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The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel

Edited by Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm

Cultural Studies, Israel and Middle East, Jewish Life and Tradition

Paperback
Published: November 2014
ISBN: 9780990331605
Pages: 552 Size: 6x9 Illustrations: 4
eBOOK
Published: November 2014
ISBN: 9780990331612

How should we understand the international debate about the future of Israel and the Palestinians? Can justice be achieved in the Middle East? Until now, there was no single place for people to go to find detailed scholarly essays analyzing proposals to boycott Israel and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement of which they are a part.

This book for the first time provides the historical background necessary for informed evaluation of one of the most controversial issues of our day— the struggle between two peoples living side-by-side but with conflicting views of history and conflicting national ambitions. This book encourages empathy for all parties, but it also takes a cold look at what solutions are realistic and possible. In doing so, it tackles issues, like the role of anti-Semitism in calls for the abolition of the Jewish state, that many have found impossible to confront until now. The book gathers essays by an international cohort of scholars from Britain, Israel, and the United States.

Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the immediate past president of the American Association of University Professors. His thirty authored or edited books include No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom.

Gabriel Noah Brahm is Associate Professor of English at Northern Michigan University, coauthor of The Jester and the Sages: Mark Twain in Conversation with Nietzsche, Freud and Marx and coeditor of Prosthetic Territories: Politics and Hypertechnologies.

Contributors Include:
Russell Berman, Emily Budick, Michael Bérubé, David Caplan, Donna Divine, Rachel S. Harris, Dr. David Hirsch, Nancy Koppelman, Richard Landes, Kenneth Marcus, Marthan Nussbaum, Sabah Salih, Kenneth Stein, Ilan Troen, Shira Wolosky, Mitchell Cohen, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, Samuel Edelman, Alan Johnson, Michael Kotzin, Sharon Musher, Asaf Romirowsky, Paul Berman, Carol Edelman, Robert Fine, Jeff Robbins

What is the Academic BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement really all about? What is the relation, if any, of anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism? What are the historical, ethical, and political parameters of the current controversy over BDS on our campuses—a controversy that has, thus far, generated more heat than light? The editors of this book have brought together a set of thirty essays by leading scholars and public intellectuals—essays as stunning as they are wide-ranging, as remarkably well-informed and factually based as they are closely reasoned and persuasive. From the opening essays on academic freedom through the richly nuanced essays by Israeli academics currently teaching in mixed Arab-Israeli classrooms to the historical timeline, the case against Academic Boycott is made with such authority that no one who cares about global politics in the 21st Century can afford not to read these pages. This is that rare event—a necessary book, a real game-changer.

– Marjorie Perloff, professor Emerita of English at Stanford University

No other issue has divided the progressive academic community in the United States as bitterly as the BSD movement against Israel. This balanced and informative volume gives an indispensable account of the controversy as well as of the larger historical and political context of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. It is a book that all who care about this issue must consult.

– Seyla Benhabib, Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University

All states commit crimes. Only one in the world is deemed illegitimate for that reason: Israel. Only one is subject to cultural and academic boycotts the world over: Israel. No one could agree with everything in these essays. I do not. But in the main they are both devastating and scrupulous and they are all indispensable. Fair-minded readers who have not yet thought through the issues, including some supporters of BDS, may wish to consult their consciences as well as their sense of history and reconsider. But this indispensable book is more than a dissection of gross canards. It is an anatomy of key intellectual and political corruptions of our time.

– Todd Gitlin, Professor of Journalism and Sociology and Chair, Ph. D. Program in Communications, Columbia University

No other issue has divided the progressive academic community in the United States as bitterly as the BSD movement against Israel. This balanced and informative volume gives an indispensable account of the controversy as well as of the larger historical and political context of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. It is a book that all who care about this issue must consult

– Seyla Benhabib, Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University

The editors deserve major kudos for having compiled an impressive anthology featuring contributions in opposition to the deeply sordid, yet potentially potent, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

– Andrei S. Markovits, Fathom

The book's 500-plus pages cover a lot of (contested) ground, with essays exploring the nexus between the boycott and the political left, the range of BDS-related activity on American campuses, and examples of Israeli-Palestinian collaboration in higher education, among other topics.

– Elizabeth Redden, Inside Higher Ed

The essays in this compilation are both timely and timeless. Perhaps the timelessness has to do with antisemitism’s enduring nature, but there is an unheimlich or uncanny quality to them as well—like knowing that I could be writing the same words circa 1930s, from a cafe in Berlin, and understanding that BDS is the latest but not last incarnation.

