Against Boycotting Ideas: A Reply to Three Colleagues

By Russell A. BermanApril 30, 2014

Against Boycotting Ideas: A Reply to Three Colleagues

Hilton Obenzinger, Joel Beinin and David Palumbo-Liu at Stanford University recently published a joint critique in LARB of Russell Berman's "The Goal of the Boycott."  Below is his response.  

"The Goal of the Boycott" is one of a series of essays in our forum "Academic Activism: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Ethics of Boycott." Click here to read the others. 


I AM FLATTERED that my three Stanford colleagues have spent so much time with my criticism of the movement to boycott Israeli universities. We certainly concur on our fundamental disagreement: I disagree with their eagerness to endorse academic boycotts, with their one-sided view of the Middle East conflicts and with their animosity to Israeli sovereignty. I believe my original article stands on its own, and I see no reason to modify or expand my substantive claims in light of their attempted rebuttal.

I note however that the rebuttal itself corroborates several of my points.

First, by replying to my article they demonstrate the importance of the exchange of ideas. Unhampered discussion is crucial for intellectual life and especially for the university as an institution. Any inhibition of the free flow of ideas threatens the vitality of academic culture. That is why I oppose academic boycotts: harming universities does no good. The call to institute an academic boycott against Israeli universities — or the universities of any country — undermines the substance of scholarly life. It endangers the processes of knowledge production by excluding some scholars on the basis of national origin or political litmus tests. We should not boycott ideas.

Second, boycott defenders pretend that they are only boycotting institutions, not individuals. Yet this is an untenable distinction, as the reply itself proves. The three authors who collaborated are colleagues at the same university: they (like I) have benefited from the opportunities afforded by the institution, including the opportunity to work together. Individual scholars may think highly of themselves, but every one of us would be much less if we were stripped of institutional resources, and those resources include the chance to work with other faculty members and students. The fact that my colleagues chose to collaborate rather than to write individually demonstrates how individuals depend on each other and on the institution that brings them together. This proves my point that the academic boycott against institutions necessarily harms individual scholars.

Third, the rebuttal belabors the issue of “settler colonialism,” and points to multiple examples around the world. I thank my colleagues for strengthening my case. There are indeed many more salient examples of settler colonialism than Israel. (Israel is not even a very good example as descendants make up the bulk of its Jewish population of refugees, which were effectively expelled from Arab countries, and are therefore indigenous to the region.) If their point is that universities in settler colonies deserve to be boycotted, then my critics ought to start a boycott much closer to home. 

The rebuttal closes, unfortunately, with an activist exhortation directed at me and “other liberals”: “What are you doing to address these wrongs?” There are many wrongs in the world, some in global hotspots, some more subtle and some even in the structures of academic life. People engage with them in different ways; I therefore reject the implication that all good people must sign on to the one political agenda on which my colleagues focus to the exclusion of all others: they have no monopoly on virtue.

But I want to take this one step further. 

Scholarship, including both intensive reflection and dedicated teaching, need not be activist at all. It is a valuable good in its own right; its validity does not depend on political justifications. What we are witnessing now however is that political activism — turned against universities in the form of a boycott — can become detrimental to scholarship. Scholars should not abuse their positions to impose their political beliefs on students, demand ideological allegiances from colleagues or place political limits — through a boycott — on who can participate in universities.


Russell A. Berman is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. 

LARB Contributor

Russell A. Berman is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He has written widely on literary and political topics. His recent books include Anti-Americanism in Europe: A Cultural Problem (2004), Fiction Sets You Free: Literature, Liberty and Western Culture (2007), and Freedom or Terror: Europe Faces Jihad (2010). He is the editor of the quarterly journal Telos, and he served as the 2011 President of the Modern Language Association. 


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