the national interest

American Studies Scholars Now Israel-Free

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting in his offices on March 18, 2012
Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

The American Studies Association, which represents the left-leaning “American studies” discipline, has voted to impose a boycott of Israeli universities as a form of protest against Israel’s human-rights policies. Critics of the move have questioned both the punishment itself (an academic boycott, which inhibits the free flow of ideas) as well as the target of the boycott (Israel, which may have all sorts of terrible policies but is by no plausible standard among the world’s worst human-rights violators). American Studies Association president Curtis Marez, asked to defend the singling out of Israel, supplied an answer that must be considered a minor classic in the annals of terrible justifications:

[Marez] did not dispute that many nations, including many of Israel’s neighbors, are generally judged to have human rights records that are worse than Israel’s, or comparable, but he said, “one has to start somewhere.”

One has to start somewhere. I detect a few problems here:

1. No, one does not have to start somewhere. The American Association of University Professors has declared all academic boycotts “prima facie violations of academic freedom.” To insist that you have to start your academic boycotts somewhere is Nelson Muntz–level logic:

2. If you are going to start somewhere, wouldn’t it make sense to start at the top of the list of worst human-rights offenders, rather than at the middle? Suppose you were to, say, try to get your co-worker fired for tardiness, it would seem important to establish that this co-worker has arrived late more often than others. If you are campaigning to fire the cubicle-mate who arrived fifteen minutes late twice last week, rather than the other co-worker who missed the entire previous month of work for no reason, one might suspect an agenda is at work. (Liel Liebovitz handily compiles the comparative academic freedom records of Israel and other countries.)

3. If the American Studies Association is really starting with Israel, as Marez states, this would imply it intends to pursue a series of boycotts with other countries. What countries are on the list? Is there a list? Or is the Association beginning and ending its academic boycott campaign with Israel?

The ASA buoyantly predicts its boycott will pressure Israel into ending its occupation. I predict the opposite effect. In recent years, the context of the American debate has changed markedly, as Jewish liberals have grown openly frustrated and angry with hawkish Israeli governments. The ideological and generational split has created a novel opportunity for critics of Israel’s occupation. Absurdly discriminatory academic boycotts make anti-occupation (but not categorically anti-Israel) liberals — like, say, J Street — forget what’s so terrible about the occupation and remember what’s so terrible about the anti-Zionist left. It’s the best news Netanyahu has had in months.

American Studies Scholars Now Israel-Free