Richard L. Cravatts

The ASA boycott: Academic freedom for me, but not for thee

Seeming to give credence to Orwell’s wry observation that “there are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them,” the fatuous members of the American Studies Association (ASA) passed a December 15th resolution to institute an academic boycott against Israeli universities. Admitting that the organization consciously made the decision to ignore the academic transgressions of universities in any number of other totalitarian, oppressive countries which stifle dissent and imprison errant professors, and which might actually deserve to be censured, ASA president Curtis Marez, a University of California at San Diego associate professor of ethnic studies, said “that many nations, including many of Israel’s neighbors, are generally judged to have human-rights records that are worse than Israel’s, or comparable.”  Nevertheless, he contended, his tendentious organization would focus solely on Israeli institutions, since, as he stated quite tellingly and disingenuously, “One has to start somewhere.”

It was a comment that has garnered universal obloquy, primarily because to accept that the ASA was starting with Israel and would then subsequently call for boycotts elsewhere one would have to believe that this Left-leaning group, academics who Professor Bruce Thornton of California State Fresno has characterized as a “motley crew of Marxists, squishy leftists, radical feminists, deconstructionists, social constructionists, multiculturalists, and other postmodern warriors against patriarchal corporate hegemony,” would of course call for boycotts against other errant university systems in other countries. But Professor Marez hinted that was unlikely, that Israel would be the sole target for boycott, since while “the current resolution answers the call of Palestinian civil society, to my knowledge there has never been a similar call for boycott from the civil society in another country.”

That may well be true, but one has to wonder exactly what was so compelling about Palestinian “civil” society that motivated an academic association to call for an academic boycott—something which such reputable groups as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), for example, have pointedly and historically denounced as anathematic to higher education.

Those Palestinian students who ASA pretend to care for so deeply, together with “the Israeli system of occupation, colonization and apartheid that daily violates Palestinian academic and other freedoms,” something ASA members evidently believe to be solely the fault of Israel’s, what circumstances of those students’ current conditions are the direct result of the culture and ideology of the Palestinian Arabs themselves? Is any part of the Palestinians’ lives their own responsibility, or is all of their existence defined by Jewish occupation, dispossession, and brutality, that banality of evil ASA apparently can see in no other state on earth than in Israel?

The ASA has obviously overlooked the pathologies of Palestinian society, crystallized and made more malevolent by the rule of Hamas itself, in which Palestinian children are inculcated, nearly from birth, with seething, blind, unrelenting, and obsessive hatred of Jews, so that kindergartners graduate with blood-soaked hands while toting plastic AK 47s and dedicate their lives to jihad, and older children and college students are recruited to hide explosives on their bodies to transform themselves into shahids—a new generation of kindling for radical Islam’s cult of death.

Parents of these children ASA care so much about, in fact, glorify death and martyrdom and seek the death of their children if they distinguish themselves by murdering Jewish civilians. Hamas also broadcasts children’s TV shows with animal characters who repeat hateful propaganda about Israel, and who encourage children to attack and kill Jews, behaviour the ASA, of course, never mentions and fails to condemn.

All of these alleged transgressions on the part of Israel are often further conflated with the ASA’s view that the “brutal occupation” of Zionism has unleashed these “crimes against humanity” through U.S. complicity, that as its proxy in the Middle East, Israel tarnishes America through its misdeeds and mirrors the U.S.’s own imperialistic, militant, and anti-Muslim impulses. Thus, those ASA members who shared their ideology on the association’s web site in support of the boycott were very clear in their contempt for what they characterize as an “occupation, dispossession and discrimination from which Palestinians daily suffer.”  “This is what the ASA is about,” said University of Florida’s Malini Johar Schueller. “The ASA has been interested in work on imperialism, settler colonialism, and it just seems logical that they supported this.”

