On the Academic Boycott of Israel

by Akim Reinhardt

Torn pagesLet me begin with some personal disclosure. I am a half-Jewish American who has never been and has no personal connection to Israel. In the early 1960s before I was born, my mother, who has otherwise lived her entire life in The Bronx, spent two years on a northern Israeli kibbutz named Kfar Hanassi. Over the years she has occasionally told stories of her time there and maintained some long distance friendships. That one, small tangent is the full extent of my personal association with Israel; in other words, there is virtually none.

In addition to having never been to Israel and never having had any friends or known relatives who live there, I also have no spiritual connection to the place. Though raised Jewish, my inter-faith parents were ambivalent about religion and occasionally outright hostile to organized, institutional forms. I have also been an atheist my entire adult life. The city of Jerusalem and holy sites like the Wailing Wall have no more religious meaning to me than Catholic Cathedrals or Buddhist monasteries. I simply admire the architecture, as the old saying goes.

Yet despite all this, I'm well aware of the hold that the concept of Israel has on American Jewry in general, which is why I disclose my Jewishness. For many American Jews, regardless of their religiousness or lack thereof, Israel is a powerful symbol. As someone whose maternal Jewish grandparents fled Poland and Rumania not terribly long before WWII, and whose grandmother lost almost all of her entire extended family in the Holocaust, I understand that.

You can't grow up with family stories of violent, pre-war persecution, narrow escapes, the two cousins who survived unspeakable horrors, and seemingly countless dead relatives you never met, and not be affected. Refugee trauma is real and it often reverberates down through several generations.

So even though Israel is a place I have virtually no connection to whatsoever as a country or religious site, I am cognizant of the potent symbol it remains for millions of Jews who don't live there. For many Jews, the historical trauma of the Holocaust, not to mention the longer history of persecutions, violence, and ethnic cleansings in Europe and the Middle East, is real. Although most of today's Jews have never experienced a pogrom, survived a concentration camp, or been a refugee, for many of them the echoes of that past remain.

Thus, for many ethnic Jews, Israel continues to stand as the symbol of last resort, the theoretical lifesaver against the turbulent tides of history. I recognize the power that symbol has for many American Jews. It has the capacity to color people's interpretations, definitions, and understandings of Israeli affairs, particularly if they, like myself, have no real connection to Israel, thereby rendering it more abstract.

I do not believe that Israel, as a symbol to Jews, colors my own thinking of Israel the nation. Nonetheless, disclosure is important, particularly because I am going to discuss the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions ovement (BDS) against Israel. Some people may suspect that being half-Jewish (my father's family are White Protestants from North Carolina and California) affects my understanding and interpretations. I don't think it does, but I certainly won't hide the fact or pretend its irrelevant to everyone.

I consider myself to be among the growing ranks of American Jews who accept modern realities: Possessing a massive nuclear arsenal and highly trained and equipped armed forces, Israel has long been the dominant military power in its region and is no longer the fragile upstart in danger of being pushed into the sea; Israel's strong, developed, modern economy is marked more by its vibrant high-tech sector than by starry-eyed and occasionally racist bromides about turning the desert into a garden; like any other government, Israel's is plagued at times by the mortal foibles of human error, dogma, deceit, and greed; a growing tide of religious fundamentalism threatens, influences, and even manipulates Israel's parliamentary politics; and the modern state of Israel should not be automatically or primarily defined by, or insulated from criticism because of, past historical traumas or assumptions of righteousness. Rather, today's Israel should be defined by and critiqued on its current policies and actions, some of which are reprehensible.

Israel is a modern, developed nation state, like many others, not some morally superior paradise in the making or national song of destiny, and as such, it is quite capable of making bad decisions and taking regrettable actions, just like any other modern, developed nation state. It is absolutely wrong to believe past wars or even the Jewish genocide of the 1930s and 1940s somehow render Israel immune to criticism here in the year 2014. And it is morally repugnant to equate reasonable criticism of the Israeli government with anti-Semitism.

As with any nation, there is much to criticize about Israel. In particular, there is the issue of Palestinian rights.

