Not so Much Anti-Boycott as Pro-Israel

[Published with the permission of the author]

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, edited by Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm (2015), aspires to be “a resource to bring reason, history, and sound information to campuses confronting [the] BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] agenda” (19). The editors clearly feel their book has accomplished that—Cary Nelson has awarded it five stars in his “review” of his own book on Amazon.

Yes, the collection is clearly and unabashedly partisan, and thus its claims for reason, history, and sound information have to be taken with a grain of salt, at least. The acknowledgment of the assistance of the Israel Action Network in the making of the book gives further evidence (if any were needed) of its agenda and biases.

That said, I have no problem with that. Nor do I have any problem with disclosing my membership, card-carrying and all, in the Organizing Collective of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Indeed, what I appreciate about this collection, as should those on either side of the debate, is its comprehensiveness and thoroughness. The editors have done us all the favor of gathering together most, if not all, of the most common arguments against the academic boycott of Israel. They thereby help establish a bright line between their side and the pro-boycott side, which is well-represented in another collection, edited by Bill Mullen and Ashley Dawson, entitled Against Apartheid: The Case for Boycotting Israeli Universities (2015). Those interested in obtaining a good sense of the debate should read both these volumes.

The Nelson and Brahm volume consists of some 32 essays and documents, including as well online resources. Somehow Cary Nelson gets four essays, including the longest one, an ad homina attack on Judith Butler (“The Problem with Judith Butler”), but Nelson has never been the shy retiring type, and I suppose as co-editor he gets special privileges.

There is a lot to talk about here, but for the purposes of honing in on what is most crucial in terms of understanding the divide between the anti-boycott and the pro-boycott side, I will confine myself to four topics and leave it to the reader to delve into whatever other matters they find of interest.

Nelson-Brahm’s attack on the boycott stems largely from their characterization of it as anti-Semitic and anti-academic freedom. They feel that the boycott is therefore excessive, especially in the light of what they claim is a much better situation in Israel-Palestine than we imagine, one which must be preserved. They feel that the cost of a boycott includes disrupting a delicate and meaningful relation between Israeli and American academics. But most important is their belief that the boycott aims for the destruction of the State of Israel, and that, above all, warrants a condemnation of the boycott.

Conversely, I will argue, first, that the anti-Semitic charge is weak, even by the authors’ own standards; second, that their advocacy of academic freedom is inconsistent and serves mostly as a pretext to fend off criticism of Israel; third, that their claims regarding the situation of academics in Israel and the Occupied Territories is contradicted by the facts of the present day. I argue that their implacable defense of Israel as a Jewish supremacist state is at the heart of this volume, and that the issues of the boycott’s supposed anti-Semitism and denial of academic freedom are at best ancillary.

The absolute commitment of these authors to the preservation of that specific vision of a Jewish state accounts for their inability to see beyond that aim. They are profoundly unconcerned with precisely what the academic boycott of Israel seeks to help achieve—equal rights for Palestinians. Not only are they unconcerned with those rights, so long as they feel that those rights might lead to the “destruction” of the state of Israel, they are emphatically opposed to them.

In sum, the authors of these essays are concerned entirely with the survival of their particular vision of the state of Israel as a Jewish state; those in favor of the academic boycott are concerned about justice for the Palestinians. That…