The Irony of the American Studies Israel Boycott

The recent announcement by the American Studies Association (ASA) that its members voted to support an “academic boycott of Israel,” has predictably stirred a flurry of comment over the holidays. Most recently, a number of prominent scholars and institutions have come out in opposition (though it should be noted that Hogwarts has thrown its fictitious weight behind the resolution). 

At the risk of piling on, there are significant reasons well beyond “academic freedom” (claimed by both sides in this debate) to oppose this action.

To lay my cards on the table—I have attended the ASA national meetings, and I have been a member (although I’m not at present). Furthermore, I am about to take my first trip to Israel, at the invitation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. To prepare for my trip, I’ve been reading up on what’s happening in what I grew up understanding as “the holy land,” and writing reviews of what I’ve read in light of my broader work on religion, violence, and peacebuilding.

The U.S.-based academics who supported this resolution clearly intended for this statement to be understood as expressing “solidarity” with the suffering of Palestinians: 

The council voted for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions as an ethical stance, a form of material and symbolic action. It represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.

But as I read it the resolution smacks of irony, at best, hypocrisy at worst. In my last book, Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence, I tried to point out how in American history a variety of agents have been prone to act on what I called “innocent domination.” That is, while uttering a critique of some injustice, following a long jeremiad tradition, and often for high-minded moral reasons, they wind up avoiding attention to their own complicity in the violence in an assertion of innocence. Such innocent domination, it seems to me, is what is wrapped up in the ASA resolution, which I cannot, finally, read as other than ironically arbitrary and anti-semitic in effect.

The official statement tries to limit the damage:

Our resolution understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.

Others have pointed out the arbitrariness of this decision, but few have noted its irony. Of course there are other countries with bad track records on human rights—the usual suspects include China (Tibet), Russia (LGBT), Saudi Arabia (women), etc—but why does a resolution from the American Studies Association not address the American sources and causes of the problems faced by Palestinians?

Noam Chomsky made this point in an earlier interview about the broader boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS): why stop with Israel? Why not boycott U.S. institutions? The focus on Israel appears arbitrary. Such arbitrariness reinforces, alas, many of the popular misperceptions of academics in arts and sciences as ideologically-driven to support narrative memes that take on a life of their own to the detriment of actual empirical evidence.

Again—there’s no question about Palestinian suffering. But how does boycotting Israeli academic institutions create “solidarity” with that suffering, when in effect Israeli policies have mirrored and benefited throughout the twentieth-century from U.S. policies that have created a military-University-financial system that is arguably as inequitable, brutal, militaristic, and unjust as the one in Israel? I can think of at least one Jew who talked about seeing the speck in another’s eye and missing the log in one’s own when calling out injustice, which is ironically relevant to this misguided resolution.

Arbitrariness and irony aside, though, my charge that this resolution supports anti-Semitism—in effect if not intent, as Larry Summers put it (and I can’t say I ever expected to line up alongside him!)—deserves explanation. Anti-semitism in practice is of course based upon a racial category, but it is also unavoidably religious, as manifest in what Stanford’s Rene Girard has identified as scapegoating. That is, in an imitative and often frenzied effort to create “solidarity,” some vulnerable individual or party is identified for exclusion or “sacrifice.”  All the while, of course, the scapegoaters are padding their own nests while excluding—symbolically and otherwise, and always for a “noble” and “pure” cause—the “offender.”

So there is, in other words, a religious dimension to this apparently secular resolution by the American studies scholars that’s worth discussing. What is the benefit of “sacrificing” Israeli institutions and scholars on behalf of a symbolic “solidarity” with Palestinian land claims? Whose land is “the holy land” anyway? How far back does one go?

All in all, we might imagine a much stronger resolution by the American Studies Association about this matter. I suggest that if they truly want to commit to a course of action that isn’t hypocritical and arbitrary, U.S. scholars of American Studies pledge to “boycott” American academic institutions (e.g., give up their salaries) if those institutions tacitly or explicitly, through investment or research grants, for instance, supported U.S. violations of human rights—occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes, NSA monitoring, Guantanamo Bay, Jim Crow incarceration patterns, immigration walls and deportations, and so on, and so on. That would be a “sacrifice” truly in solidarity with Palestinians, some of whom live on roughly $2/day.

But I doubt that the members would support, and the National Council clearly did not suggest, any such a resolution. To be completely honest, such a resolution would kill our potential to gather in nice hotels on our expense accounts and present our research to the others who benefit from the largesse of institutions banking billions in endowments built on investments of what are, I suspect, dubious ethical practices. 

So, I can’t support this boycott. Advocates of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement often point to South Africa as a case to support their claims for similar action in Israel. But the kind of “solidarity” the ASA has encouraged here smacks of moral self-serving and grandiosity (American exceptionalism in a new guise), and lacks the clarity, realism, and pragmatism that, for instance, the Kairos theologians and the recently sainted Nelson Mandela practiced on the ground to birth a new nation.

That said, I am happy the ASA surfaced the reality of Palestinian suffering, and I don’t think those universities that withdrew from the Association occupy any higher moral ground than those that continue to engage the debate. In the end, the debate is a good one to have, if it actually leads to some critical study of American religious and cultural violence. And if that happens, the boycott might actually accomplish something in the field of American studies.