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American Studies Association Israel Boycott is Righteous but Wrongheaded

ASA-boycott-Israel

The always-insightful Paul Pillar lauds the “intent, justice, legality, and morality” of the controversial decision by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions.

The government of Israel, while paying lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, occupies indefinitely, and continues to colonize, land that Israel conquered in a war it initiated 46 years ago and is home to Palestinian Arabs, and in so doing is depriving Palestinians not only of self-determination but of most of their political and civil rights as well as keeping them in economic subjugation.

The situation is commonly described, of course, as a bilateral conflict in which there are political and security concerns on both sides, which there are. But Palestinian leaders and the community of Arab states long ago accepted the idea of peace based on a Palestinian state limited to the 22 percent of the British mandate of Palestine left in Arab hands after earlier warfare in the 1940s. The shape of such a peace has long been clear. Israel is the occupier. It is easily the most powerful state in the region. It is in control. The Israeli government could make such a settlement a reality within weeks if it decided to. It instead prefers to cling to conquered land rather than to make peace, and to continue the colonization that threatens to put a peace out of reach.

 

He’s less sure that the boycott is a good idea on practical grounds, especially since the very institutions being targeted are “probably where some of the more enlightened and liberal thinking occurs inside Israel. ” Regardless, he comes down on the side of the action:

Perhaps enough such gestures will start to change the political climate in the United States that supports the policies that condone the violations of human rights. Perhaps the gestures will chip away at the “standard trope of U.S. politics…that Israel is America’s major ally in the Middle East,” as John Tirman of MIT puts it, when in fact “Israel’s belligerent and persistent obstructionism is not the action of an ally.”

That gets to another response why Americans in particular are justified in making the kind of gesture the ASA made, which has to do with how Israel’s occupation and its policies in the occupied territory significantly damage U.S. interests. Bruce Riedel powerfully and succinctly reviews why the unresolved Palestinian problem “is a national security threat to America. Indeed, American lives are being lost today because of the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The reasons for this are, “First, this conflict creates anger, frustration and humiliation that fuel the enemies that are killing Americans today. Second, this conflict weakens our allies and friends, the moderates in the Islamic world, who are trying to fight our enemies.” On the first of those points, other academic research has repeatedly shown how the continued Israeli occupation, and the U.S. condoning of it, fuels extremist violence of the al-Qaeda ilk against U.S. interests. The occupation is a topic on which considerations of justice and a realist’s considerations of U.S. interests converge.

This has all been obvious for twenty-odd years, if not more, but the debate in American circles has not evolved very much beyond the knee-jerk.

Still, while I agree with Pillar that Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories is not only illegal and immoral but harmful to American interests, I disagree that a boycott of Israeli academic institutions by an American scholarly society is the right way to influence it.

First, it’s exceedingly unlikely to achieve its desired effect. Not only does the fact that Israel enjoys almost unqualified bipartisan support from American policymakers render the ASA’s action laughably insignificant but Israeli policymakers strongly believe their actions are necessary for the survival of Israel as a Jewish state.

Second, as Lawrence Summers, in one of his rare instances of being right, notes, “the idea that of all the countries in the world that might be thought to have human rights abuses, that might be thought to have inappropriate foreign policies, that might be thought to be doing things wrong, the idea that there’s only one that is worthy of boycott, and that is Israel, one of the very few countries whose neighbors regularly vow its annihilation, that that would be the one chosen, is I think beyond outrageous as a suggestion.” Not quite as outrageous as Summers’ own suggestion that this amounts to anti-Semitism, to be sure, but it’s problematic.

Third, I’m troubled by the notion of a scholarly organization taking sides in a political controversy. It’s anathema to the notion of academic freedom, creating an orthodoxy and rendering  reputable scholars who disagree heretics.

Fourth, targeting fellow academics is especially troubling, in that it will make it more difficult for Israeli and Palestinian scholars—who, let’s face it, have more at stake than US-based members of the ASA—to study and shed light on the problem at hand.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    While I vehemently oppose the policies of the right wing Israeli government I agree this boycott is foolish and counterproductive. They are indeed boycotting there very people who are likely to agree with their position. That said it is good to see that many now realize that Israeli policy is not always in the best interest of the US. Israel has become a client state we would probably be better off without. Let them lean on their new friends the Saudis.