For many reasoned critics of Israeli policies and actions in the occupied territories, the BDS movement has become both a rallying point and a tactic that can possibly help bring about positive change.

Since its inception, the BDS has gained momentum as a form of protest against Israeli policies and actions in the occupied territories, and understandably so. Boycott has sometimes been a very successful tactic for protest movements in the post-WWII world. The American Civil Rights movement and the South African anti-apartheid movement are just two examples of economic boycotts that had a profound impact and helped achieve positive change. In addition to economic ramifications, boycotts can also have the effect of bringing increased attention and scrutiny to an issue.

To that end, I respect the decision of those who commit to boycotting Israeli businesses that profit from the situation in the occupied territories. Personally, I have no economic connections to Israel but, for example, I would have no problem with my pension plan divesting from Israeli institutions that do business in the occupied territories (I don't actually know my pension plan's policy on the matter).

However, I want to address one specific component of the BDS with which I strongly disagree: the wholesale academic boycott of Israeli universities.

Thus, the final piece of personal disclosure I must make is that I am a tenured associate professor at an American university. My specialty is American Indian history and history of the American West, and so my research and teaching have no connection to Israel. But as a university professor, I am a member of academia at large, and it is on these grounds that I feel compelled to voice my opposition to the academic boycott.

To be clear, it is only the academic component of the boycott to which I publicly stand opposed. I do not oppose other elements of the BDS. Furthermore, the reason for my opposition to the academic boycott is not a sign of support for Israelis policies or actions in the occupied territories. To be perfectly frank, and perhaps this is selfish of me, but as a member of the academy I care more about academic issues than Middle Eastern affairs to which I have no connection.

As such, I am opposed to a wholesale academic boycott of Israeli universities. This is because I am generally opposed to the academic boycott of any school or research institution that retains its own academic freedom and does not directly participate in colonial activities. Allow me to explain.

The lifeblood of academia is the free exchange of information and ideas. That is the essential premise upon which nearly all academic activity is based. Whether conducting and presenting research, teaching students, or engaging the public, academics are devoted, first and foremost, to the gathering, development, discussion, and dissemination of information and ideas. Almost every other professional activity is secondary. Almost everything else we do as academics flows from this primary mission.

Thus, anything that impedes the flow of academic information and ideas is antithetical to academia, a strike against its raison d'être.

For this reason, the notion of one group of academics boycotting another group of academics is something I find it very difficult to countenance. It is a stance against academic freedom, and as such, it defies the cardinal rule of academia.

However, there are no absolutes in life. There can be exceptions.

One reason would be if a university has disowned its own academic freedom or has had it stripped away by external forces (typically governments). This would make it a worthy target of a of boycott.

Schools or institutions that officially restrict the academic freedom of their faculty and students, or have been stocked with propagandists instead of scholars, or are substantially compromised by censorious external forces, are not worthy of our support. They are legitimate targets of academic boycott. But so long as scholars and teachers have the freedom to pursue the truth, including the right to be wrong, this justification is null and void.

The other legitimate reason for academic boycott, so far as I am concerned, would be if a school maintained academic freedom, but as an institution nevertheless actively advanced colonialism as part of its official program. Then the academic boycott of such a school would be warranted, for the school itself would be fundamentally betraying academic values.

Indeed, educational institutions often play an important role in larger political and economic affairs, and sometimes in negative ways. One well known example is the crucial role American universities have played in the rise and expansion of the U.S. war machine, including the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

An example from my own field of Indigenous Studies is even more relevant to the issue at hand. Indigenous Studies scholars are well aware of the role universities have historically played in abetting the colonial conquest and dispossession of Native peoples around the world. Many scholars have studied and exposed academic complicity, perhaps most convincingly Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith in her 1999 book Decolonizing Methodologies. Historians, anthropologists, and other university based academicians around the world spent decades directly and indirectly supporting, glorifying, and enabling colonial dispossession and conquest.

But it is important to differentiate between the actions of individuals and official institutional policies. Modern instances of universities officially betraying core academic values on such a level are actually quite rare. The Nazification of German universities during the 1930s is perhaps the most notorious example, and was largely the result of external as opposed to internal forces. Today, one can only imagine what goes on in North Korean universities.