The language used by these ASA members is part of the cognitive war against Israel on campuses worldwide, through which Israel is regularly, though falsely, condemned for being created “illegally”—through the “theft” of Palestinian lands and property—and thus has no right to exist. The government is accused of a “brutal,” illegal “occupation” of Palestinian territory, especially Gaza and the West Bank, of being a “colonial settler state,” a Zionist “regime,” a land-hungry nation building an “apartheid wall” as a further land grab, a usurper of property that was lived on and owned by a Palestinian “people” “from time immemorial.”

In fact, many of the American studies professors who populate the ASA have made very specific analogies, not only comparing Israel and the apartheid of South Africa, but also comparing the dispossession of the indigenous native Americans to the hapless Palestinians, who have now become the Left’s victim group of the moment. And many of these American studies experts harbor the same disdain for the United States as they seem to exhibit when speaking of Israel—another explanation for why an academic association whose core focus is American studies would mount such a misguided assault on a country—and area of scholarship—completely outside of their intellectual orbits.

One of those morally-incoherent scholars is Eric Cheyfitz, professor of American Studies and Humane Letters at Cornell University and, not coincidentally, one of the defenders of discredited academic fraud, Ward Churchill. In his essay, “Why I Support the Academic Boycott of Israel,” Cheyfitz articulated very clearly the prevailing ideology of the ASA—that is, that America and Israel are imperialistic, militaristic powers who have and continue to exploit the “wretched of the earth,” and that these countries’ self-pride is misguided and undeserved. “It is worth noting in this respect that just as the myth of American exceptionalism seeks to erase the genocide and ongoing settler colonialism of Indigenous peoples here in the United States,” Cheyfitz pontificated, “so the myth of Israeli exceptionalism seeks to erase Israeli colonialism in Palestine and claim original rights to Palestinian lands.”

“As a professor of Native American and Indigenous studies,” he continued, “I am acutely aware of how the agendas of settler colonialism—land grab being the primary one as it is in Palestine—actively decimated the Indigenous population of the United States.” This kind of language in academia helps reinforce the Left’s notion that the imperialism of Western nations is responsible for setting up racist, oppressive caste systems in developing countries, systems that have to be dismantled through protest, resistance, and divestment campaigns. It has also formed the basis of divestment and boycott petitions that become the ideological blueprints for a virulent campaign to demonize Israel as a racist, “colonial settler” state that lost its moral legitimacy upon its founding by stealing the land of and dispossessing the indigenous Arab Palestinians. What is more, according to the ASA’s collective thinking, the United States, in providing continuous financial support for Israel, is directly responsible for the social injustices taking place in the occupied territories, and, therefore, a response from an American studies association is justified. “As an organization that represents a leading voice in the humanities and cultural studies, and indeed on contemporary issues nationwide,” a statement on the ASA web site crowed, “the ASA is in a unique position to articulate its commitment to social justice and its opposition to extant projects of settler colonialism and racial exclusion, and to help lead the way nationally for other institutions to take part in this worldwide solidarity movement.”

Coupled with academia’s fervent desire to make campuses socially ideal settings where racial and cultural strife cease to exist is the other newly-popular impulse: to inculcate students with a longing for what is called “social justice,” a nebulous term, lifted from Marxist thought, that empowers Left-leaning administrators and faculty with the false ethical security derived from feeling that they are bringing positive moral and ethical precepts to campuses.

For the Left, those seeking social justice, therefore, do so with the intention of leveling the economic, cultural, and political playing fields; they seek to reconstruct society in a way that disadvantages the powerful and the elites, and overthrows them if necessary—in order that the weak and dispossessed can acquire equal standing. In other words, the Left yearns for a utopian society that does not yet exist, and is willing to reconstruct and overturn the existing status quo—often at a terrible human cost—in the pursuit of seeking so-called “justice” for those who, in their view, have been passed over or abused by history. For this reason those organizations and individuals calling for boycotts, divestment, or sanctions against Israel rarely, if ever, note the grave existential threats Israel faces on a daily basis, that the so-called “siege” of Gaza is necessitated by the fact that, since the disengagement in 2005, Hamas has cavalierly lobbed some 12,000 missiles into Southern Israeli towns with the specific intention of killing Jews, and that the dreaded occupation itself is the result, not of an Israeli “land grab,” but a response to Arab aggression.