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  2. steve says:

    I think you make a good case that a boycott is unlikely to do much. The hard right in Israel is pretty much immune to all criticism AFAICT. What this group could do that might have some results is to even out the publicity about problems in the area. Israeli deaths get major coverage. Palestinian deaths, and there are more of them, are largely ignored. Settler harassment and destruction of Palestinian property, while guarded by Israeli troops is ignored. Regular publishing of the map of the West Bank should itself illuminate the problems with the area. Just moving from one area to another is difficult for a Palestinian. At this point, I don’t think the Israelis have much international support from anyone other than the US, and occasionally Canada plus a few other European nations. If they have given up on a two state solution, which appears to be the case, they can do that as long as they have US support. The only thing they are likely to respond to is a threat of unconditional US support.

    http://www.theguardian.com/flash/page/0,,2088220,00.html

    Steve

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  3. george says:

    I’d be a lot more sympathetic to these boycotts if they were also boycotting say China for what it did in Tibet. Or for that matter, boycotting Canada, the US, and Australia for what they did (and generally continue to do) with their indigenous populations.

    I get the feeling that in most cases what bothers them isn’t that a country conquered and then continued to colonize another people’s land (ask any American Indian how ironic that is coming from an American association), but that it was done by Israel – and its hard not to think that antisemitism plays a big role in it. It’s like the GOP’s problems with people who coincidentally happen to be colored – too conveniently specific not to suggest racism.

    Other than that, academic boycotts strike me as missing the whole point of academics. If your education leads you to believe you can’t talk with a group you hate, then there’s something wrong with what you’ve learned.

    I’ll add I think Israel gets way too much military support from the US. But singling them out for mistreating their population (or not giving back conquered land) is ridiculous.

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  4. michael reynolds says:

    @george:

    What you said.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  5. KM says:

    Third, I’m troubled by the notion of a scholarly organization taking sides in a political controversy. It’s anathema to the notion of academic freedom, creating an orthodoxy and rendering reputable scholars who disagree heretics.

    Not only is it spitting in the wind, it’s standing where you’ll inevitably get hit by your own mess. Academia thrives in the world, it dies in the corner.

    I’d be a lot more sympathetic to these boycotts if they were also boycotting say China for what it did in Tibet.

    Agreed. If you’re going to freeze people out for moral standards and violations, at least be consistent about it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  6. john personna says:

    I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other, but I’d observe that every essay and comment sserting that “this boycott is not productive” is self-disproving.

    They boycott brought forth the words:

    while I agree with Pillar that Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories is not only illegal and immoral but harmful to American interests,

    even if they were paired with:

    I disagree that a boycott of Israeli academic institutions by an American scholarly society is the right way to influence it.

    They boycott has returned attention to the “immoral” actions of which you disapprove.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  7. Woody says:

    An individual scholar has the right to boycott if she or he so chooses. Demanding that those scholars who disagree join them is anti-academic.

    And Larry Summers is still the smartest fool in America.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Interesting factoid here:

    Speaking as a Jew of the “wasn’t alive at the time of the Shoah” vintage, these policymakers that are seemingly unilaterally in lock step in support of Israel aren’t pandering to me or my generation (or, frankly, that of my kids either.). They are pandering to the evangelical Christians.

    Israel is, honestly speaking, a tangential issue at best for us. We wish it well, and hope it prospers, but we’re not Israelis. We’re Americans. As such, we keep wondering when our country is going to act in its own best interest with regard to Middle East policy.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 1

  9. john personna says:
  10. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @steve:

    The hard right in Israel is pretty much immune to all criticism AFAICT

    You are very correct. The failure of the Soviet Union and its client states resulted in a huge wave of immigration into Israel, one overwhelmingly comprised of the Orthodox. The unintended flipside of hok hashvut is that Israeli policymakers were largely powerless to do anything to control the flow.

    Which has led to a dramatic shift in the Israeli electorate from a political / worldview standpoint. The largely secular, moderate and tolerant Israel of my youth now exists only in memory and photographs. In its place, we have a polarized and radicalized country.

    Imagine what the US would look like if an uncontrollable wave of hard-right Christian evangelicals poured into the country, and you have the Israel of today. It is no longer what people want to believe that it is, and hasn’t been for a long time.

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  11. john personna says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    And over time I think moderates have immigrated out of Israel.

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  12. Andre Kenji says:

    @george:

    Or for that matter, boycotting Canada, the US, and Australia for what they did (and generally continue to do) with their indigenous populations.

    1-) For non-Jews, Israel is the ultimate colonial symbol. That´s why we have to read about Nobel Prizes of Jews and Muslims when debating Israel, that´s why there is the whole talk of the “only democracy in the Middle East”. That´s why the American Right is so sympathetic to Israel(That has more to do with Arabs being subjugated than with the Bible), that´s why there is so much opposition to the country among the Left in the Developing World.

