The ASA’s Boycott Lacks Seriousness

By Kindred Winecoff

The Executive Committee of the American Association of Universities has issued a statement condemning the American Studies Association’s boycott of all Israeli academic institutions. The AAU’s decision makes sense, and I support it. Claiming that all academics at all Israeli institutions bear responsibility for all actions taken by the government of Israel — whatever you think of those actions — is absurd. Playing fast-and-loose with academic freedom is more than regrettable in an environment where such liberties are under increasing threat at the margin.

I find it bemusing that someone like Corey Robin would disagree, given his own institution’s recent employment of General Petraeus. Robin protested that decision, vehemently, but given that his side was unable to prevent Petraeus from teaching at CUNY I doubt he would appreciate being banned from conferences, publications, or other academic symposia because his institution hired the leader of a war many believe to have been unjust and illegal. The American Association of University Professors (sensibly) opposes blanket boycotts as a matter of principle for just this kind of reason. In this case the Palestinian government agrees. Solidarity should not just be in the mind, and one can support Palestinian self-determination (and oppose the expansion of settlements in the West Bank) without playing games of guilt by association.

Tyler Cowen argues the positive case — would the world be better if the boycotters’ demands were met? — but I think that’s the wrong way of looking at it. This is pure mood affiliation via cheap talk. If it would actually have any real world impact I doubt most of these folks would support such a boycott for precisely the reasons Cowen gives. And if they did we would easily be able to identify their moral and scientific unseriousness.

 

UPDATE: I took a closer look at the text of the ASA’s website and one of the things I wrote above is misleading if not outright wrong. Specifically, individual Israeli academics are not being boycotted; only institutions. In practice this might be a distinction without a difference… but maybe not. In any case, here is the full statement from the ASA. The relevant part:

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.

The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication. The Council also recognizes that individual members will act according to their convictions on these complex matters.

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