This rationalization, that violence is an acceptable, if not welcome, component of seeking social justice—that is, that the inherent “violence” of imperialism, colonialism, or capitalism will be met by the same violence as the oppressed attempt to throw off their oppressors—is exactly the style of self-defeating rationality that has proven to be an intractable part of our age’s war on terror and part of the reason that campus antagonists of Israel are so quick to apologize for or totally ignore terrorism on the part of Arabs wishing to murder Jews as part of their “resistance” to occupation.

“American scholars now understand the physical violence that’s part of the Israeli occupation; they understand the massive restrictions on academic freedom for Palestinian scholars that is part of living under an illegal occupation,” said Bill Mullen, a professor of English and American studies at Purdue University and a member of the ASA’s Caucus on Academic and Community Activism, which first put forward the boycott resolution. “These facts are now irrefutable to so many people,” professor Mullen contended, absent any evidence that would support such an outrageous claim, based only on the opinions of like-minded ideologues speaking to each other in an echo chamber, “that the vote indicates a kind of coming to consensus around the illegitimacy of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.”

Overlooking the fact that Israel has clear legal rights and historic claims to Judea and Samaria, or whatever other part of the Levant Professor Mullen defines as comprising  Palestine, his use of the term “occupation of Palestine” is also profoundly revealing because it confirms that either he is manifestly confused about history and thinks there was some factitious state called Palestine comprised of the West Bank and Gaza that he believes Israel now illegally occupies, or, more likely, as many in the BDS movement do, he believes that a country of Palestine existed on all of what is now present-day Israel and even that territory is illegally occupied by Israel—in other words, Israel itself has no legal standing and no legitimacy as a sovereign nation.

Mullen continued that he thinks “what the vote indicates is that people recognize the illegal occupation of Palestine as one of the major civil rights issues of our time globally,” presumably unimpressed by the other, one would think, more compelling situations one could find in the slaughter of 120,000 Syrian civilians in the past year, the murder and mass rape of hundreds of thousands of black Christians and Animists in Sudan, gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia, stoning and honor killings throughout the Arab world, and the suppression of human and civil rights of gays, dissidents, and scholars in any number of Middle East nations. But the Palestinians, who have rejected the opportunity for statehood on at least a half dozen occasions since 1937, define for Professor Mullen and his fellow travelers in the ASA “one of the major civil rights issues of our time.”

Of course, no acknowledgement is ever forthcoming from the ASA boycott proponents as to the reasons why “the illegal occupation of Palestine” exists in the first place as part of daily life for Israeli citizens as well as Arab ones; that is, that Israel’s so-called “brutal occupation” and its military incursions were necessitated by Arab aggression and terrorism, and the use of defensive force has not been a random occurrence based on the whims of a bellicose, sadistic Israeli military. According to its own statement about the boycott, the ASA, in part, called for an academic boycott because the organization’s members could not abide by Israeli universities conducting research to support Israel’s military. “This complicity has been extensively documented,” the ASA web site reads, “and manifests through direct research and production of military technologies,” including the “development of weapon systems used by the occupation army in committing grave violations of human rights.” In fact, by targeting institutions which help develop military technology for Israel, the ASA boycotters are not taking the high moral ground they purport to seek; they are actually helping to achieve what Israel’s Arab foes have long wanted: a militarily-weak Israel whose defenseless citizens can be massacred and, in the favorite exhortation of its jihadist foes, “driven into the sea.”

