In the annals of academic conferences, few may have been more ill-fated than the aborted conclave on academic boycotts planned by the American Association of University Professors.
When the conference was called off in March, organizers hoped that they could salvage something good from the idea by taking papers planned for the conference and publishing them in a special issue of Academe, the AAUP's magazine.
The issue is out, but the controversy continues. Authors who are supportive of Israel refused to let Academe publish their work, arguing that the entire effort was just an attempt to "demonize" Israel. Ironically, those who support Israel generally endorse the AAUP policy on academic boycotts, which takes the view that boycotts are almost always wrong. So the issue features considerable commentary from scholars who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and who support efforts to boycott Israeli universities -- a stance opposed by the association.
Joan Wallach Scott, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study and one of the organizers of the conference and the special issue of Academe, called the boycott of the boycott papers "just a continuation of the behavior of these guys that caused the cancellation of the conference in the first place -- of their absolute insistence that they call the shots on any discussion of Middle East politics."
While the AAUP's efforts have been dominated by issues related to Israel and the Palestinians, the issue of academic boycotts does not end there -- and the association is also publishing interesting papers about other academic boycotts, including some surprising analysis of the impact of the boycott of South Africa during the apartheid era.
The AAUP boycott conference arose out of discussion of various boycotts by British academics of Israeli universities. Many academic groups in the United States harshly criticized those boycotts, noting that the value of scholarly communication is universal, and that assuming an Israeli university faculty backs the government there is about as logical as holding professors in Cambridge, Mass. responsible for the Bush administration.
Generally, the AAUP has opposed such boycotts and it decided to issue a statement explaining its position and to gather leading thinkers on the topic for an invitation-only conference in Bellagio. The conference was abandoned this spring, following criticism that it included too many pro-boycott, anti-Israel academics and that conference packets had included an anti-Semitic article published in a magazine affiliated with Holocaust deniers. (AAUP officials said that was a mistake and apologized.)
The AAUP policy takes a strong anti-boycott stance, saying that boycotts run counter to the "free exchange of ideas." While some boycott supporters have said that "selective boycotts" would be less troublesome, the AAUP rejected that idea, saying that imposing ideological litmus tests on scholars is almost always wrong.
In an essay introducing the magazine's special section, Scott recounts the origins and collapse of the conference plans, and also notes why the AAUP was unable to publish articles from pro-Israel scholars (some of them Israeli) who back the AAUP's anti-boycott stance. When these scholars refused permission to have their material printed in the magazine, the association went to an official of the American Jewish Congress who has written about the issue, and he too refused, saying that he didn't want his ideas associated with pieces that "demonize Israel."
Scott wrote of the scholars' decisions: "We deeply regret their absence here, not only because it 'unbalances' the discussion, but also because their views deserve to be heard. But the views of those they refused to meet also deserve a hearing, and they are published here -- not because we endorse them, but because they express ideas and deeply felt positions that help us understand the reasons for their disagreement with our policy."
In an interview Thursday, Scott said, "I can't begin to tell you how infuriating the behavior of these people was and is." She added that those who refused to participate "are insisting that any criticism of Israel is a 'demonization' of Israel," a view that she said is inaccurate and shuts down conversations. Five scholars -- from British and Palestinian universities and from the University of California at Los Angeles -- have pieces in the magazine that criticize the AAUP policy and say that boycotting Israeli universities is justified. These articles detail Israeli treatment of Palestinian academics, note that boycotts can make non-violent moral statements, and suggest that opponents are inconsistent in their logic.
"The case for an academic boycott of Israel is that it both challenges the policies of the Israeli government and also draws attention to the complicity of the universities themselves," writes Hilary Rose, an emerita professor of social policy at the University of Bradford and one of the leaders of the movement in British academe to boycott Israeli universities. "We are constantly told that the Israeli universities are one of the major sources of criticism of and opposition to the state, yet despite the heroic efforts of a very few, what is mostly audible is the silence of Israeli academia."
Gerald M. Steinberg, director of the Program on Conflict Management at Israel's Bar-Ilan University and a leader there of efforts to galvanize international opposition to the boycott, said via e-mail that the content of Academe reinforced his decision not to contribute his paper. "The articles in this volume provide clear evidence that the focus of this project was clearly on singling out Israel, rather than proclaimed desire to explore academic boycotts in general." He said that the articles "reflect deep ideological and political animosity towards Israel, repeating the demonization rhetoric, as well as the highly distorted Palestinian narrative."
Beyond the Middle East
While most discussion in Academe and of academic boycotts generally these days has focused on Israel and the Palestinians, the magazine also includes articles about boycotts of other countries, including Cuba and South Africa. The most powerful anti-boycott article may be one from Jonathan Hyslop of the University of Witwatersrand, a leading institution in South Africa, who writes about observing the impact of boycotts in his country during the end of the apartheid regime.
Hyslop notes that the economic and political boycotts of South African contributed to an economic deterioration in the country. And the cultural and sports boycotts of the time annoyed white people there. But he writes that the academic boycott was hardly noticed in the country -- except when it led to bizarre instances of injustice against South Africans who were fighting against apartheid. For example, he writes of a South African sociologist who had been arrested for subversion and who had played a key role in training trade unionists. When he spoke on British campuses, he was picketed by groups seeking to enforce the boycott.
"The spectacle of people who had never faced any force more lethal than the Thames Valley Constabulary adopting a position of moral superiority over someone who had seen the inside of South Africa’s prisons for his beliefs is sufficiently ludicrous as to merit our reflection," writes Hyslop.
He goes on to suggest that the academic boycott may have hurt South Africa in the long run because scholars did not help to build civil society in the country, as they might have otherwise. And he writes that the boycott allowed professors in the United States to adopt a "moralistic standpoint" about South Africa that has distanced them from realities in the country -- good and bad realities -- ever since.
The essay is followed by one from Salim Vally -- another professor at the same university -- who defends boycotts of South Africa then and Israel now. Valley writes that "opposition to academic boycotts tends to privilege the university as an ivory tower that is divorced from its social context, and in the South African case, the notion of isolating the regime was a very significant nonviolent action."
Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study says that she hopes that people will consider academic boycotts (and oppose them) not just in the context of the Middle East, but in a broader framework.
She acknowledged that it has been hard to achieve that focus because of all of the controversy over the planned conference. "What future there is for our statement, I don't know, but I think it's a very important one to have out there," she said. "In the long term, academic boycotts close down the possibilities for the kind of openness that critics of a particularly loathsome regime need to have."