– Steven K. Baum, The Journal of Anti-Semitism

What is the Academic BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement really all about? What is the relation, if any, of anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism? What are the historical, ethical, and political parameters of the current controversy over BDS on our campuses—a controversy that has, thus far, generated more heat than light? The editors of this book have brought together a set of thirty essays by leading scholars and public intellectuals—essays as stunning as they are wide-ranging, as remarkably well-informed and factually based as they are closely reasoned and persuasive. From the opening essays on academic freedom through the richly nuanced essays by Israeli academics currently teaching in mixed Arab-Israeli classrooms to the historical timeline, the case against Academic Boycott is made with such authority that no one who cares about global politics in the 21st Century can afford not to read these pages. This is that rare event—a necessary book, a real game-changer.

– Marjorie Perloff, professor Emerita of English at Stanford University

Written mostly by academic scholars, the essays are diverse, informative, and lucidly presented, covering the philosophical problems of academic boycotts, discussions of contentious debates at some academic associations and a few college campuses, the BDS movement, and the Left and American culture among other topics. Verdict While some readers may want to dismiss this work as partisan because of its title, several contributors have broadened the topic in a crucial way: the importance of supporting academic freedom, lest narrow, single-issue politics irreparably damage the university's mission of encouraging the unfettered exchange of knowledge and ideas.

– Donald Altschiller, Library Journal

If un-blinkered students and professors (who still make up the majority at all schools, even if they might lack the conviction of Israel’s defamers) are ever to make progress, they need to base their choices of action on a bedrock of ideas, including the powerful and compelling ideas that can be found on every page of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel.

– Divest This, Divest This Blog

This very substantial volume consists of no less than thirty-four solid and useful essays by (mainly) American scholars and writers against any proposed academic boycott of Israel. It is an invaluable guide to the subject, and ought to be read by anyone concerned with this arrant attack on the Jewish state and it alone. . . .Taken together, these essays provide powerful ammunition for academics and students who are appalled by this latest exercise in antisemitism, and the book should certainly be read by Australian university staff and students who are determined that no boycott
of Israel be allowed to happen here and need the intellectual cannon-fodder to fight proponents of a boycott.

– William D. Rubinstein, Jewish Down Under

I think that Nelson and Brahm are right but that their success depends on reaching an audience—especially the scientists who have a stake in these debates but are usually left out of them—beyond the audience their collection is most likely to find. That will require a retail politics at colleges and universities, and within scholarly associations, that will be difficult and time consuming. But I know of no better guide than this book to the kinds of arguments one needs to make, or of any more heartening example of the diversity of voices and talents that can be drawn to the effort.

– Jonathan Marks, Scholars For Peace in the Middle East

The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel is 550 pages long, and it contains, in addition to essays, a dossier of official documents on the ASA and other boycott resolutions, as well as a short history of Israel. It is intelligent and wide-ranging, from David Caplan’s essay on the representation of Jews in current American literature to Shira Wolosky’s memoir of what it is actually like to teach Arab and Jewish students in an Israeli university

– Adam Kirsch, Tablet

This book does far more than make the case against academic boycotts of Israel: it reminds us what academic freedom actually means and its crucial importance in underpinning the entire scholarly edifice. We abandon this at our peril. At the same time there is also recognition that this alone is not enough to counteract the BDS movement. Equally as important is the need to mount a defence of liberal academic principles more broadly: to argue that knowledge is more than just identity and perspective; to assert the aspiration towards, and the possibility of, seeking truth; and to draw a distinction between scholarship and activism. This book is a vital step in this direction

– Joanna Williams, Spiked

. . . the essays as a whole are essential reading, for those who want to understand, in detail, why an academic boycotts of Israel is discrimination, pure and simple, and why it threatens not only Israeli academics, and not just Jewish academics in addition, but the academy itself. It is essential reading.

– Kennth S. Stern, Jewish Journal

The Case against Academic Boycotts of Israel features contributions from almost 30 scholars from the US, Israel and the UK. It includes essays opposing academic boycotts on principle; accounts of how a boycott motion was passed in 2013 by the American Studies Association in what Professor Nelson calls a 'very coercive' way; essays on Israeli history, culture and education, so 'people don’t remain ignorant about the country they are boycotting'; and analyses of the beliefs underlying the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign and its likely impact.

