Academic supporters of the Israel boycott should understand that what goes around comes around.
The anti-Israel Boycott Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement is a frequent focus here because it embodies so much of the pathology of the Leftist-Islamist anti-Israel coalition.
While disavowing anti-Semitism, BDS singles out and holds only Israel to standards not applied much less met by any other country in the Middle East or Muslim world. Israel, and Israel alone, is put under a microscope and each defect found turned into grossly exaggerated and often outright false claims of racism, Apartheid, colonialism and so on. Only Israeli academics and institutions are subjected to boycott even though by any objective standard non-Jews are far more free academically and otherwise in Israel than non-Muslims are in the Muslim world.
We also witness the bizarre self-parody of LGBT and Women’s rights groups siding with Islamists who hate LGBT and women’s rights, all in the cause of BDS. There is a sickness beyond reason behind BDS, as witnessed by the BDS claim that Israeli soldiers failing to rape Arab women is racist and open support for Hezbollah as part of the BDS campaign.
BDS and anti-Semitism go hand-in-hand, particularly in Europe. There is a thin line between organizing abusive disruptions of speeches, concerts and lectures by Israelis and throwing the punch or thrusting the knife. That thin line has been breached in Europe, as harsh demonization of everything Israeli stokes and promotes anti-Semitic violence by Muslims to the silence or tacit endorsement of the European Left.
The rhetoric emanating from BDS supporters in the U.S. also is so extreme that even some harsh left-wing critics of Israeli policies have dared call it was it is. It is no surprise that strong BDS supporters like Roger Waters of Pink Floyd conflate criticism of Israel and Jews, and BDS campus activists in South Africa sang “shoot the Jew.”
BDS, because of the facade of supporting Palestinian “civil society,” is in vogue in many corners of American academia. Those academics stand apart from the U.S. population, where support for Israel is at historic highs.
While it’s hard to assess BDS popularity overall in the academic community, there has been a multi-year campaign by well-organized anti-Israeli academics, in coordination with the international BDS campaign, to have academic organizations join the BDS boycott. The Association for Asian American Studies was the first academic group in the U.S. to endorse an academic boycott of Israel.
The American Studies Association leadership recommended a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, and put the vote to the membership. The vote concludes on December 15.
Some supporters of Israel have sought to minimize the significance of the ASA boycott, calling it a watered-down, mostly symbolic vote that will have no real-world impact. Others mock the internal inconsistencies of the Israeli academic boycott, which if carried to its logical conclusion should result in the boycotters boycotting themselves.
I think that misses the point.
The BDS movement does not care whether the ASA boycott itself is effective. What is important to the BDS movement is isolating Israel in every way possible. BDS will take watered-down symbolic isolation if that is what it can get. That is why BDS also seeks boycott resolutions from non-academic professional groups and to prevent the sale of hummus and coffee by Israeli companies. It’s not about supporting academic freedom for Palestinians, it’s about destroying Israel.
The ASA boycott, if approved by the membership, will not be a wall around Israel, but it will be a brick in the wall.
It is against that background that we should consider how we got to the point that the most academically-free nation in the Middle East is the only nation subjected to an academic boycott by academics in the U.S.
The ASA proposed boycott provides a prime example in the form of Claire B. Potter, Professor of History at The New School for Public Engagement, whose specialty is “feminism, political history and cultural criticism.” She blogs at the Tenured Radical column at The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Potter, an ASA member, originally took a principled stand against the ASA boycott of Israel. While paying homage to many of the false anti-Israeli tropes, she nonetheless expressed concern with an academic boycott. On November 20, as the ASA was in the throes of a fierce debate on the issue, Potter wrote a Letter to the ASA Opposing the Proposed Academic Boycott of Israel (image in original, emphasis added):
To: John Stephens, Executive Director of the American Studies Association
Subject: Opposition to proposed resolution before the National Council of the ASA for an academic boycott of Israel.
Please count me as an ASA member who opposes the proposed sanctions of Israel’s academic institutions and, by logical extension, the scholars associated with those institutions, that has been put before the Council by the Academic and Community Activism Caucus. Scholars of any nation ought to be free to travel, publish and collaborate across borders: I consider this to be a fundamental human right, and so does the United Nations. We in the American Studies Association cannot defend some of those human rights and disregard others.
Although it grieves me to oppose a number of distinguished colleagues and friends in this matter, I cannot agree that such sanctions are any more than an empty gesture toward those people who are suffering under, and threatened by, the exclusions, violence and expulsions that are characteristic of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. At the same time, this gesture — which would cost the vast majority of ASA members nothing, as few of us have the occasion to directly do business with Israel’s academic institutions, creates a precedent that the ASA is willing to not just tolerate, but promote, restrictions on academic freedom.
