Blogging for Free Speech and Academic Freedom: The 1000th Post

November 21, 2013, 10:35 am


Illustration by Ernest Hopf.

Given that my reply to one commenter had become post-length (look at the comments section of the prior post) I decided to make a few small edits and elevate it to the main page of the blog. I do so with a message to those opposing the resolution for an academic boycott of Israel at #2013ASA: stop throwing stones, and focus. The principles of free speech and academic freedom are, I believe, positive and compelling reaons to defeat an American Studies Association (ASA) boycott of Israel based on the principles laid out by PACBI. Questioning the motives and ethical stances of fellow academics affiliated with BDS is not. I have been particularly concerned by unwarranted charges of antisemitism and racism, on this blog, in the academic #twittersphere.

I would also like to say that this would be the 1000th post at Tenured Radical. While I had not imagined that this is the form this celebration would take, I also think: what better topic could there be but the political choices and best intentions that can compromise global academic freedom? 

OK so I am going to float a different thesis than antisemitism for the academic boycott of Israel, since there are many left wing academic Jews on board with BDS (part of what gives it such legitimacy in the US.) Some of these scholars are secular, others not; some have a history of strong stands on behalf of academic freedom, others not so much (something we might also say about supporters who are not Jewish.) Another piece of compelling evidence is that U.S. backers of the boycott — Jewish and not — repeatedly insist that they are not antisemitic. Although this does not rule out antisemitism as a movement dynamic in some quarters, as a historian, this is an archive that I am required to take seriously.

In addition I have experiential and secondary data. I know some BDS supporters personally, have engaged in long conversations with them on and off line and, berated into showing my work urged to research this topic further, have reviewed and done a lot of reading on the subject in the past six months. I also now read Tikkun, which provides a broader ethical perspective on political questions. I am quite confident (as I was to begin with) that many BDS supporters, Jewish and not, have thought deeply about the question of antisemitism and are representing themselves honestly. If you can handle a very long philosophical argument, Judith Butler’s book on the occupation, Parting Ways (2012) argues that opposing the occupation cleaves closer to a historically Jewish ethical stance than supporting Zionist expansionism. While I have never discussed it with her, my guess is that this is what Joan Scott — a staunch defender of academic freedom – is responding to. (It is, I would note, also a curious feature of routine antisemitism that Jewish defenders of Palestinian human rights are more frequently called upon to justify themselves than are non-Jews.)

I found Butler’s argument extremely useful, but do not think it justifies stigmatizing and isolating Israeli colleagues because they don’t meet a criteria for resistance to their own institutions and state set by BDS, the ASA or any other organization. I am also unwilling to have my own ideas and scholarly interactions policed, by the state or by any organization — no matter how ethically persuasive — that sets itself up as an authority over me. For one example of how even voluntary adherence to the BDS cultural boycott prevents the circulation of ideas that promote anti-racist struggle, go here. Israelis and Palestinians will be denied the work of Alice Walker, by Alice Walker, until such a time as the Occupation ends.

This is why I oppose the BDS strategy, and the ASA resolution, on the grounds of academic freedom and free speech alone.

A second issue is the question: why boycott Israel and not other states that oppress minorities, steal their land and violate their human and civil rights? Again, BDS supporters argue persuasively, in my view that an organization should not have to take on the whole world to address a single set of human rights crimes. I think this is a valid point and highlights a criticism of BDS that seems to exist only so its activists can be charged with antisemitism. Of course you can take on one thing without taking on all the evil in the world — organizers do it all the time. Strike Hormel but not Libby; boycott Arizona hotels and not hotel chains in Texas; organize around Trayvon Martin and not the other young men and women unjustly murdered by whites just this year.

This is why I oppose the BDS strategy, and the ASA resolution, on the grounds of academic freedom and free speech alone.

Now, BDS colleagues ask us: isn’t the bruising of academic freedom a small thing, since  boycotts have succeeded in bringing down other cruel regimes? This, in my view, is propaganda as history. There is no factual evidence that intellectual boycotts have brought down regimes elsewhere, although I do have South African friends who have told me that the American call for sanctions and boycott gave them courage in their struggle. But the struggle that brought the state down occurred on the ground in southern Africa, in the townships and in the political negotiations conducted in exile. Contemporary US claims that North American activists were key players exhibit a level of hubris that I find truly disrespectful of the South African struggle. BDS in the US gives the Palestinian struggle visibility and, I suspect, financial resources, it would not otherwise have. That is no small thing, but academic and cultural boycotts are not bringing down the Israeli state — not today, not tomorrow. Every time a boycott “victory” is declared there is no corresponding impulse to demonstrate effectiveness in ending the Occupation — only effectiveness in having persuaded another prominent scholar, artist, musician or academic organization to join the boycott.

This is why I oppose the BDS strategy, and the ASA resolution, on the grounds of academic freedom and free speech alone.

Nevertheless, why have US activists latched onto Israel? This is a fascinating and excellent question. Answering it does not require that the choice be justified, but some explanation would go a long way towards lowering the temperature of conversation and building bridges with others on the left. My thesis is that this is a struggle — like South African apartheid — most closely mirrors the American experience of colonization, displacement, settlement and racial segregation, and thus is most attractive to American academics whose scholarship is steeped in the history of our blood-soaked nation.

This historical mirroring makes the Occupation dramatically easier to promote, and to organize cross-racial and cross-ethnic coalitions around, among US left academics who are trying to move beyond single-issue identity politics. In Israel, we see transplanted white Westerners occupying territories through continued incentives to immigration and settlement, as part of a nation-building program. We see the genocide of native people, the reduction of Africans to slavery and Mexicans to peonage; we see the death of millions of Chinese to build the railroads so that the Wells Fargo wagon can bring Christmas to Laura Ingalls Wilder. In other words, if we are white Americans on the left, we see ourselves. If we are not white Americans, we see the corpses of our ancestors under the treads of an Israeli army bulldozer.

It is significant, in my view, that BDS centers the land itself as a primary object, assuming that other forms of social justice will follow the Return (as you point out, Daniel, the Palestinian Authority has been no shining example of good government. There are also other non-state actors on the ground.)

Complex as it is, BDS can only exist in relation to Israel. Other oppressive regimes in the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, equally culpable for land theft and crimes against humanity as Israel’s government, are not identifiably “European” as Israelis are. These other oligarchs are descendants of colonization, in addition to being colonizers themselves. To address the human rights crimes of some of these other regimes (policies of genocide, misogyny, displacement and human trafficking, among other things) tangles critics up in more difficult problems: how do we think about race? Ethnicity? And most importantly, who *really* owns the land?

The history, and collective constructed fantasies presenting as history, of indigeneity, are not absent in other countries mentioned by critics as targets similar to Israel. They are. However, in many of those countries those committing human rights crimes have claims to indigenous status that are remarkably similar to those they are oppressing. I would conclude therefore, that the struggle in Israel is not only a modern struggle over clashing claims to the land based in ancient forms of indigeneity. Articulated as settler colonialism, it cleaves neatly to the myth of Manifest Destiny, and the pain about the resistance that might have been. This pain resonates to a broader public of morally committed American academics, one that the American Studies community most accurately represents.

This is why I oppose the BDS strategy, and the ASA resolution, on the grounds of academic freedom and free speech alone.

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