    2-) Israel is a Jewish state. In most colonial ventures, there was a small to large integration between natives and settlers(For an instance, take a look at Elizabeth Warren). If Israel has the same level of integration between Palestinians and Israelis that Spanish and Amerindians had in Latin America, for instance, it would become an Arab-Jewish, not a Jewish State.

    The Tibetans have Dalai Lama, a charismatic leader, but they don´t have images of Tibetans being segragated in their own enclaves.

    3-) Frankly, that´s not our problem, but any international pressure for Human Rights causes(In any country in the World, from Western Europe to China) can be helpful.

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  13. Tillman says:

    You’d think we would have more influence over Israel’s activity. We could just dangle in front of them the possibility that we won’t veto the next Security Council resolution condemning them (and there have been plenty). Israel needs the international community more than the other way around.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. John425 says:

    Well, Dr. Joyner…if Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians is illegal and immoral, what do you make of the on-going Palestinian policy of killing children with IEDs and the random firing of rockets into population centers?

    Indeed, why call them Palestinians at all? They are in fact Arab squatters on Israel’s land and ought to be frog-marched into Jordan or pushed out into the Sinai. But…that’s unlikely so the US and the UN ought to raise the cash to buy them off and relocate them to the aforementioned countries. Oh, you say there is a problem with that? True- the rest of the Arab world doesn’t want them walking around their land either.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 16

  15. Bob Beller says:

    Maybe when Syria, the Palestinians, and Lebanese get the terrorists out of their governments and territories I’ll give a rats ass about how Israel treats the Palestinians.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 9

  16. Tillman says:

    @John425:

    Well, Dr. Joyner…if Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians is illegal and immoral, what do you make of the on-going Palestinian policy of killing children with IEDs and the random firing of rockets into population centers?

    I want you to take a look at this Wikipedia article which has a helpful chart at the beginning comparing the death toll of Israelis and Palestinians/Arabs in Operation Cast Lead back in ’08-’09. Now, IEDs and random rocket firings are terrible things, but not the only way to kill people. War can’t be described as a morally beneficent action, so making Israelis and Palestinians morally equivalent still leaves us with a unequal distribution in human death.

    Note also that 4 of the 13 Israeli deaths were friendly fire.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  17. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @John425:

    The bottom line is that there is no moral high ground to be claimed, on either side of that issue. Both sides have engaged in atrocities and acted in bad faith, over and over again, so endless bickering about who is right and who is wrong serves nobody’s best interest. In order to really solve the problem, it is necessary to remove religion from the context of the solution.

    Which leads us to: At its heart, I believe that this is the same thousands of years old argument that it has always been – who gets to control Jerusalem? I’m reminded of an apt exchange in “Kingdom of Heaven”

    Saladin: Will you yield the city?

    Balian of Ibelin: Before I lose it, I will burn it to the ground. Your holy places – ours. Every last thing in Jerusalem that drives men mad.

    Saladin: I wonder if it would not be better if you did.

    On some level, I have to agree.

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  18. john personna says:

    Show of hands, how many think the new Jewish state was necessary for completion of the Christian narrative?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  19. Andre Kenji says:

    @John425:

    Indeed, why call them Palestinians at all?

    Because the Ottoman Empire did not keep provinces in a strict sense: they kept areas where they basically collected taxes and suppressed rebellions, but that was basically it. The Ottomans basically had eyalets/villayets as their primary Administrative Division, but there were regions that were known mostly by the name of their provinces during the Roman Empire. Basically, there was no simple way to merge these villayets in independent states, but sectarian violence is so common in the former Ottoman Empire precisely because different tribes with no connection at all were put together in countries.

    Yes, in one sense Palestine is a modern creation, but ALL countries created after the Ottoman Empire are artificial creation(No wonder, Yugoslavia was created after the Ottoman Empire).

    They are in fact Arab squatters on Israel’s land

    If they are squatter, they are squatting there for a LONG time. At least since the First Crusades.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  20. michael reynolds says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    Long ago as an intemperate youth I used to make the same point. Forcibly evacuate Jerusalem, line the bulldozers up and knock the whole goddamned thing down.

    As a fellow Jew (though rather attenuated, and entirely non-religious) I agree that Likud is not talking to us. They’ve cast their lot with people whose only interest in Israel is as a means to bring about the destruction of Israel and the wider world in an apocalypse. After which they expect to sit in comfortable heavenly Barcaloungers and watch Jews toasted in the fires of hell. Proving I suppose that not all Jews are smart.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  21. bill says:

    “Palestinian civil society”…… seriously? that’s righteous…….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  22. An Interested Party says:

    Indeed, why call them Palestinians at all? They are in fact Arab squatters on Israel’s land and ought to be frog-marched into Jordan or pushed out into the Sinai. But…that’s unlikely so the US and the UN ought to raise the cash to buy them off and relocate them to the aforementioned countries. Oh, you say there is a problem with that? True- the rest of the Arab world doesn’t want them walking around their land either.

    So if their neighbors don’t want them and they are not entitled to any land that Israel now controls, what do you suggest they do? March into the sea, perhaps…

    “Palestinian civil society”…… seriously? that’s righteous…….

    Why not just call them animals and get it over with…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  23. Mike says:

    When are the Pomeranians and Silesians going to be able to get back their lost territory? When you start a war, you have to live with the outcome.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. bill says:

    @An Interested Party: because that’s what their breathen call them, it’s all good in the hood.

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  25. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @john personna: I would suggest that the announcement of the boycott is what has accomplished what you note. The continuation of said boycott will gradually–as in over the course of a week or so–fall off the public radar just as every other failure of Western community memory demonstrates.

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  26. Bob says:

    @HarvardLaw92: The Jews of Germany, Austria, Hungary, etc. all considered themselves citizens of their native country. In 1936, my grandfather, a veteran of WWI as a soldier in the Austria-Hungarian army, and a Jew saw the handwriting on the wall and took his family – including my mother – out of there. They had someplace to go – because he was clever enough to negotiate the red tape, but several of his brothers and sisters were not and they went to the gas chambers with their children. Think about it.

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  27. An Interested Party says:

    Think about it.

    Surely the Holocaust shouldn’t be used to justify every move Likudniks want to make…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  28. Andre Kenji says:

    In 2001, during the Argentinean Depression, a Brazilian journalist wrote that the situation in Argentina was so bad that Argentinians were being relocated to a country at war. He was referring to Argentinians Jews being moved to Israel.

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  29. Clara Cogito says:

    @Mike: Hear, Hear. You’ve touched upon the crux of the issue; one which so few seem to grasp. Israel won the war instigated by the arabs in 1948 and land was redistributed. Such is the result of war.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  30. An Interested Party says:

    Such is the result of war.

    So where should the Palestinians go? And if we are going to judge who’s in charge based on who wins wars, than the Apartheid government in South Africa was just dandy, eh?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  31. R.Dave says:

    @george:

    I’d be a lot more sympathetic to these boycotts if they were also boycotting say China for what it did in Tibet.

    The difference with China, is that the US and China aren’t near-lockstep allies, the US hasn’t spent the last few decades propping up the Chinese occupation of Tibet with billions upon billions of dollars in military aid, and Americans aren’t accused of anti-Chinese racism every time they dare to criticize Chinese human rights abuses. The problem isn’t that Israel is particularly worse than other occupying powers; the problem is that it’s a US client state, which puts us hip deep in the moral and strategic morass of that occupation. Also, Israel puts itself out there as a First World democracy, so it’s held to a higher standard. It’s like an A student being reprimanded for getting a C while a D student gets praised for the same thing. In short, I don’t single Israel out for extra criticism because I hate Jews; I do it because Israel claims to be better than its current behavior indicates and because the shit it does is being done with the tacit approval and material support of my own government, thus giving me some skin in the game.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  32. brenda says:

    @R.Dave:

    is it ok to like the boycott because we dislike/abhor Israeli government incursions into our own government process — or would that be a sign of bigotry? BTW, the academic association boycotts are getting a lot of press and heat, but there are a few US church groups which have divested from Israel; the Mennonites, Quakers, a few Methodist congregations.

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  33. bahmi says:

    @george: Yeah, let’s throw in another 350 side issues to the boycott while we are at it. Does the name Klaus Fuchs mean anything to anybody here? How about the guy who stole Manhattan Project secrets and gave them to Israel who in turn gave them to the Russians? Israel has long been guilty of intellectual stealing and they infest our government with their double nation citizens. Israel is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, let’s say it like it is.

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  34. bahmi says:

    @brenda: Israel has bankrolled many Christian zionist groups with lots of shekels. Yes, our Holy Roller mail order ministers of the Gonzo churches are traitors to our causes in their slimy support of Israel. These traitors to America should all be identified for exactly what they are, traitors and that includes the pompous gasbag Rush Limbaugh.

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  35. bahmi says:

    @michael reynolds: The jew as victim….I love it.

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