Putting the question of why Israel’s human rights violations are being singled out as especially gruesome, given US complicity in the repression of many peoples across the globe, the ASA also runs the risk of isolating progressive colleagues in Israel by passing this resolution. BDS and PACBI claims, echoed by the ASA colleagues promoting this resolution, that this boycott would be “the same” as similar boycotts enacted against South Africa are simply incorrect, in my view. Full scholarly and historical attention, I am quite certain, would reveal that this is a facile comparison and that the boycott of South Africa was not the engine of that country’s transformation that BDS supporters wish to believe. What would be similar, in my view, is that anti-Occupation academics, including Palestinian scholars employed by Israeli institutions, would be likely to have even fewer resources for their own struggle under a right wing state that has far greater internal and international legitimacy than did South Africa’s apartheid government.
The Academic and Community Activism Caucus — currently populated with longtime BDS activists — insists that their own allies within Israel support this boycott. I believe those claims — many of us who oppose this resolution have friends on the left who have asked us to act on their behalf as well. But I might add that since 2010 the right to free speech in Israel has narrowed dramatically, and providing some context for pro-Palestinian activists’ view that international boycotts would not make their situation dramatically worse.
I disagree. Despite the growth of the US national security state in the past decade, some of us think that freedom of speech is not something you give away — for yourself, or on behalf of another nation’s scholars. Please register my views with the Council.
In a post the next day, Potter repeated that she agreed with the premises of anti-Israeli sentiment, but not the academic boycott:
This is why I oppose the BDS strategy, and the ASA resolution, on the grounds of academic freedom and free speech alone.
The day after that, November 22, Potter for the third time defended her opposition to the ASA boycott not only on grounds of academic freedom, but also because the supporters of boycott resolution had a year to prepare, whereas opponents had it sprung on them with just days notice. (This is a common BDS tactic, and one used to get the AAAS resolution passed as well.) Potter wrote One Side Fits All: An Interesting Development @ #2013ASA, which reads in part:
I would like to point out, however, that a “one-sided appeal for academic freedom” is an oxymoron: you either believe in free speech or you don’t; you either believe in academic freedom or you don’t. There are plenty of people whose noxious and bizarre behavior would have gotten them fired years ago were it not for principles of academic freedom….
Back to the Twitter feed pictured above: the second tweet points ASA attendees to a table where they can get the information BDS wants them to have about the boycott, including the stock answers to commonly asked questions that often show up on this blog and elsewhere. These are what politicians call talking points: they are intended to inform, but also to steer the conversation and imply that other questions, and other answers, are not legitimate. But since we believe in academic freedom: What’s wrong with this picture?
On the face of it, nothing. ASA officers and committee members pushing this resolution on the membership insist that they followed every rule and procedure properly. I believe them, and have been reassured by an excellent source within the ASA that I am right to believe them. You should too.
But the fact is that there is no well-prepared table for those of us who question this resolution, with “clear and helpful handouts.” The program is not stacked with roundtables and panels populated with academic stars, that have been designed to promote or brainstorm a non-BDS approach, an approach that might both address the human rights violations in Israel and the Occupied Territories and preserve academic freedom. How did that happen?
It happened because BDS activists had a year to prepare and those troubled by the resolution had about five days. No one in the membership who I have talked to, supporters and non-supporters of the resolution, knew it was under discussion. No one outside the ASA leadership knew that this resolution was under discussion. We did not know we might need to organize to have our voices heard. No one was given a choice to come to this meeting to engage in vigorous, well-prepared advocacy for other ways of addressing this humanitarian crisis.
So who, exactly, is promoting a one-sided view of the boycott?
Putting aside my disagreement with the premises of the criticisms of Israel, Potter’s letter and follow up was a bold stand. The easiest thing to be on campus and at academic organizations is reflexively anti-Israel. To stand up for principles of academic freedom in the face of a worldwide and highly organized anti-Israel campaign is noteworthy. (Potter, of course, is not alone in doing so.)
Her Open Letter received what for her was unprecedented blog traffic, something she tweeted was “what academic freedom looks like”:
— Claire Potter (@TenuredRadical) November 25, 2013
That bold stand earned Potter immediate social media attack from BDS supporters. Just days after her Open Letter, Potter put up another post responding, in part, to some of the social media attacks, Srsly? Notes on Social Media, #2013ASA. It reads in part:
You may have received something on Facebook today, as well as on Twitter, floating the accusation that my opposition to the academic boycott of Israel being considered by the National Council of #2013ASA is a sham. This opposition is, the messages claims, only an excuse for me to continue an unhealthy and longstanding obsession with a prominent member of the American Studies Association.
