Blogging Across the Water: A Response to David Hirsh About the ASA Resolution

December 18, 2013, 10:53 am

harvey-milk-us-postage-stampDear David,

Thank you for your civil and knowledgeable open letter of December 17, and the links you have shared. I hope you like the stamp I chose for my response: Harvey is one of my heroes, both for his belief that democracy can come to all of us and for his belief in moral persuasion.

You are right: I am new to the global debates over the BDS boycott, having been engaged in reading and conversation for only a year. And yet people have to make decisions at political moments, and for a variety of reasons I was faced with one this fall when I chose to come out against the ASA boycott resolution and then came to believe I needed to re-think and change my position. Part of what makes it difficult to engage this debate is that the two sides tend to use the same rhetorical strategies: the extremists yell and name call, the more moderate voices suggest that you don’t know what you are talking about and that you need to be better educated before entering the conversation. So I thank you for a communication that breaks the pattern, and I hope you will take this post in the same spirit. So as not to rehash what is already available to readers, here is a link to the interview with Electronic Intifada that accurately reflects my views at the moment I changed my mind about the ASA resolution.

Although this was highlighted by several people who read Michelle Goldberg’s coverage of the ASA resolution, it would be a misapprehension to say that I changed my position on the boycott *because* of abusive messages from BDS supporters. That had been going on since last February. I have had plenty of time to wave the white flag, and I didn’t. Tactics that included former friends and colleagues accusing me of racism and of personal animus tended to strengthen my view that there was something terribly wrong with the BDS movement as a whole, even though I was sympathetic to the issues that were being raised. Yet, I would also say that more personal interactions with BDS activists, on and off line, have had a radically different tone, and that deserves some publicity as well. Similarly, friends who oppose BDS, and who have expressed disappointment with my rethinking of this matter, have been decent and caring in expressing their views to me. Many of these friends feel that the criticism of Israel is unfair, while others believe that a scholarly organization has no business politicizing itself in this way.

It is also worth mentioning that those opposed to the BDS academic boycott seem happy to criticize BDS rhetoric and, at the same time, ignore the viciousness of their own most radical allies. John Podhoretz’s appalling announcement that Jewish Swarthmore students opposing the Occupation should be “spat upon,” expressed last night in a forum in New York, is only one of the more public manifestations of this. Now that’s an argument for academic freedom! I would not be surprised if every member of the ASA who has been identified with the passage of this resolution has had to up the level of his or her spam filters every day. Speaking only for myself, since I changed my position, I have been receiving nasty and threatening electronic messages from those supposedly defending Israel: swastikas and pictures of concentration camps arrive daily, as well as accusations that I am promoting another Holocaust.  So if bullying were decisive, I would simply have to flip flop back and forth relentlessly, without ever deciding what I think and why.

But what do I have to add? And how can I respond to your concerns?

First, I would like to point out that we learn as we go, don’t we? That’s what scholars do. We often begin in one place and as we talk, research and read, we take our ideas elsewhere. To do otherwise would be to simply refine polemic. I have no problem with being criticized by anyone, or responding to reasoned criticism, and more than once in my life I have changed my view on things great and small. Despite the intensity of the debate among those committed to it, you would be surprised how few people in the United States have been aware of BDS, its affiliate organizations or its program up until now. Many ASA colleagues had never heard of BDS before the debate over this year’s resolution broke out into public, so it was an educational moment for a great many people. I do not think of myself as a person with her head stuck firmly into the sand (I subscribe to four political magazines, four academic journals, and read two-three newspapers every day), and yet, as of last February, I had never heard of BDS. And although the member vote on the resolution had a higher participation rate than the last vote taken for president of the organization, it is noteworthy in my view that something so controversial was still not something that close to two-thirds of the organization wished to express an opinion about.

So back to academic freedom. How did I learn of BDS? Not through the boycott itself, or through any organizer in my own university, but from the New York Times. Last year, a donor who gives $25 million annually to Brooklyn College (a sizable budget hole to fill) had threatened to withdraw those funds if Judith Butler and Omar Bhargouti were allowed to speak about BDS for one evening.

One evening. Two hours, actually. And it evoked such a punitive response that you would have thought that this exercise in academic freedom would, itself, have brought the state of Israel to its knees.

So while I would advocate for BDS activists to rethink their own organizing strategies, those making arguments against the boycott on the grounds of anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel are doing a half-baked job of standing up for academic freedom. In my own decision to support the ASA resolution, for example, I was moved not at all by rage and hyperbole, but I was moved by friends seeking to persuade, admitting that they too were still evolving in their own views, and explaining why they felt they could support the resolution while still maintaining intellectual independence. I was not moved by the star power of academics making public statements on behalf of BDS, or continual citation of their work, but I was moved by the ordinary Palestinian students who took the time to talk to me about their views despite initial suspicion about my motivations.