While they would never accept an attempt to boycott themselves—in which individual academics are tarred, not only by the institutional behavior of their respective universities, but also for the actions and policies of their governments—that is precisely what the ASA boycott does to Israeli academics and why it is so intellectually grotesque. Because they heeded the call from Palestinian “civil society” to implement a boycott against Israel, the ASA has become an association of academics boycotting fellow academics, even though, in the same way Whoopi Goldberg defended Roman Polanski by claiming he had not committed “rape” rape, ASA members are shameless in their assertion that this is not actually an academic boycott, that it targets institutions not individuals, and that, at any rate, it is critical because the Palestinian cause is so profoundly important to the world that it is reason enough to abandon fundamental academic values. “People who truly believe in academic freedom,” wrote Stanford professor David Palumbo Liu with breathtaking audacity on the ASA web site, “would realize protesting the blatant and systemic denial of academic freedom to Palestinians, which is coupled with material deprivation of a staggering scale, far outweighs concerns we in the West might have about our own rather privileged academic freedoms.”

In other words, Israeli scholars are too privileged to enjoy the same academic freedoms as anyone else, and especially the perennially suffering Palestinians, whose fate is clearly the responsibility of Israel. Statehood, academic freedom, national sovereignty, the rule of the law—all these are brushed aside by the ideology of the Left in their pursuit for social justice for the ever-present victim, a way of thinking critiqued by James Burnham in his insightful book, Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism. The academic virtues, the “exceptionalism” of the U.S. and Israel that ASA members dismiss and demean, are, according to Burnham, precisely [the] ideals and institutions that liberalism has criticized, attacked and in part overthrown as superstitious, archaic, reactionary and irrational. In their place liberalism proposes a set of pale and bloodless abstractions — pale and bloodless for the very reason that they have no roots in the past, in deep feeling and in suffering.”

There is another, far darker and more pernicious, aspect to the call for a boycott of Israeli universities. Because what such a boycott does is to effectively silence the scholars of an entire country—a group comprised of what the ASA seemingly defines as racists, imperialists, and colonial interlopers on stolen Arab land—Israeli academics have been suppressed and robbed of the ability to speak. For many on the Left who were students and faculty members during the 1960s, and who are now populating the ASA, it was the influence of the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse and his notion of “repressive tolerance” that changed the way intellectuals understood who should, and should not, have the right to free speech—in short, whose views should prevail in the marketplace of ideas. Marcuse realized that liberal progressivism could not achieve radical social and cultural change if its views had to compete on an equal plane with the conservative ideology of the Right. Why? Because in his view, the repressive force of the existing establishment could not be weakened unless its ability to control speech—and ideas—was diluted. That would only be accomplished, according to Marcuse, by favoring “partisan” speech to promote “progressive” or revolutionary change, and that speech would, by necessity, be “intolerant towards the protagonists of the repressive status quo.”

The ASA’s boycott accomplishes precisely what Marcuse advocated: “the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion . . ,” but in being very selectively targeted at Israel, and Jews, this boycott parallels the actions of radical student groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine, who regularly shout down or prevent pro-Israel speakers (such as Ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine) from even expressing their side of the story about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

There is no surprise that an academic association like the ASA would call for a boycott against only one country—Israel—precisely because a large number of its ranks are steeped in a world view defined by post-colonial, anti-American, anti-Israel thinking, and dedicated to the elevation of identity politics and a cult of victimhood. That they profess to hold high-minded, well-intentioned motives, and speak with such rectitude, does not excuse the fact that their efforts are in the end a betrayal of what the university has, and should, stand for—the free exchange of ideas, even bad ones.

“People we used to think of as harmless drudges pursuing mouldy futilities,” observed Edward Alexander, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, in speaking about a professoriate that has lost its intellectual compass, “are now revealing to us the explosive power of boredom, a power that may well frighten us.”

About the Author
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of the forthcoming book, The Slow Death of the University: How Radicalism, Israel Hatred, and Race Obsession are Destroying Academia.