This is how an academic boycott of Israel actually works

The growing momentum of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement since last year has drawn a great deal of media attention to the issue of Israel-Palestine, and the cause of….

The growing momentum of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement since last year has drawn a great deal of media attention to the issue of Israel-Palestine, and the cause of Palestinian rights. Unfortunately, this often has produced more confusion and obfuscation than illumination and clarity. Even one of the mainstay journals of American academia, the Chronicle of Higher Education, is not immune from inaccuracies and misstatements. Even when it claims to be setting the record straight. This points to an inability, and perhaps unwillingness, of the mainstream media to treat the issue of the academic boycott of Israel in a fair-handed manner.

Addressing a critical issue for all, the article, “How Does an Academic Boycott of Israel Actually Work?” unfortunately blurs many key issues, rather than lending them clarity. As this article is not alone in rehearsing many of the basic misunderstandings surrounding the academic and cultural boycott of Israel set forth by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, it is important to address its shortcomings. For example, when the author of the article says that the American Studies Association, which passed a boycott resolution in 2013, “is still trying to set the record straight,” it is critical to note that its efforts to do so are not due to any lack of clarity on the part of the ASA, but rather due to a willed reluctance by many in the mainstream media and elsewhere to actually, impartially review the historical record, which is in fact in plain view.

Here are seven basic, and common, mistakes the article rehearses.

First, the article claims that the boycotts “piggyback” on the global BDS movement. This suggests that the boycotts are separate, opportunistic protests, when in fact they are acts of solidarity responding to a call from Palestinian civil society (BDS) — they are borne from BDS.

Second, that the reporter says that there is “no step-by-step guide on how to carry out a boycott.” This is simply not true. For example, the ASA website, again in solidarity with the principles of BDS, has explicit guidelines on the boycott, while at the same time leaving it up to its individual members to follow their consciences. As has been repeated often, this is an institutional boycott, which means the ASA as a corporate institution is refusing to engage formally with Israeli state institutions. Individuals do as they wish.

Third, the article gets its chronology exactly wrong. The report is correct in saying that the Association for Asian American Studies was the first U.S. academic organization to pass a boycott resolution. But to say that “this got the ball rolling for other groups,” like the “piggyback” comment, misses the fact that rather than fall into some lemming-like march, the American Studies Association had years before begun to deliberately and carefully research the academic boycott, had engaged its members in conversation and debate, and had started the slow and methodical process to get a resolution passed. Again, all this information is readily available on the Association’s website. To express such rational processes of democratic deliberation concerning the boycott as “piggybacking,” and operating without a roadmap, is to not only miss the point, it is to distort the actually existing record and trivialize the entire process. And again, this lack of serious inquiry is symptomatic of most mainstream coverage of the academic boycott.

Fourth, contrary to what the article states, the Modern Language Association never discussed an academic boycott of Israel (much less “discussed [it] in detail”). This is a simple and absolute misstatement. Only if and when one clicks the embedded link to that statement does one discover that the actual discussion at the MLA regarded a resolution to have the State Department investigate denials of the Right to Enter. Those discussions had nothing to do whatsoever with an academic boycott, and yet the article explicitly says it did.

Fifth, similarly, the article states that, with regard to the protests that erupted around the firing Steven Salaita, academic associations “did not launch all-out protests of the university.” This is again a flat untruth — it is incredible that such a statement could be made. Here is a partial list of academic organizations that issued protests and links to their letters of protest:

The American Studies Association; the American Historical Association; the American Political Science Association; the American Comparative Literature Association; and the Modern Languages Association; and the American Association of University Professors.

Sixth, the article declares that the analogy to the academic boycotts against South Africa is not an appropriate analogy because “the move against South Africa was viewed as an economic boycott.” The boycott against South Africa operated on many levels, as does the BDS movement, which the author laboriously avoids actually talking about. Faculty, students and others on college campuses are engaged in and indeed have succeeded in many divestment efforts. Academic organizations, which for the most part do not have economic clout, use the power that is at their disposal, namely the freedom to dissociate from institutions that are complicit with the illegal Occupation and that facilitate the oppression of Palestinians and other groups in Israel. BDS is all of a piece, each component complements the other. The “move” against illegal and immoral Israeli state policies and actions takes on all these aspects, economic and academic.

Finally, and perhaps most remarkably, the article poses the question, “Have the boycotts helped Palestinians?” and then goes to a representative of a U.S. academic organization opposed to the boycott for its answer! Not only does this fly in the face of any notion of impartiality, it most unfortunately (but not unpredictably) fails to ask a Palestinian that question.

In so doing, the reporter repeats exactly the pattern BDS has energetically and persistently brought to the fore — the absolute silencing of Palestinian voices.

Had the reporter “actually” wanted to know how the Palestinians felt about the academic boycott, she might have asked two prominent activists — Ali Abunimah, editor of the Electronic Intifada, and Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of BDS.

Abunimah locates the value of BDS thus,

BDS has allowed Palestinians to put their rights back in the center of discourse and action around Palestine and the so-called ‘peace process.’ The liberal Zionist agenda that long dominated and shaped the Oslo process was focused on Palestinian ‘statehood’ — illusory though that has proven to be — as a means of securing a Jewish majority and therefore Jewish supremacy throughout Palestine. Of course that agenda, the ‘two-state agenda’ was predicated on the denial of the rights of the majority of Palestinians who would not benefit from statehood.

And Barghouti rejects the notion that BDS is, on the contrary, harming Palestinians:

Those who claim that BDS hurts Palestinians are not just making unfounded claims and failing to understand how resistance is always costly at first; they are also patronizingly telling Palestinians that they understand our interests better than we do. We reject this colonial attitude completely. Nothing hurts the Palestinian people and the Palestinian economy like Israel’s racist and colonial oppression.

Lisa Duggan and Mary Danico, representing two organizations that have endorsed the academic boycott of Israel, have it exactly right when they say that one of the very positive effects of the boycott is to put this issue before people’s eyes. That is no small feat, given the reluctance of major news venues to treat this issue fairly, impartially, and accurately.

In closing, it is critically important to note the context in which the article was written. Of course, it is during a time when academic organizations are gearing up for their annual conventions, and many are discussing the academic boycott of Israel. But a more important context needs to be acknowledged, and that is that of the devastating, deadly, and illegal collective punishment of the Palestinian population in Gaza, which left over two thousand Palestinians dead, the vast majority of them civilians, including 500 children. The academic boycott of Israel is not a matter of “piggybacking” or leaping on bandwagons. It is a matter of outrage at injustice and an emphatic act of conscience.