The Academic Boycott of Israel: Pro and Contra

Last spring, Martha Nussbaum made the case against academic boycotts (specifically in the wake of the movement to culturally boycott Israel) in Dissent.

I MUST COMMENT on one very alarming rationale that has been offered in this context. In some of the defenses of the boycotts, the wrongdoing alleged is failure to dismiss scholars who take political positions that the group of boycotters does not like. Here the principle of academic freedom becomes relevant in the most urgent manner. Surely the institutions in question should protect these people, unless they do something that counts as hate speech targeted at individuals, or some other form of criminal conduct. We all know what happened in the McCarthy era, when scholars were fired for political positions that a dominant group didn’t like. As someone whose hiring, along with that of other “leftists,” has been criticized on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal (in a way that my dean, at least, took as tantamount to a McCarthyite call for my firing), I believe that if this principle is once breached, it will hurt most those whose positions go most against the dominant currents of governmental power: feminists, advocates of gay rights, whatever.

In the current issue of Logos, Lawrence Davidson makes the case for a boycott:

The boycott’s impingement on the academic freedom of Israeli scholars has been repeatedly condemned. It has been called “contemptible,” “ hypocritical,” and “an unacceptable breakdown in the norms of intellectual freedom” (these terms have not been applied by these same critics to the destruction of Palestinian academic freedom). For simplicity sake, let us work from the statement of Dena S. Davis, a law professor at Cleveland State University, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on April 18, 2003. Davis writes that “Academic boycotts undermine the basic premise of intellectual life that ideas make a difference, and the corollary that intellectual exchanges across cultures can open minds.”12 Unfortunately, there is nothing necessary about the assumption that the “difference” ideas make results in a more humane world or more humane outlooks. Thus, it is not only positive ideas that can make a difference.