Open Zion

12.17.13

The Real Problem With the American Studies Association's Boycott of Israel

It’s OK for the American Studies Association to judge the country with a double standard. Denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state is another story.

On Monday, the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli universities. I think such a boycott is dead wrong. Unfortunately, the most common criticisms of it miss the point.

Since the decision was announced, the primary line of attack has been that boycotting Israel constitutes a double standard. In Tablet, Liel Liebowitz even created a handy little chart of countries that violate academic freedom more than Israel, and yet aren’t being boycotted by the ASA. Jeffrey Goldberg and Larry Summers claimed that applying a double standard to the Jewish state represents anti-Semitism, whether the ASA’s members recognize it or not.

I find this deeply unconvincing. Of course Israel isn’t among the world’s worst human rights abusers. Of course boycotting it—and not China or Iran—constitutes a double standard. But so does most political protest. In the 1970s, American Jewish groups picketed the Bolshoi Ballet to demand freedom for Soviet Jews.

Were there actions illegitimate because they weren’t also protesting Idi Amin and Pol Pot, who were at the time committing far worse crimes? In 2010, dozens of cities, performers and professional groups boycotted Arizona because of its draconian immigration law. Were their actions immoral because they didn’t first boycott Zimbabwe? In the mid-1990s, the United States waged humanitarian war in Bosnia and did nothing in Rwanda, where the slaughter was worse. At the time, United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali suggested that this constituted a double standard, perhaps even a racial one, and he was right. But I’m still glad America stopped genocide somewhere.

For the global left, imperialism is the great sin of the modern world and only the West can commit it.

People are morally inconsistent. Some forms of injustice bother them more than others. The roots of this inconsistency may be irrational, even disturbing, but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t act against the abuses they care about most.

Of course, if the motivation behind the ASA’s double standard really were anti-Semitism, as Goldberg and Summers suggest, it would be deeply disturbing. But as far as I’m aware, the ASA has no record of hostility to Jews. (Indeed, the organization’s most recent past president is a professor of American Jewish history). What it does have, like many other left-wing academic groups, is a record of hostility to the West. In 1998, the ASA announced that it would boycott California and Washington State for their anti-affirmative action laws. (It later rescinded the boycotts). In 2003, it condemned the Patriot Act. In 2005, it condemned America’s embargo of Cuba. In 2006, it condemned the war in Iraq

Why did the ASA ignore far worse abuses in Burma and Congo? For the same reason lefties rally endlessly against the economic policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund but not against the economic policies of North Korea. And for the same reason that in the 1970s and 1980s, academics across the globe boycotted apartheid South Africa while saying barely a word about post-colonial African tyrants like Sekou Toure, Macias Nguema and Paul Biya. Because for the global left, imperialism is the great sin of the modern world. And only Western governments and institutions—the United States, South Africa, the World Bank, IMF and now, Israel—can commit it. For institutions like the ASA, Israel’s real crime is not being a country where Jews rule non-Jews. It’s being a country where, in their view at least, whites rule non-whites. That’s empirically dubious and morally myopic. But not all political action fueled by moral myopia is wrong.

The second most common line of attack against the ASA is that academic boycotts are inherently misguided. Again, I’m not entirely convinced. There’s no doubt that, all things being equal, academic boycotts are worse than other kinds because they restrict not merely the exchange of goods but the exchange of ideas. But historically, when people have found the cause compelling enough, they’ve supported even this form of pressure. American Jewish organizations, for instance, back sanctions against Tehran that make it extremely difficult for Iranian scholars to study in the United States. Many Western institutions supported the ANC’s call for an academic boycott of apartheid South Africa. Last year, the head of Israel’s prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science threatened to boycott a newly upgraded university in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. 

The best argument against the ASA’s boycott isn’t about double standards or academic freedom. It’s about the outcome the boycott seeks to produce. The Association’s boycott resolution doesn’t denounce “the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.” It denounces “the Israeli occupation of Palestine” and “the systematic discrimination against Palestinians,” while making no distinction whatsoever between Israeli control of the West Bank, where Palestinians lack citizenship, the right to vote and the right to due process, and Israel proper, where Palestinians, although discriminated against, enjoy all three. That’s in keeping with the “boycotts, divestments, and sanctions” movement more generally. BDS proponents note that the movement takes no position on whether there should be one state or two between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But it clearly opposes the existence of a Jewish state within any borders. The BDS movement’s call for “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties” denies Israel’s right to set its own immigration policy. So does the movement’s call for “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality”, which presumably denies Israel’s right to maintain the preferential immigration policy that makes it a refuge for Jews. Indeed, because the BDS movement’s statement of principles makes no reference to Jewish rights and Jewish connection to the land, it’s entirely possible to read it as giving Palestinians’ rights to national symbols and a preferential immigration policy while denying the same to Jews.

This is the fundamental problem: Not that the ASA is practicing double standards and not even that it’s boycotting academics, but that it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one. I don’t think that position is inherently anti-Semitic, but I do think it’s profoundly misguided. Britain is not illegitimate because it has a cross on its flag and an Anglican head of a state. Germany is not illegitimate because its immigration policy favors members of a dominant ethnic group. Jews deserve a state that takes a special interest in their self-protection, just like Palestinians do. And disregarding both peoples’ deep desire for such a state is not a recipe for harmonious bi-nationalism (if such a thing even exists); it’s a recipe for civil war. That’s not just my view. It’s the view of the most popular Palestinian leader alive, Marwan Barghouti, who said earlier this year that, “If the two-state solution fails, the substitute will not be a binational one-state solution, but a persistent conflict that extends based on an existential crisis.” 

That’s why PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas supports boycotting products from Israeli settlements but not from Israel proper. It’s because he’s drawing a distinction between Israel’s undemocratic control of the West Bank, which he can’t accept, and Israel’s existence, which he can. The ASA supports different tactics because it supports a different goal. In fact, the entire struggle over BDS is really a stalking horse for a much bigger debate: whether the best solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a state of Israel alongside a state of Palestine.

If you oppose the ASA’s boycott because you believe in two states for two people’s, you can’t stop there. You must also oppose Israel’s policy of subsidizing settlement construction, a policy that so far this year has produced a 130 percent increase in housing construction in the settlements versus a mere five percent increase in Israel proper. Opposing Palestinian-led boycotts because they endanger the two state solution also requires opposing Israeli policies that endanger the two state solution. Condemning the ASA’s move as an exercise in double standards and an assault on academic freedom, by contrast, doesn’t require challenging Israeli behavior at all. Which, for mainstream American Jewish organizations, may be precisely its appeal.