This person, it is alleged, was once my friend, but broke off that friendship for unnamed reasons (because I am a psychotic lesbian? Because I have bad politics? Because I am wardrobe challenged? We are taking suggestions in the comments section.) The tweet mentions that this person has blocked me on every electronic media possible, inferring that I have been an e-stalker in the past, and have taken up this deviant behavior again, this time strategizing my cyber-terror through time-consuming arguments on behalf of academic freedom….
This tweet appears to relate to the Facebook campaign against her resulting from her Open Letter opposing the ASA resolution:
— Claire Potter (@TenuredRadical) November 23, 2013
Here are just some of her tweets attempting to deal with accusations made against her by BDS supporters:
— Claire Potter (@TenuredRadical) November 26, 2013
— Claire Potter (@TenuredRadical) November 26, 2013
— Claire Potter (@TenuredRadical) November 25, 2013
@FromaLeftWing very glad to hear it: social media has been vile to those who want alternative to boycott
— Claire Potter (@TenuredRadical) November 24, 2013
On December 6, Michelle Goldberg writing in The Nation noted her own concerns about the ASA academic boycott, citing Potter as an example of someone who generally agreed (as does Goldberg) with the criticisms of Israel but not with the boycott. Goldberg wrote, What Does the American Studies Association’s Israel Boycott Mean for Academic Freedom?, which reads in part:
But even if you believe, as I do, that the Israeli occupation is a great crime, the movement presents real ethical problems when it’s applied to academia. It’s repellant to contemplate Israeli professors being shut out of conferences or barred from journals for no reason other than their ethnicity, or forced to prove sufficient opposition to the occupation to be part of international intellectual life. Arguing against the resolution, New School History professor Claire Potter, who runs a blog called “Tenured Radical” at The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote, “Scholars of any nation ought to be free to travel, publish and collaborate across borders: I consider this to be a fundamental human right, and so does the United Nations. We in the American Studies Association cannot defend some of those human rights and disregard others.”
Some fervent backers of academic BDS reject this argument on the grounds Palestinians are denied their rights to travel and collaborate across borders; in this view, concern for the freedoms of Israeli scholars smacks of bourgeois privilege. Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, has been blithely dismissive of academic freedom as a first principle: “The right to live, and freedom from subjugation and colonial rule, to name a few, must be of more import than academic freedom,” he wrote. “If the latter contributes in any way to suppression of the former, more fundamental rights, it must give way.”
This argument is alarming—who, one might ask, gets to decide when academic freedom must be jettisoned?—but it’s not the one that supporters of the ASA boycott are making….
This is ugly and stupid. One might just as easily make an argument for shunning Noam Chomsky on the ground that his employer, MIT, is a major defense contractor, making him in some ways a party to America’s manifold misdeeds in the Middle East.
So the boycott could turn into a de facto blacklist, though if it manages to contribute to a powerful movement against the Israeli occupation without discriminating against individual scholars, it could also be a force for good.
Goldberg, and apparently many people, were unaware that in the interim Potter had changed her views.
On December 4 Potter tweeted her change of mind to a Salon.com writer who supported the boycott. Potter’s explanation was that she wanted to give the resolution a chance:
@stevesalaita I have decided to switch my vote on this because Council called for a member vote. Think that deserves emphasis for some of us
— Claire Potter (@TenuredRadical) December 5, 2013
@stevesalaita I decided not to oppose the resolution. Although I still have concerns @ academic freedom I want to give it a chance 1/2
— Claire Potter (@TenuredRadical) December 5, 2013
@stevesalaita i voted for it too. As I say, still have concerns, but will give it a chance.
— Claire Potter (@TenuredRadical) December 5, 2013
Goldberg was informed by the BDS international group via Twitter that Potter was now supporting the boycott:
Goldberg spoke with Potter about the change of position, and updated her post as follows (emphasis mine):
Update, December 7, 2013, 5:30pm: After I posted this piece, I learned that Claire Potter had changed her position on the ASA resolution and voted yes. Reached by phone, she explained how the shift in her thinking came out. When she first expressed qualms about the academic boycott, she says, “The response was overwhelming. There were massive numbers of people, including a lot of people I know, just writing these nasty things on my blog about what a horrible person I was.”