– Matthew Reisz, Times Higher Education

This is a useful tool for individuals and groups that have Israel's interests in mind and have the opportunity to raise an objection to BDS.

– Sanford R. Silverburg, Catawba College, Salisbury, NC, Association of Jewish Libraries

...The book is essential for those who want to understand in some detail why an academic boycott of Israel is outright discrimination, and why it threatens not only Israeli professors and scholars, but the very reason for universities and the idea of free speech itself.

– Gerald Sorin, Haaretz

To refuse to accept an imposed defensive crouch as one’s natural posture, as this book admirably does, also makes a case against academic boycotts of Israel.

– Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Jewish Review of Books

For those who believe in the value and power of education and of the ability of knowledge to combat ignorance, [this book] is an invaluable collection.

– Gila Wertheimer, Chicago Jewish Star

The recent successes and near-successes of the BDS campaign have forced liberal Jews to counterattack The result: a book which is both a useful anti-boycott resource and a fascinating psychological portrait of an elite look into the dilemmas and biases of American Jewish liberal academia.

– Avi Wolf, Wolf Media Review

Last year, the British scholar Alan Johnson spoke up against a resolution to boycott Israel
at the National University of Ireland, Galway. As he recounts the experience, "Anti-Israel
student activists tried to break up the meeting by banging on the tables, using the Israeli
flag as a toilet wipe, and screaming at me, again and again, ‘Fuck off our fucking campus
you fucking Zionist!’" This outburst came from students "whose heads were filled with
the common sense of intellectual circles in Europe—Zionism is racism, the Zionists
‘ethnically cleansed’ the natives from the land in 1948, Israel is an ‘Apartheid State,’
Israel is committing a slow genocide against the remaining Palestinians, and so on."
Johnson recognizes that students who recite this litany of angry accusations are "in thrall
to an Anti-Zionist Ideology" that turns them into dedicated "Anti-Zionist Subjects." Most
probably know little if anything about the history of Zionism or have any first-hand
experience of Israel, but this ignorance does not keep them from eagerly participating in
the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement or from putting forward resolutions
such as the one to which Johnson objected. Johnson’s essay appears in Cary Nelson and
Gabriel Noah Brahm’s impressively comprehensive collection The Case Against
Academic Boycotts of Israel.
The students Johnson encountered in Ireland have their counterparts among students,
faculty members, and community activists on college and university campuses across the
United States, Canada, and various European countries. They are a diverse group, and
their motives may vary, but they are linked by an ideological and political stance towards
Israel fueled by what Paul Berman calls "inexhaustible sources of rancor and rage." As
the chapters of this book persuasively demonstrate, one can develop a strong case against
the anti-Israel boycott proposals, but inasmuch as these proposals are fueled by
overwrought and adversarial passions, rational counter-arguments are unlikely to change
many minds.
Intellect, in fact, is not what is first and foremost at work here. Indignation is, and it is
hard to persuade angry and indignant people to rethink their positions. How, for instance,
could one hope to reason with Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the BDS
movement, who is certain that "we are witnessing the rapid demise of Zionism, and
nothing can be done to save it." He unashamedly boasts, "I, for one, support euthanasia." Barghouti claims that some of Israel’s "racist" and "sadistic" actions against the
Palestinians "are reminiscent of common Nazi practices against the Jews." Needless to
say, he offers no evidence to support these outlandish charges. Barghouti, who is
pursuing an advanced degree in philosophy at Tel Aviv University, leads a movement
that would boycott the very institution where he studies, a consequence that seems to
trouble him not in the least.
Mark LeVine, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and an
outspoken supporter of BDS, is hardly any more convincing. LeVine recently wrote that
"There is only one criticism of Israel that is relevant: It is a state grown, funded, and
feeding off the destruction of another people. It is not legitimate. It must be dismantled,
the same way that the other racist, psychopathic states across the region must be
dismantled. And everyone who enables it is morally complicit in its crimes."
Academic scholars, of all people, should recognize that excoriation is not an
acceptable substitute for argument, but, in fact, it pervades much of the discourse that
today passes as "criticism of Israel." In 2009, for instance, a letter was sent to President
Obama accusing Israel of pursuing an "insidious policy of extermination" so merciless in
its character and extent as to constitute "one of the most massive ethnocidal atrocities of
modern times." It was signed by more than 900 academics. Since then, still larger
numbers of people have endorsed proposals to boycott Israeli universities, cultural events,