When individual academicians behave badly or work in support of reprehensible policies, they must be held to account. But that does not necessarily justify boycotting an entire institution. In the event an academic institution does behave badly or work in support of reprehensible, it too must be held to account, possibly in the form of boycott. But that is a far cry from the wholesale boycott of every school in an entire nation.

Furthermore, I do not believe that guilt by association is enough to warrant a wholesale boycott of all of the universities in a nation. While universities have a relationship with their governments, they are not members of it and have virtually no control over it. Universities are responsible for their own political actions; if they are behaving in a manner consistent with academic values, it is not reasonable to inflict upon them the ultimate academic punishment because of the actions of local, provincial, or national governments within which they reside.

It is important to remember just how severe a punishment academic boycott is within the context of academic actions. Academic boycott itself is a clear violation of academic integrity. Therefor, if it is to be used at all, and used responsibly, then: the justifications must me of the highest academic order; the evidence must be incontrovertible; and the weapon of boycott must be wielded with extreme precision, more like a scalpel than a shotgun.

In that spirit, I am open to discussions of a more limited and responsible approach to academic boycott. For example, perhaps a university like Bar-Ilan, which has built a campus on Palestinian land in the occupied territories, should be boycotted. Or at the very least, perhaps that specific campus should be boycotted. The College of Judea and Samaria, which was built on occupied territory, might also be a worthy target. This seems like a reasonable conversation to me. But it is vitally important to differentiate between those universities that directly participate in colonial actions and those that happen to be in a nation that engages in colonial activities. Indeed, every American university and nearly every European university is within a nation that has spent centuries engaging in colonial activities and continue to do so.

It would also be worth discussing boycott if Israeli universities on Israeli lands were to develop policies that restrict their own academic freedom. And indeed, there is evidence of isolated incidents that are worthy of protest. However, isolated instances are not enough. The official or systemic denigration of academic freedom by a university would be the better litmus for so drastic a step. For example, if a school refused to hire Arab scholars or punished scholars who published material critical of the Israeli occupation. A school that disavows its own academic freedom has no academic freedom to protect, but such is not currently the case in Israel so far as I know, and hopefully will never be.

Both as a scholar and a human being, I generally pride myself on being open-minded. I have heard many arguments in favor of a wholesale academic boycott of Israel. Some of them have been quite flawed, but many of them are important, well thought out, and worth examining further. Along the way, my own attitudes have evolved and grown, and I suspect they will continue to as I learn more and continue to discuss the issues, ie., as I engage in the free flow of information and ideas.

I am more receptive to the idea than I used to be, allowing for the limited causes and approaches I've outlined in this essay. However, while I have been swayed to some degree, I have yet to hear any arguments that trump my basic opposition to academics restricting academic discourse on a wholesale basis. Should I ever encounter one that does, or find that the aggregate of many good ones do, then I reserve the right to change my mind. But until then, I stand opposed to a complete academic boycott of all Israeli universities.

Let me close by saying I think the best thing we academics can do is precisely the opposite of academic boycott. I truly believe that speaking truth to power is a fundamental concern of academia, and that sometimes the most effective place to do so is in the belly of the beast. Instead of cutting off conversations, we should nurture and build them. Instead of boycotting all Israeli universities, people who care deeply about this issue should look for ways to engage them. We should bring our information and ideas to them, and share them. Instead of saying we won't go there or collaborate with them, let's got there and collaborate with them. Perhaps a conference on comparative colonialism. Perhaps a special journal issue on comparative Indigenous Studies. Let the sparks fly, let voices be raised, but better that than silence.

As academics, we are at our best when we are engaging, sharing, writing, and discussing. When seeking ways to effect positive change, we should play to our strengths, not run from them. We should engage colleagues instead of turning our backs on them, including those we disagree with vociferously. Especially those we disagree with vociferously. And we should promote the free exchange of information and ideas instead of restricting them.

For these reasons I stand opposed to a wholesale academic boycott of Israeli universities.

Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com