As the Modern Language Association gears up for its annual meeting this week, it is facing considerable scrutiny over a session on the push to boycott Israeli universities. Now the association is being criticized for refusing to grant a press pass to The Daily Caller, a conservative website that wanted to attend the meeting in part because of the boycott controversy. The Daily Caller published an article on the rejection, repeatedly calling the MLA "fascist" (and many other things). Further, the article questioned how the MLA could reject The Daily Caller when it has in the past granted press credentials to "pro-fascist" journalists, and the article used as its lead example Scott McLemee, a columnist for Inside Higher Ed, who has in fact attended the MLA in the past. The article was by Eric Owens, education editor of The Daily Caller.
The article complained that the MLA had not given a reason for rejecting Owens. Via email to Inside Higher Ed, Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, explained the rejection this way: "The MLA provides media credentials to qualified reporters who are employees of or freelancers on assignment to locally or nationally recognized print or broadcast media outlets with a demonstrated history of reporting on academic issues. Based on that policy, we have accredited a range of media outlets with a history of serious reporting on academic issues, including several that have been critical of the MLA. In keeping with that policy we reviewed the archive of Eric Owens, the reporter who requested credentials for the MLA convention from the Daily Caller, but determined that his reporting was not of a caliber that merited free admission to the MLA convention."
Following a vote by the leaders of the sociology department, the University of Colorado at Boulder says that Patricia Adler is clear to return to teaching her popular course on deviance. Adler has been warned last month that she needed to stop teaching the course because of concerns raised by administrators about a classroom exercise in which some assistant teaching assistants dressed as different types of prostitutes. The university gave a series of conflicting reasons for the concern about the course, which had been taught for years, with strong student reviews. Eventually, the university said that if Adler's course was reviewed, she could teach it again, and that review process is now complete. A spokesman for the university said: "Professor Adler is free to teach the course next semester if she so desires."
Adler currently has a lawyer talking to the university. She issued this statement: "Although it is gratifying that the Executive Committee in the Sociology Department has affirmed the Ad Hoc Committee’s decision to permit me to continue teaching a course that for 25 years has been held in high esteem with no reported complaints, the fact that it had to undergo this extraordinary scrutiny to reverse CU’s initial jump to judgment is a sad statement on what is occurring in universities. My case is just a small step in the fight to preserve academic freedom in universities around the globe. Many issues remain to be addressed in my ongoing relationship with the university, so my future is still unclear. I greatly appreciate the support I have received from students, faculty, and outside organizations."
I want to begin with a quotation from Tzvetan Todorov's Facing the Extreme Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, because, of all the many things that might be said in opposition to the American Studies Association boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education, the one I want to focus on is the association's lack of moral courage, which, in this case, includes its failure to have learned the lessons of the association's extraordinary and ethical achievements in previous generations.
This is Todorov: "to denounce slavery constitutes a moral act only at those times when such denunciation is not simply a matter of course and thus involves some personal risk. There is nothing moral in speaking out against slavery today; all it proves is that I'm in step with my society's ideology or else don't want to find myself on the wrong side of the barricades. Something very similar can be said about condemnations of racism, although that would not have been the case in 1936 in Germany."
I would ask the question of the ASA: Who, in their audience of addressees, do they imagine is NOT opposed to the idea of occupation? And who, again in their target audience, is NOT concerned with the rights of Palestinians? Not even the politically right-wing academics in Israel are pro-occupation or against Palestinians as a matter of moral belief or commitment, as were, say, slaveholders in the American South or anti-Semites in fascist Europe. The issue for them, for all of us here, is one that the boycott does not even recognize, let alone address: how do these two entities, Israel and Palestine, find a way to exist side by side?
To be sure Israeli Jews like myself are likely to be more sensitive to the potential extermination of the Jewish population in Israel than individuals outside of Israel. I confess that bias. But the possibilities of the destruction of the State of Israel and the deaths of its citizens are no fantasies of a deluded imagination. Read the Arab press, unless, of course, the boycotters would prefer to remain ignorant of the issues. What is required in Israel is a political solution that produces a Palestinian state and secures the existence of Israel. If any one of the boycotters has a solution that does that, we in Israel would love to hear it.
