Chomsky, Lears and Elia Debate Whether an Academic Boycott of Israel Can Work

Is the tactic the best way to pressure Israel?

Joel Bleifuss

The BDS movement is divided over the efficacy of academic boycotts. (Wikicommons / Takver)

In July 2005, 173 Palestinian NGOs came together and, invoking U.N. resolutions and the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa, called for various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law.” So the movement known as BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) was launched.

The defense of academic freedom is the privileging of a freedom that Palestinians do not have. Protecting the academic freedom of the few is basically protecting their privileges.

Today, following the conflict in Gaza last summer and the continuing expansion of settlements on the West Bank, the debate has shifted from whether a boycott is needed to what kind. A boycott of companies such as SodaStream that benefit from the occupation of the West Bank? A divestment from companies in Israel or the Occupied Territories that are involved in non-peaceful pursuits,” as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has done? Or a boycott of Israeli academic institutions?

It is the proposal for an academic boycott that has drawn most of the press in the United States. In December 2013, the American Studies Association voted to join the academic boycott of Israel.

In These Times discussed the merits of an academic boycott with three academics: Nada Elia, a diaspora Palestinian born in Baghdad and raised in Beirut, and professor of global and gender studies at Antioch University-Seattle; Jackson Lears, a professor of history at Rutgers University and the editor in chief of Raritan, A Quarterly Review; and Noam Chomsky, a professor emeritus of linguistics at MIT.

Nada, what are supporters of an academic boycott, as part of the BDS movement, hoping to accomplish? 

Nada: We are engaging in an academic boycott to improve the daily circumstances of Palestinians whose rights are being violated. Israel is a settler-colonial state occupying Palestine. There is a system of extreme oppression, disenfranchisement and dispossession. If we agree that Israel violates the human rights of Palestinians, what can we do about it? The idea of BDS comes from its record of success in past situations of oppression and apartheid, like in South Africa.

Jackson: I understand the need for the BDS movement and the frustration that Palestinians must feel in what major media still call the peace process.” But boycotting ideas is different than boycotting products produced by settlers. Many Israelis who are horrified by the actions of their government are in universities. Israeli universities, for all of their complicity with the Israeli military industrial complex, remain a sheltering ground for people who are eager to promote the justice of the Palestinian cause. It would be a big mistake to increase their sense of beleaguerment.

Noam: BDS is perfectly legitimate and has had considerable success. But is an academic boycott the right tactic? During the Vietnam War, the political science department at MIT was directly involved in developing counterinsurgency techniques. MIT was also the main academic center for resistance against the War. Would an academic boycott of MIT have been appropriate in the 1960s? I certainly didn’t think so. An academic boycott on Israel is one of the least effective tactics that one could think of. It shifts attention from the oppression of the Palestinians, and in particular our crucial role in it as Americans, to the question of academic freedom.

Nada, how would you respond to that? 

Nada: The defense of academic freedom is a privileging of a freedom that Palestinians do not have. Palestinians do not have the right to go to conferences, the right to education. BDS is very much a tactic that educates people about the daily lives of Palestinians and that reinforces the fact that protecting the academic freedom of the few is basically protecting their privileges. We are totally in conversation with Israeli academics who are endorsers of the academic boycott. We are boycotting complicit institutions. It’s not an individual boycott.

Jackson: I’m not sure everyone who supports the academic boycott makes the same careful distinctions. The American Studies Association boycott has in fact prevented a Ph.D. student at the American Studies program at Tel-Aviv University, a Palestinian, an Arab citizen of Israel, from recruiting qualified outside readers to review his thesis.

Universities have always functioned to reproduce the existing social order, but, as Noam points out, they’ve also functioned somewhat paradoxically to shelter critics and dissidents against that social order. If we’re talking about educating Americans, members of the Israeli Left from Israeli universities ought to be encouraged to come here and not be made to feel that because of the actions of their government, they, too, are complicit.

Nada: The fact that it is impacting some people is not a critique of an academic boycott, it’s a statement of success. Academic boycotts have an impact, and they have to have teeth to be felt. The boycott of South Africa was felt by the South Africans. And yes, as Jackson said, some Israelis are outspoken about Israel’s violations. We embrace them. But the ones most qualified to educate people are the oppressed. It’s like saying a white person is the best qualified to speak about apartheid. No, the victims of apartheid are the best qualified.

Noam: If one thinks an academic boycott is a relevant tactic, why not boycott American universities that are involved in the U.S. role in Israel? Nobody proposes that, and we have to ask why. The answer is because it will neither have a positive effect on policy, nor will it help educate and engage people in the United States to become more involved in a constructive way. The issue with regard to Palestine is not just Israeli policy, it’s U.S. government policy. If there’s going to be a change in policy with regard to the Palestinians, the U.S. role is the one aspect of policy that we can hope to influence directly.

Nada: We cannot look to the U.S. government, except as an enabler of Israeli atrocities. When we know that, what are our alternatives if not something grassroots?

Noam and Jackson, if not an academic boycott, what tactics do you think would be more effective? 

Noam: Tactics such as boycotting products from the Occupied Territories — and maybe going as far as the European Union directive to break all contacts with institutions involved in the Territories. Or a targeted boycott aimed at Ariel University, which is right in the middle of the West Bank. That’s a tactic that can help people understand what the issues are in the West Bank and be effective in policy terms.

Nada: Our role is to bring the focus back to the actual subject matter, which is the human rights of the Palestinians. At the same time, I would not say that an academic boycott as a concept is at fault. I would say it is the climate in the United States that has shifted toward a discussion of academic freedom because it is more comfortable to speak about academic freedom. Ariel University is a product of the Israeli government. Ariel is the fruit; we are looking at the tree. An academic boycott is simply part of BDS, and BDS keeps pointing the finger at Israel, not at the United States and not at Ariel. There would be no Ariel if it weren’t for Israeli policy.

Noam: And U.S. policy. Therefore, we should design tactics that focus on Israeli and U.S. policies and don’t shift attention to something more comfortable and irrelevant. And there are plenty of choices that do not have that negative consequence.

Jackson: We need to address tactics that will effectively challenge the default setting of American public discourse, which is uncritically pro-Israel. The American intelligensia, such as it is, is going to take Israeli professors and intellectuals seriously as critics of their own society. These critics of Israel policy inside Israel, like Michael Zakim, who teaches American history at Tel Aviv University, are willing to make a more powerful case than anyone in the U.S. government seems willing to make.

Noam: The ones I know, at least, don’t regard the academic boycott as a sensible tactic. Unlike other BDS tactics, like boycotting products of settlements, such as SodaStream.

Nada: None of these are mutually exclusive with an academic boycott.

Noam: Well, you can’t do everything, so you have to prioritize the things that are effective. In the case of South Africa, the educational and organizational groundwork was carried out extensively and successfully before targeted academic boycotts were implemented, and that’s crucial. That hasn’t been done here yet. We have a lot to do.

Nada: We have a lot to do, absolutely.

Jackson: We can all agree on that.

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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