and commercial products, including Sabra-brand hummus, which has been banned from
certain American university dining halls.
What is going on? The anti-Zionism that has been emerging in recent years usually has
little or nothing to do with Zionism itself. What distinguishes anti-Zionism more than
anything else is the negative passions it embodies. Through the frequent repetition of a
limited but emotionally charged lexicon of defamatory slogans, anti-Zionism has
developed a language of its own, voicing in strongly felt terms a now-familiar litany of
accusations and indictments directed at Israel. The truth-content of these charges is taken
to be self-evident. Fixation, fervor, the hubris of moral certainty, and a heightened degree
of self-righteous anger are enough to get many to sign on. Add the consolations of
groupthink, and it is no wonder that, in his contribution, Paul Berman refers to the
phenomenon less in political terms than in pathological ones, as a fevered "madness."
Nevertheless, BDS is emphatically a movement with political goals and a reasoned
strategy to meet those goals. Cary Nelson describes these in detail in his useful
introduction, which offers a brief history of BDS. It began at the University of California,
Berkeley in early 2002 and soon thereafter spread to Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton,
and elsewhere. Recognizing that academic boycotts violate the norms of academic
freedom, hundreds of college and university presidents have spoken out against them, and
virtually every major multidisciplinary academic organization has opposed them as well.
Still, the movement maintains a good deal of momentum, and divestment drives and
proposals to boycott Israeli universities are ongoing and will likely continue. Depending
on which BDS spokesperson one listens to, the aims may vary somewhat, but all of them speak up for greater Palestinian rights and argue that Israeli universities somehow deny
those rights. Yet any informed observer knows that Israeli universities are among the
most liberal institutions in the country, that many of their faculty members and students
actively advocate for a two-state solution, and that large numbers of Arabs attend these
institutions. Ilan Troen’s chapter, "The Israeli–Palestinian Relationship in Higher
Education: Evidence from the Field," is particularly clarifying in this regard. Academic
boycotts, divestments, and sanctions are not, in fact, likely to work in favor of the
Palestinians. There is ample reason, therefore, to suspect that the movement has more
ambitious goals in mind than boycotts of Israeli universities. One of its advocates says as
much. As As’ad Abu Khalil writes:
The real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel . . . That should be stated as an
unambiguous goal. There should not be any equivocation on the subject. Justice and
freedom for the Palestinians are incompatible with the existence of the state of Israel.
The political philosophy that guides such an eliminationist goal is deftly analyzed in
several of this book’s most notable chapters, including those by Alan Johnson, Sabah
Salih, and David Hirsch. Other chapters, by Martha Nussbaum, Russell Berman, Gabriel
Noah Brahm and Asaf Romirowsky, and Emily Budick, expose the hollowness of the
supporting arguments and the political bad faith of the BDS campaigns. Several other
contributors—Sharon Ann Musher, Michael Bérubé, Donna Robinson Divine, Nancy
Koppelman, Samuel M. Edelman, and Carol F.S. Edelman—point out the threats to
academic freedom that BDS activities pose and offer revealing case studies of damage
already done on certain campuses.
Cary Nelson’s dismantling of Judith Butler ("The Problem with Judith Butler: The
Philosophy of the Movement to Boycott Israel"), the movement’s leading philosopher
and political theorist, succeeds strikingly. His analysis of the abstract, ahistorical notion
of justice on which Butler bases much of her argument for the dissolution of Israel is
fully convincing. To Butler, as Nelson points out, the history of the Jewish people in the
land of Israel and the land’s connection to Judaism are without meaning. She simply
"eschews the Zionist linkage of nation to land" and rejects the very existence of a Jewish
state, not just its policies. Adopting the moral stance of an absolutist, she insists on justice
as the basis for a state’s legitimacy and finds justice only in the Palestinian cause. For her,
"there is no valid case to be made for Israelis as citizens of a Jewish state." In the
rhetorical economy of her work there are no competing arguments. It is a conflict
between truth and error. Positioned on the side of error, Jews, therefore, are to give up
their state and submit to governance by a Palestinian majority, a prospect that the
overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews are not likely to endorse. Nelson is correct to
conclude, then, that Butler’s proposal for a one-state solution is "a recipe for war," for
Israelis would not stand idly by while the Jewish State disappears and they fall under the
dominance of Muslim Arab rule. They would fight, an outcome that never figures into
Butler’s fantasy of a non-violent route to a single state.
Is it also a recipe for or a product of anti-Semitism? The question comes up time and