The generation of Americanists who opposed the 1940s and '50s idea of American exceptionalism and who opened the field of American studies to new voices (many of which are now prominent in the field), took bold stands, not only in terms of attacking the American hegemony of the time and transforming the American literary and historical narrative, but also in terms of the political actions they took: not just opposing segregation and racism, the Vietnam War, sexism, and many other less-than-enviable aspects of the American polity in their writings. Teaching at historically black colleges, producing programs of African American and minority studies, introducing feminism into the curriculum, and supporting the women who would teach those courses. Critics such as Paul Lauter, Leslie Fiedler, Stanley Elkins, Emory Eliot, Sacvan Bercovitch spoke out. They took risks. Many of them were first-generation college-educated; many were Jews. .
One of the boycott advocates, Cynthia Franklin, as quoted in Inside Higher Ed, speaks of the "culture of fear" in speaking out in relation to Israel and Palestine, specifically the fear of "reprisals," such as "not getting tenure or ... jobs." Since neither Israeli institutions of higher learning nor the State of Israel could possibly be the source of such reprisals, I can only imagine that Franklin fears other Americans. Wouldn't it make more sense to address these fellow Americans? If Franklin is right about the threat of reprisals, it would certainly take more moral courage, which apparently the boycotters lack. The president of the association, Curtis Marez also seems to know very little about what the field of American studies has stood for in the United States. As quoted in New York Magazine, he doesn't "dispute that many nations, including many of Israel's neighbors, are generally judged to have human rights records that are worse than Israel's [but ] 'one has to start somewhere' " – start somewhere to do what, exactly?
America, he may have forgotten, is no longer, actually it never was, the City on the Hill. It took decades and many academic arguments to break the American fantasy of itself as a land of equal opportunity for all and to acknowledge racism and sexism and genderism in American culture. These are still not eradicated, whatever the contemporary hegemony of Americanists believes. And there are still other American ills to deal with. To invoke Emerson's words in "Self-Reliance," voiced "to the angry bigot [who] assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his latest news from Barbardoes": "Go love thy infant, love thy woodchopper, be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home."
One defense of the boycott has been that, given this allegedly tremendous repression of the conversation in the United States by forces unnamed, and because of the necessity for exceptionalist Americanists to broadcast their hegemonic, moral message to the world, the boycott at least opens up the topic of Israel and Palestine for conversation. Five thousand academics belong to the ASA and not one of them could think of a single other way to open up this conversation? Centerpiecing a work of Arab-American fiction (say, for example, Muhja Kahf's Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, Suzan Muaddi Darraj's Inheritance of Exile or Leila Halabi's West of the Jordan) at the yearly conference might have been a start, in keeping with the association's disciplinary definition as well, though that might have complicated matters for the activists, since, lo and behold, not only is Israel not the only oppressor in these texts but the United States is not exactly a bastion of easy integration. Convening a panel of Israeli and Palestinian Americanists (some of them my former students) might also have been an option – if, of course, what the association wanted was change rather than domination and power.
American Americanists do not need to bring to the attention of Israeli academics the difficulty of getting an education under conditions of occupation or discrimination. I don't even dare bring up ancient history like European (not to mention American) quotas against Jews at the university, since this is not, we are told, a Jewish issue at all (though, who, in truth, are those Americans that the Americanists so fear?). I am talking about life in Palestine, pre-Israel, when Jews were Palestinians. I don't know if a Mandate, as in the British rule over the region from the end of World War I until the birth of Israel, is the same as an occupation, but under the pre-Israel Mandate travel throughout Palestine and for Jews coming into Palestine was severely restricted. Nor were uprisings against Jews (there were no Israelis then) uncommon. Yet 25 years before the declaration of the State of Israel, the Hebrew University was founded, and it flourished. And when, in violation of the truce in 1949, Israelis were forcibly denied access to that university, on Mount Scopus, they studied in a building in Rehavia, until they built a new campus in Givat Ram. After the 1967 war, they returned – note my word: returned – to Mount Scopus once again.
In his memoir, Little Did I Know, Stanley Cavell asks the question that all of us – Israelis, Palestinians, Americans – must ask in the global world we inhabit. He is discussing the return of his good friend, philosopher Kurt Fischer, to the Austria that had made of him a refugee, first in Shanghai, then in the United States. Fischer knows full well that he will now dwell among those very people who had ejected him, and that he is going to have to accept the human situation they now share. This is Cavell: "It takes an extreme case of oppression, which tore him from his home in his adolescence, to be posing the question every decently situated human being, after adolescence, either asks himself in an unjust world, or coarsens himself to avoid asking: Where is one now; how is one living with, hence counting upon, injustice?"