As the debate about BDS and academic freedom has moved forward, she looked for a way to engage in it constructively, but increasingly felt like she couldn’t do so from outside. “The problem, when you hold to a position so rigidly, you yourself become part of the polarization,” she says. “I all of the sudden became a cause célèbre for all kinds of other people, when that is really not what I intended at all. I would like to have a conversation about academic freedom within this strategy.”
A couple of things convinced her that that was possible. First, the ASA National Council adapted the boycott resolution to make its commitment to academic freedom clearer. And then, rather than simply passing the resolution itself, it took the unusual step of putting it to a vote of the ASA membership, which struck her as an effort at compromise. “If there had been concessions on both sides and they had been able to come to a consensus around this vision, I felt like I should support them, because compromise is hard work.”
Essentially, she decided to give her colleagues the benefit of the doubt. “It has become clear to me that there is a shift in political concerns, that maybe I need to see how it works,” she says. “Everybody in BDS says this is not a restriction of academic freedom, that individuals will not be targeted. I’m going to take a leap of faith and say ok, lets see if this does in fact work out the way you say its going to work out.”
I reached out to Potter as to the pressure on her, which she emailed had no effect on her. I doubt that, given the Twitter history and Potter’s comments to Goldberg, but here’s what Potter wrote to me:
WAJ: In Michelle’s writing she mentions how you were concerned about the reaction to your initial position. Reading through your Twitter timeline and blog comments, it does appear that there was a rather furious reaction to your initial position. Is that a fair characterization? Did the reaction cause you, at least in part, to reconsider?
Potter: No– I have plenty of experience with strong responses to my views. I did engage with several people who were critical of my stance, and that was productive.
Potter also expanded upon her reasoning (emphasis added):
Here is a slightly more full explanation for why I changed my mind:
The National Council of the ASA made a sincere attempt at compromise, they succeeded and I think they deserve credit for that. Therefore I voted for it, and to give younger scholars a chance to be effective where others have failed. I personally don’t want to undermine the efforts of the Council to hammer out a solution, and because my voice was prominent I have felt I had an obligation to act affirmatively. Although they are bound to confidentiality, and I can’t be sure of this, it is my read on the situation that there were a significant number of people on the Council who had doubts similar to mine and who were persuaded by backers of the resolution. The fact that the phrasing was altered, and the resolution was put to a member vote (which was not initially the plan), means that supporters of the resolution also addressed concerns voiced by many of us.
The lesson here is not to single Potter out. If anything, she should be praised for her openness in expressing her views. That openness gives us a chance to understand why we cannot trust our academic freedom to “tenured radicals.”
The willingness with which the pro-BDS supporters manipulated the process and easily cast aside academic freedom is not unexpected. That is how the anti-Israel campaign takes place, whether at the U.N. Human Rights Council or at the American Studies Association.
What is most concerning is how those who support the boycott treat academic freedom as just another casualty of the war on Israel, much as the U.N. Human Rights Council makes a mockery of human rights in its anti-Israel zeal.
Those who are willing to take away academic freedom do not deserve a chance. They do not deserve compromise. They deserve the type of principled opposition Claire Potter first forcefully advocated.
Apparently Claire Potter was part of the rush to judgment against the Duke Lacrosse players (h/t commenter at Volokh). As K.C. Johnson says at the link, “being a ‘tenured radical’ means never having to say you’re sorry.”
So too here, what if giving the academic boycott a “chance” fails? How to you unring the academic freedom bell? The irony is that those who demand tenure to secure their own academic freedom seem awfully cavalier about other people’s academic freedom.
In other news, via Jonathan Marks at Commentary, there is significant pushback against the boycott call:
Simon Bronner of Pennsylvania State University, the editor of the ASA’s Encyclopedia of American Studies, has led the effort to oppose the boycott (his petition is here), and other thoughtful members of the ASA have weighed in. ASA’s leaders have done what they can to shut out critics. ASA’s president Curtis Marez, according to Bronner, flatly refused his request to “provide corrections of misstatements, information on reasons for non-endorsement, and the possibility of extending the deadline for voting.” He did so even though the Council has communicated to members a lengthy justification of its actions before calling the vote.
Opposition is coming from other corners of academia, too. The American Association of University Professors, which criticized the Asian American Studies Association when it passed a boycott resolution, has issued an open letter urging members of the ASA to vote this new resolution down.
Nothing surprises me anymore about the intellectual dishonesty of BDS supporters, and they are no less dishonest just because they are academics.
(Featured Image: Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren shouted down at UC Irvine 2010)DONATE
Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.