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Boycott Reflections

January 3, 2014

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.

Bio

Emily Budick is the Ann and Joseph Edelman Chair of American Studies and chair of English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

 

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