I suggest that the pro-boycotters of the American Studies Association ask themselves how they are now living with and hence counting upon injustice in order to preserve their own hegemonic authority and power and their utterly absurd sense of themselves as exceptional. As Jonathan Chait points out in his New York piece if, as Curtis Marez admits, Israel isn't the worst offender in the neighborhood, then wouldn't it make sense to start with those who are the worst offenders? In the absence of doing that, the boycotters cannot, in good conscience, claim that their boycott is anything more than power politics at its worst. Painfully for an Americanist like myself, it defeats everything that the ASA has stood for over the many years of its existence.
Emily Budick is the Ann and Joseph Edelman Chair of American Studies and chair of English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“What seemed impossible only a year ago seems quite possible now,” an academic involved in the American Studies Association endorsement of an academic boycott of Israel wrote to me after the news of the ASA membership vote on the boycott resolution came in. In response to a membership referendum organized by the ASA National Council, 66 percent of the voters endorsed the resolution..
Independently but simultaneously, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association announced its elected council’s unanimous support for the academic boycott of Israel.
These and a number of other developments this year in the global struggle for Palestinian rights lead to the conclusion that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement may be reaching a tipping point, particularly in the academic and cultural sphere.
Even before this sweeping victory for the ASA boycott resolution, many had hailed the ASA National Council’s unanimous endorsement of the academic boycott of Israel as an exemplary expression of effective international solidarity with the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom, justice and equality. “Warmly saluting” the ASA boycott, the largest federation of Palestinian academic unions said Palestinian academics were “deeply moved and inspired” by what it considered to be “a concrete contribution to ending [Israel’s] regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid against the Palestinian people.”
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is an integral part of the BDS movement, which since its establishment in 2005 has been endorsed nearly by a consensus in Palestinian society. BDS seeks to realize basic Palestinian rights under international law through applying effective, global, morally consistent pressure on Israel and all the institutions that collude in its violations of international law, as was done against apartheid South Africa.As Judith Butler describes it, “The BDS movement has become the most important contemporary alliance calling for an end to forms of citizenship based on racial stratification, insisting on rights of political self-determination for those for whom such basic freedoms are denied or indefinitely suspended, insisting as well on substantial ways of redressing the rights of those forcibly and/or illegally dispossessed of property and land.”
If boycott, at the most fundamental level, constitutes “withdrawing ... cooperation from an evil system,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us in another context, BDS fundamentally calls on all people of conscience and their institutions to fulfill their profound moral obligation to desist from complicity in Israel’s system of oppression against the Palestinian people.
To understand why the ASA boycott has attracted considerably more than its fair share of attacks from the Israeli establishment, Israel lobby groups in the U.S. and its apologists, one must examine the wider context, the trend of BDS growth worldwide.
The BDS movement set an impressive number of precedents in 2013. Weeks ago, in a letter of support to the ASA, the University of Hawaii Ethnic Studies department became the first academic department in the west to support the academic boycott of Israel. In April, the Association for Asian-American Studies endorsed the academic boycott — the first professional academic association in the United States to do so. Around the same time, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland unanimously called on its members to “cease all cultural and academic collaboration” with the “apartheid state of Israel,” and the Federation of French-Speaking Belgian Students (FEF), representing 100,000 members, adopted “a freeze of all academic partnerships with Israeli academic institutions.”
These and many other BDS developments have led to an explosion of interest in scrutinizing and criticizing Israel’s regime of oppression of the Palestinian people, or at least aspects of it. This has caused a heightened sense of alarm in the Israeli establishment as well as unprecedented debate there, to the degree that Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly said that Israeli leaders are terrified of the fast-growing BDS movement as much as they are scared of Iran’s rising influence in the region.
Indeed, the behavior of Israeli universities and their deep, decades-old complicity in Israel’s occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights have been a key driving force behind the proliferation of academic boycott initiatives and union resolutions all over the world. ASA National Council member Sunaina Maira, a key organizer in the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, makes a compelling point that has largely been missing in the coverage of the ASA boycott. Most academics were moved into supporting the academic boycott of Israel by learning “what Palestinian scholars and students go through on a daily basis just to get to school, as they navigate these checkpoints ... the many conditions that obstruct their access to education” and searching for a “civil society response.”
The complicity of Israeli universities in human rights violations takes many forms, from systematically providing the military-intelligence establishment with indispensable research — on demography, geography, hydrology, and psychology, among other disciplines — to tolerating and often rewarding racist speech, theories and “scientific” research. It also includes institutionalizing discrimination against Palestinian Arab citizens, among them scholars and students; suppressing Israeli academic research on Zionism and the Nakba (the forced dispossession and eviction of Palestinian Arabs during the creation of the State of Israel); and the construction of campus facilities and dormitories in the occupied Palestinian territory, as Hebrew University has done in East Jerusalem, for instance.
In the first few weeks of the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993), Israel shut down all Palestinian universities, some, like Birzeit, for several consecutive years, and then it closed all 1,194 Palestinian schools in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. Next came the kindergartens, until every educational institution in the occupied Palestinian territories was forcibly closed. This prompted Palestinians to build an “illegal network” of underground schools.
Palestinian scholars and students are methodically denied their basic rights, including academic freedom, and are often subjected to imprisonment, denial of freedom of movement, even violent attacks on themselves or their institutions. If exercising the right to academic freedom is conditioned upon respecting other human rights and securing what Butler calls the “material conditions for exercising those rights,” then clearly it is the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students that is severely hindered, due to the occupation and policies of racial discrimination, and that must be defended.
So when the ASA “unequivocally” defends academic freedom and argues that the boycott actually “helps to extend it,” it means that it is not only contributing to restoring academic freedom for those most deprived of it, but that it is also promoting unhindered, rational debate in the U.S. and beyond about Israel’s occupation that stands behind this denial of rights.
Some academics and lobbyists have vociferously attacked the ASA, and indeed the entire academic boycott of Israel, as undermining academic freedom, usually without specifying whose academic freedom they are taking about. None of them, clearly, had Palestinian academics in mind. Regardless, their critiques have failed to explain how the institutional boycott that the PACBI and its global partners uphold would in fact infringe upon academic freedom. In a desperate attempt to prove this supposed infringement despite ample evidence to the contrary, some have resorted to intellectual dishonesty by making the false claim that the Palestinian boycott targets and aims to isolate Israeli academics, completely distorting the fact that it explicitly and consistently targets Israeli institutions.
If the Palestinian-led academic boycott of Israel succeeds in isolating Israeli institutions, Israeli academics are likely to lose their privileges and perks, but certainly not their academic freedom. To understand the difference, one must reference internationally accepted definitions of the latter.
The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (UNESCR) defines academic freedom as including “the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the state or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction.” Nothing in the PACBI boycott conflicts with any of this.
Regardless, according to the UN, academic freedom itself, like any other right, is not an absolute right. The “enjoyment of academic freedom,” according to the UNESCR, comes with the basic “obligations” to ensure that contrary views are discussed fairly and "to treat all without discrimination on any of the prohibited grounds.” This rights-obligations equation is a general underlying principle of international law in the realm of human rights. When scholars neglect or altogether abandon such obligations, they can no longer claim what they perceive as their inherent entitlement to this freedom.
Those who are still reluctant, on principle, to support a boycott that expressly targets Israel's academic institutions while having in the past endorsed, or even struggled to implement, a much more sweeping academic boycott against apartheid South Africa’s academics and universities are hard pressed to explain this peculiar inconsistency. Unlike the South African “blanket” boycott of academics and institutions, the PACBI call explicitly targets Israeli academic institutions because of their complicity, to varying degrees, in planning, implementing, justifying or whitewashing aspects of Israel’s occupation, racial discrimination and denial of refugee rights.
What I call the “Stephen Hawking effect” – the entrenchment of BDS in the international academic mainstream – may well be a prelude to crossing a qualitative threshold. International scholars, and a fair number of conscientious Israeli scholars as well, are increasingly conscious that they carry a moral obligation to stand up for justice and equal rights everywhere and to refrain from lending their names to be used by an oppressive regime to cover up injustice and human rights violations. The ASA boycott of Israel will be remembered for many years to come as a crucial catalyst in this emancipatory process of reclaiming rights for all who are denied them.
Omar Barghouti is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), and author of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Haymarket: 2011).