In every conversation with them, they make it crystal clear that their ultimate goal is not to end the occupation, nor is it to achieve a peaceful solution in the Middle East, but rather to defame Israel in the public eye, to choreograph an arena where Israel’s criminality is debated, to intimidate pro-coexistence voices into silence, if not shame, and eventually bring about Israel’s isolation, if not her demise.

Omar Barghouti, the key ideologist of BDS, stated publicly (Sept. 29, 2013), “Colonizers [read: Zionists] are not entitled to self-determination, by any definition of self-determination.”

ASA members should also take a hard look at what this resolution would do to campus climate, how it would alienate faculty members who choose or need to collaborate with Israeli universities and what it would mean to the posture of Jewish students on campus once BDS supporters sense the smell of victory, however mild.

A special breed among BDS supporters is the one called “history professors.” These tenured enigmas are as quick to desecrate the word “apartheid” as they are to rewrite new chapters of Jewish history. Some of these “history professors” can preach for hours and hours on the moral right of the Palestinian people to self determination and, at the same time, ignore or deny the right of their neighbors to the same self determination.

In the old days we used to label such professors “racists,” but nowadays this label is reserved strictly for Islamophobes and “white settlers’ colonial societies,” so, on a technicality, a racist can pose as a human rights activist. One of Israel’s painful misfortunes is that so many history professors formed their worldview at a time when the only villains in town were “white settlers.”

Today, when there are no such settlers in existence (except perhaps the British settlers in the Falkland Islands), history professors must invent them, to fit the script, no matter how absurd the resemblance. And you can guess whom they chose for the honor — the only functioning society in the Middle East that speaks the language of its historical birthplace.

On the positive side, we should not forget that despite its symbolic victory in the ASA case, the BDS movement has given the Jewish people two important gifts. First, support of BDS has become a crisp and visible litmus test by which to distinguish potential discussants from hopeless bigots, and by which to determine whom to include and whom to exclude from the big tent of “Jewish conversation.” Drawing such red lines was one of the smartest things our sages enforced to preserve Jewish identity. At times it involved painful decisions, which left the Karaites, the early Christians, the Shabtaim, the Spanish Conversos and “Jews for Jesus” out of the community. These were necessary, life-saving decisions. Today, as if by divine supervision, BDS supporters find themselves excluded from the tent of Jewish conversation — a life-saving demarcation line has been drawn, and a stronger, more united community has emerged.

The second blessing has been a miraculous awakening and an unprecedented galvanization of Jewish students and faculty to confront the dangers of the BDS assault. It is still too early to assess, but I would nevertheless venture to predict that next year will not be an easy one for Israel’s enemies on campus.

An early version of this article has appeared in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

About the Author
Judea Pearl is a professor of computer science at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named after his son, the slain Wall Street Journal reporter. The Foundation was formed to "continue Daniel's life-work of dialogue and understanding and to address the root causes of his tragedy." Judea Pearl is co-editor with his wife Ruth Pearl of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award. Judea Pearl was born in Tel Aviv and is a graduate of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology.