I have received numerous emails from progressive colleagues in the last three weeks about a proposed boycott of Israeli scholars. This move is intended as a protest against the recent, devastating illegal Israeli incursion into Gaza. Several messages I received this weekend cited this article by David Lloyd, professor of English at the University of Southern California. As Lloyd reminds us, the boycott strategy is not only a response to the long history of illegal Israeli interventions in the region and the Israeli government’s continuous undermining of the peace process, but a response to the vicious attacks from the American right on U.S.-based scholars who question or oppose Israel’s self-perceived national destiny in the region. Lloyd writes:
It is on account of this climate of intimidation and the lockdown on political discourse that we resorted to calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions in the context of an international call for divestment. Where there is no access to the political process, those who seek justice must once more do so by appealing directly to the conscience of the public.
In response to the call from Palestinian civil society and from more than 500 courageous Israeli citizens, we urge a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, not only to protest their utter silence in the face of the ongoing destruction of Palestinian educational infrastructure, but also because we believe that the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions still can influence Israel’s public opinion and avert a catastrophic outcome. Boycott, by using the moral force of non-violent means, strengthens those elements in Palestinian and Israeli civil society that are seeking a just resolution to the conflict without resort to violence, ethnic cleansing or destruction. An institutional boycott neither targets individual scholars nor seeks to silence genuine dialogue. It calls for a moratorium on “business-as-usual” with Israeli institutions that have turned a blind eye to the destruction and disruption of Palestinian schools and universities and to the denial of academic freedom. Their institutional silence is the true death of learning and of intellectual exchange. It is Palestinian, not Israeli, institutions whose isolation must be challenged: For the former it is lethal, for the latter it can be short-lived.
For decades, Israel has been in defiance of international law and humanitarian norms. Israel has claimed to engage in negotiation while continuing to extend its network of illegal settlements and roads that segment Palestine and destroy any prospect of a viable Palestinian state. It continues to expropriate Palestinian lands and to build a separation wall that denies Palestinians their right to freedom of movement. It continues its resort to overwhelming military force and the use of weaponry illegal in civilian areas. In all this, it feeds and encourages the extremists and fuels the cycles of violence and hopelessness. None of this would be possible without U.S. material support and without the impunity assured by the United States’ blind acquiescence.
We take no position on the outcome of negotiations. We do fear, however, that those Israeli and Palestinian commentators who believe that the two-state solution has been deliberately undermined by Israel’s illegal settlements and fragmentation of the occupied territories are right. The outcome will either be a state where Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Jews, can live together in full equality or a terrible repetition of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. The latter solution is discussed openly by Israeli politicians and academics and has become all the more likely with the recent electoral successes of the racist party, Yisrael Beiteinu. Never have the prospects for a negotiated settlement seemed so fragile, and never has it been so urgent for the American public to exercise its moral force.
There comes a time in every struggle for justice when measures that have been unthinkable and unspeakable become morally imperative. In the struggle for justice for Palestine, boycott and divestment are now such measures.
Now, I want to say I find Lloyd’s argument one of the most moving and persuasive that I have heard to date. But I am still profoundly opposed to boycott and divestment for the following reasons.
It does not address the real problem in the region, which is that states — primarily the United States, Russia, and former Soviet-bloc countries — continue to cynically pour weapons into the Middle East, as if it is possible to arm resistance fighters and the Israeli government to the teeth and also negotiate for “peace.”
It does not address the fact that the United States government has been a bigger investor than any corporation, through annual foreign aid packages that have been, or are, used to (depending on the date and the issue), among other things, support illegal Jewish settlements colonizing Palestinian land, and bolster policing of a system of partial citizenship for Palestinians within Israeli jurisdictions that would be illegal in the United States.
It does not address the hypocrisy of American academics’ call for a boycott at a moment in history when universities and their faculties in the United States have done nothing effective to halt (or even impede) a ruinous, illegal American war policy in the Middle East that is now expanding, illegally, into Pakistan. There has been no coherent, effective or even visible challenge to the expansion of the American military state; or to the federally-mandated military recruitment of our children, adolescents and young people in educational institutions receiving federal funds (which is virtually all educational institutions.) And our horror, as progressive intellectuals, about the atrocities committed to secure Israel’s border, seems to be neatly separated from the atrocities committed against Central and Latin Americans in the name of American “homeland security:” security walls, shooting to kill by American border police, denying life-saving benefits to those without documents, strip-searches at the border, the separation of families, the deportation of children entitled to citizenship with their undocumented families, and the incarceration of undocumented people in secret, private prisons. Among other things.
Despite the fact that this boycott is clearly aimed at the Israeli state, not individual Jewish scholars, and despite the fact that false charges of anti-Semitism have been used to silence critics of Israel, the ethical mandate so movingly described by Lloyd and others does not mitigate my fear that a boycott of Israeli scholars opens the door to a revival of anti-Semitism in American academic life, and in American life more generally.
Intellectual boycotts profoundly violate the idea that a scholarly community is defined by the free exchange of ideas: this is the essence of what makes scholars different from ideologues. That the free exchange of ideas has been inhibited by groups like AIPAC does not alter my belief that we must cherish this principle and oppose all efforts to undermine it on the left or the right.
In other words, I think David Lloyd’s article is sentient and elegant on the ethical issues involved, both at home and abroad. But I think boycott is wrong-headed. And I think a di
vestment policy that does not address foreign and military aid to Israel, American culpability for the current crisis in international relations, and the international arms trade that is feeding weapons to both sides, is fatally flawed.