The American Studies Association (ASA) recently passed a resolution boycotting Israeli universities. The rationale provided for the decision is straightforward: Israeli universities are institutions of a repressive state and deserve to suffer for its policies. Not surprisingly, the boycott generated a heated debate in the United States.
Among those who criticized it, two arguments emerged: The first is that the resolution violates the academic freedom of Israeli scholars. The second is that the ASA suffers from pathological selectivity: Iran executes homosexuals; Saudi Arabia persecutes women; Egypt’s generals squelch its fledgling democracy. How is it that Israel remains the prime target for the ASA’s wrath? TWEET
Both of these arguments fail. If there is something amiss about the ASA’s decision, and I think there is, it is for other reasons. The first claim falters because it concedes that Israeli universities may well have done something wrong. The second falls short because it forgets that if Israeli universities have done something wrong, it does not quite matter what others are doing.
The ASA asserts that “Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to…policies that violate human rights.” This is vague. Does that mean Israeli universities are guilty by association, because they are funded by a state that engages in unjust policies? Following this rationale, Israeli hospitals, elementary schools and the state’s power company are also legitimate targets for boycotts, and American doctors, teachers and electric grid workers should also sever all ties with their professional counterparts in the Jewish State. But such a conclusion is worse than absurd; it recalls the views of those who justify violence against Israeli civilians by claiming that there are no innocents in an occupying state. Surely, this is not what ASA members had in mind.
What they must have meant, rather, is that Israeli universities are doing something wrong; that they are actively propping up the occupation of Palestine. But Israeli universities cannot be accused of this. In fact they are the staunchest holdouts of Israeli liberalism. Most of the internal criticism of the Jewish State’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza originates in its universities. Israeli scholars overwhelmingly use tenure and other academic protections to rail against the exact injustices that the ASA is concerned with. And the ASA’s counter argument, that the resolution is not aimed at particular scholars but rather at the universities that employ them, is nonsense. The two are inseparable. The activities of Israeli academics as well as the protections they enjoy, everything that allows them to protest Israel’s behavior — from sabbaticals to tenure — is paid for and tolerated by Israeli universities.
Now, it is certainly true that there are research institutes in Israeli universities that focus on military strategy. These bodies provide outlets for officers from the Israel Defense Forces to consider questions of local and regional strategy. But does this make such institutes and their host universities supporters of the occupation? One must examine the actual views of the researchers and officers involved. One must look at the studies and reports actually produced. And when one does, it is far from clear that these bodies are hothouses in which the seeds of oppression sprout. And even if they were, when one considers the totality of activities on Israel’s campuses, the balance sheet of the state’s universities remains overwhelmingly impressive.
We are left with a dire conclusion: The ASA’s decision singles out those who, far from being implicated in the wrongs of occupation, actively work against them. If the ASA singled them out without bothering to check for culpability, it is merely careless and incompetent. If the ASA purposefully targeted the innocent in order to sway public policy, it is odious. One assumes that the latter is not true. But the former does not paint a flattering portrait either.