again in this book with respect to the whole BDS movement. Butler is Jewish, as she repeatedly avows, but that fact hardly adds validity to arguments she makes against the
Jewish State or necessarily keeps her at a distance from Israel’s fiercest enemies. She is
on record, for instance, affirming Hamas and Hezbollah as "progressive" movements that
are to be supported as part of a global left wing, a position that most Jews would find
abhorrent. Nelson claims no knowledge of what is in Butler’s heart, but his analysis of
her thinking, which he finds "fundamentally flawed by its unmitigated hostility toward
Israel," leads him to conclude that the positions she argues for "have antisemitic
consequences and lend support to antisemitic groups and traditions." Kenneth Marcus
devotes an entire chapter to this question ("Is BDS Anti-Semitic?"), offering a learned
review of definitions of anti-Semitism, as well as several categories that are useful in
thinking through the issue. He concludes that "in the last analysis, the BDS campaign is
anti-Semitic." Even if some of its proponents may hold no particular disdain for Jews,
they "operate out of a climate of opinion that contains elements that are hostile to Jews."
One wants to know more about this "climate of opinion" and, in particular, understand
why certain academics are so receptive to it. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin answers these
questions in her groundbreaking chapter, "Interrogating the Academic Boycotters of
Israel on American Campuses," a carefully researched, empirical study of 938 faculty
members at 316 American colleges and universities who have endorsed statements
calling for an academic boycott of Israeli universities.
Rossman-Benjamin’s findings are revealing: A vast majority of these scholars—789 (86
percent)—are located within the humanities (453 or 49 percent) or social sciences (336 or
37 percent). Those in engineering and the natural sciences comprise a mere 7 percent of
the total (4 percent were affiliated with the arts). The departments with the largest
number of boycotters are English or literature (21 percent), followed by ethnic studies (10
percent), history (7 percent), gender studies (7 percent), anthropology (6 percent),
sociology (5 percent), linguistics or languages (5 percent), politics (4 percent), American
studies (3 percent), and Middle Eastern or Near East studies (3 percent). Analyzing her
data in order to understand the boycotters’ ideological motivation, Rossman-Benjamin
discovers four recurring themes at the heart of their work: race, class, gender, and empire.
Rossman-Benjamin posits that scholars invested in the study of these subjects are apt to
understand human experience in terms of power relationships that divide the world into
the oppressed and their oppressors. Thereafter, it is but "a short ideological leap to seeing
the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the same binary terms, casting the Palestinians as the
oppressed and the Israelis as the oppressors."
To view the Palestinian-Israeli dispute in these terms is, of course, to reduce its
complexity to Manichean notions of good and evil. This is not the way one would hope
that our teachers of history, literature, and society think, but, of course, Rossman-
Benjamin is right that it is the kind of thinking that shapes much of the discourse of
Israel’s academic boycotters. The language and the anti-Zionist politics they reflect are
largely products of the ideological left, with which many of those who pursue race, class,
gender, and empire studies align themselves. Within certain scholarly and intellectual
circles, to be a member of the left in good standing today almost requires that one be an anti-Zionist. As Cary Nelson comments, "An overall progressive agenda cannot move
forward without first dismantling the State of Israel. Anti-Zionism becomes the necessary
precondition of all other progressive commitments."
Try as they might, BDS and other campus-based anti-Israel activists will not succeed in
dismantling the Jewish State, nor will the tiny minority of Israeli scholars who have
emerged as boycott advocates (they deserve a study unto themselves). Their various
boycott campaigns have scored no major victories to date, but by constantly maligning
Israel as an unjust, racist, apartheid state, they no doubt are making the country seem
sinister in the eyes of growing numbers of people. Instances of Israeli scholars being
dropped from the editorial boards of certain journals or otherwise shunned are
documented in this book. One also hears anecdotally of scholars who will no longer
collaborate with Israeli colleagues or participate in conferences at Israeli universities. In
such cases, it is more than just good professional manners that are being violated:
decency is, and fairness, and personal and national dignity.
It is hard, personally and professionally, for Israelis to know how to respond to such
insults. To answer indignation with indignation will not ease the Israeli-Palestinian
dispute, but, then, neither will BDS and its faithful followers. What it will do is let the
latter know that Israelis and their supporters will not remain passively on the receiving
end of moral smugness and undeserved insults. To refuse to accept an imposed defensive
crouch as one’s natural posture, as this book admirably does, also makes a case against
academic boycotts of Israel.

– Alvin Rosenfield, Jewish Review of Books