This month, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the most largest and most significant organization of academic faculty members in the United States, with over 47,000 members dedicated an entire issue of their online Journal of Academic Freedom to examine the feasibility and appropriateness of an academic boycott of Israel.
Given the AAUP’s former stated policy not to support academic boycotts generally or a boycott of Israel specifically, the question that arises from this recent tendentious exercise in moral incoherence, is: why argue the case for academic boycotts specifically targeting Israeli scholars and academic institutions? Reciting the list of Israel’s perceived ongoing human rights abuses against the long-suffering Palestinians is, of course, a favorite pastime of the academic Left, in the U.S., Britain, and Ireland (not to mention, ironically, inside of Israel’s own universities), so it is no surprise that the litany of complaints lodged on behalf the victim group of the moment show themselves here as justification for the shunning of Israel scholars from campuses worldwide. The problem, however, is that this view of Israel is the result of a long campaign of historical distortion, outright lies, and propaganda on the part of the Arab world and their apologists and same-thinking colleagues on campuses in the United States.
That academics so carelessly throw about politically-loaded, and inaccurate, terms when discussing Israel and sanctifying the Palestinian cause—words like “apartheid,” “occupation,” and “racism”— indicates exactly why a boycott that seeks to make absolute moral judgments is bound to be perilous—especially for academics who give the pretense of standing for values of academic freedom, scholarly inquiry, a respect for history and law, and open debate over a complex geopolitical problem.
A boycott barring all Israeli academics from participating in academic endeavors with scholars from other nations is also defective because it necessarily must assume that all Israeli scholars—regardless of their political orientation and social values—are painted with the same moral brush and deserve to be condemned and excluded merely because of the perceived political sins of the nation in which they live.
If those calling for an academic boycott take the outrageous first step of denying Israeli academics any discourse at all in what is usually called “the academic marketplace of ideas,” of banishing them from the world of dialogue, research, and learning, have not they already struck a fatal blow to the core guiding principle of the academy? Since when has it been the responsibility of the university to control the actions of the state, or for its members to share culpability for the political decisions of a nation? “By its nature a boycott is not a precise instrument,” wrote Howard Jacobson, British author and commentator, “so no distinction is drawn between Israeli academics who actively support their government, those who speak vociferously against it, or those who just go quietly about their . . . researches. . . All are guilty by association with the heinous ideology of their country, that is to say, guilty by simple virtue of being Israelis.”
And if some in the AAUP in fact feel that academics shape and influence national policy and political behavior, their choice of the Palestinians, with their legacy of homicidal aggression against Israel, seems a bit troublesome. What should not be lost on observers is that in the decision to condemn and boycott Israeli academics, boycott supporters therefore affirm the perceived ideological superiority of the Palestinian side of the moral equation. They have embraced ‘Palestinianism’ completely as their choice of a cause to defend—with the genocidal terrorism, rabid anti-Semitism, political truculence, internecine violence, and general cultural self-destruction that has defined the Palestinian cause since it was minted in the 1960s as a political tool against Israel.
More troubling with calls for an academic boycott against Israel, as Anthony Julius, British attorney and scholar of anti-Semitism, observed is that it reveals an obsessive inclination to demonize Israel, not to mention a breathtaking double standard in applying moral yardsticks to Israel not used to measure the political or social behavior of any other country—including those with far more dismal records of human rights abuses, racism, genocide, terrorism, and gender apartheid, among many other national pathologies. And in making a moral exception when Israel is the target of this collective moral opprobrium, those calling for a boycott against Israel are also not only violating some of the fundamental precepts of academia, but are repeating the impulses that have historically served to marginalize, demonize, and expel Jews from society—what Julius believes to be anti-Semitism.
“The academic boycott,” Julius wrote, “[does] not derive from any criteria capable of being applied universally; it [is] but in the latest in a millennial series of campaigns to isolate Jewish communities—in this case, the Jewish community living in Israel; it [is] inconsistent with the general academic and political principles the boycotters [profess] to espouse; it [punishes] indiscriminately—Israeli nationality [is] the only criterion; Jews [will] suffer disproportionately; it [is] not directed towards the achieving of any specific goals.”
An academic boycott,” Julius concludes, is “unfair, it [is] intellectually and morally frivolous, and it [is] continuous with historical anti-Semitic discourse and practice.”
Concern for the long-suffering Palestinians may be a commendable effort, but the isolation and demonization of Israeli scholars as a tool for seeking social justice for that one group, the very result that would be achieved if the academic boycott outlined by the AAUP is implemented, “represents a profound betrayal of the cardinal principle of intellectual endeavour,” observed Melanie Phillips of an earlier boycott call, “which is freedom of speech and debate,” something universities should never stop diligently defending.
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