Supporting the resolution required bringing my views about academic freedom into alignment with anti-colonial and anti-imperial views that I have developed over a lifetime. In addition to being an academic, I am a US citizen and taxpayer who is watching social programs at home being starved so that a state of perpetual war can be maintained in the Middle East. Supporters of Israeli foreign policy seem to want to claim a special relationship, but that relationship is thoroughly fouled by Israel’s role as a military proxy for US economic and foreign policy in that region. It is not a relationship I support, nor do I think it is one that the survival of Israel as a nation depends on.

So I think the United States has a special moral obligation to Palestinians living under the appalling conditions of the occupation. Opposition to the human rights violations occurring in Israel does not make Israel “a special case” at all, but rather one in a long series of police states, making a claim to democracy, that the Left in the United States has continuously opposed. The United States government not only has a long history of suppressing democracy and social equality at home, but a somewhat shorter history (a century, give or take) of human rights violations abroad and the support of police states abroad. All of this has gone on, and continues to go on, in the name of promoting democracy around the globe. Not only does the United States torture, and render individuals for torture and imprisonment around the globe, but it also maintains a University of Torture. Otherwise known as The School of the Americas, this institution has historically taught a range of counter-insurgency, surveillance, psy-ops and interrogation techniques that are deployed to violate human rights around the globe.

I thought, if I am so critical of my own country’s foreign policy, why not Israel? If my own government, and the domestic universities that are embedded in the US military industrial complex, are not exempt from scrutiny, under what conditions ought I to be deflecting criticism of similar forms of complicity elsewhere? The complicity between Israeli universities and the state directly service, not just Israel’s human rights violations, but those of the United States. But ultimately the question made no sense in the context in which it exists. The call for boycott, divestment and sanctions is being made by an organization springing from Palestinian civil society. It did not originate in the United States.

Why would a request from a Palestinian organization target any other state but Israel? Why would an instrument of Palestinian civil society ask allies around the globe to boycott other oppressive regimes? Why, if asked to listen to grievances from one group of colonized people, would a US scholar require all other oppressed groups to submit their grievances before giving one group a fair hearing? And despite the fact that China is routinely mentioned as an obvious target for similar actions, few people mention that there is a robust Free Tibet movement that is also very popular on college campuses and does not seem to draw the kind of scrutiny that BDS has.

So I resent the smokescreens, accompanied by veiled and not so veiled charges of anti-Semitism, that are intended to divert our eyes from ongoing human rights violations that require our urgent attention. I may also feel a different moral imperative than you do, David. Israel is the largest recipient of US tax dollars in the world. That puts that country ahead of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Egypt, none of which are functioning democracies, three of which are hot war zones and one of which has now returned to military dictatorship. Israel’s human rights violations, the expansion of the settlements, the construction of the Wall and the daily policing of Palestinians are directly and indirectly supported by over $3 billion in US foreign aid as of fiscal year 2012. Claims to the contrary are false. Although there have been stipulations in funding bills that US dollars not be used to build new settlements, the presence of US-made heavy equipment in the zone of Occupation says otherwise. Anti-occupation activist Rachel Corrie was, after all, murdered in 2003 by a construction vehicle manufactured and sold by Caterpillar, and the company continues to profit from the Occupation.

I want a conversation that separates some of these things out for real scrutiny and real conversation. I think the ASA resolution, modified as it was and put to a vote of the membership, has created a possibility for that. It is a moment to make the most of, not resist. I would ask for two things going forward. One is that senior academics opposed to the BDS strategy continue to carve out places in their university where civil private and public conversations can occur between those who have honest differences: here’s one example I wrote about in April. They need to be spaces that allow for listening and leaving questions on the table that we cannot answer yet rather than rushing to swift judgment. They should not be spaces (like blogs!) where she who gives the most radical performance wins the day. This isn’t about winning: this is about understanding how we got to a place where it is more tolerable to wash our hands of human rights abuses supported by US dollars than it is to question Israeli sovereignty over lands they have seized illegally.

And I would ask all US scholars to extend a sincere and welcoming hand to their progressive Israeli counterparts who want to work with us to solve this problem. An institutional boycott does not preclude this: rather, it challenges us to be creative in organizing our conversations outside university or government settings. In these days after the death of Nelson Mandela, I would like to remind friends in Great Britain and the United States that during the fight against apartheid, despite the boycott, South African activists, scholars and artists — white, black and colored — could do work and politics outside of South Africa that they could not safely do at home. They could speak, and write, freely in ways that were also not possible at home. This is a gigantic, and not well explored, conversation: how can US and GB academics act affirmatively on behalf of anti-occupation speech, whether from Israelis or Palestinians? How can we counter reactionary speech on behalf of Israel that obscures the thousands of Israeli voices that oppose state policies?  If the boycott does not target and punish individuals, and leaves ample room for free speech, let’s stop arguing among ourselves. Let’s demonstrate our convictions that academic freedom matters by acting affirmatively to support all of our colleagues, Israeli and Palestinian, who want the just world that we want as well.

In gratitude for the opportunity to converse across many borders, and hope that our conversation will continue,

Claire Potter

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