The Boycott Effect

By Colin DayanMarch 16, 2014

The Boycott Effect

This is one of eight essays we published today on "Academic Activism: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Ethics of Boycott." Click here to read the others. 


The term occupation is correct […]. We’re in occupied territory. […] But I’m in an academic institution.

— Yossi Goldstein, Professor, Ariel University Center, West Bank


ON DECEMBER 21, 2008, I sat in the Jewish National and University Library, now renamed “The National Library of Israel,” across from the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, and the Israel Museum. In the courtyard I noticed a sign for the “Institute for Advanced Studies.” Below it there was another sign for “The Center for the Study of Rationality." 

I had seen the crumbled homes of East Jerusalem, the uprooted olive trees, slabs of concrete and rubble in the places that Israeli guidebooks do not include. My thoughts wandered away from West Jerusalem to places that remain rooted in Palestinian memory, even as they are being erased. It’s hard to imagine what the word “rationality” means in this context. Just six days later, two days after Christmas, Israel began an assault on the open-air prison that is Gaza. The delirious violence, cruelty, and indifference were justified as a reasonable response to Hamas rocket fire. The cohabitation of claims of reason and actual barbarity makes the lethal effects of brute force less open to criticism.

What are the stories we tell ourselves when we endeavor to describe what we do as professors? This question had been much on my mind since the American Studies Association (ASA) resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions and the invective, harassment, and threats that followed the vote supporting it. Then, in preparation for the meetings of the Modern Language Association (MLA) and in its aftermath, numerous critics condemned the association as well for its alleged affront to academic freedom, open discourse, and reason. In a particularly hyperbolic article by Liel Leibovitz in Tablet, he concluded: “In its lunatic monomania, the MLA affair stands as a stark reminder that what’s at stake here is reason itself.”

What is the real if somewhat vague role of the academy, particularly its requirement of disinterestedness? Do words like “freedom” and “values” change their meanings when “academic” is attached to them? For many of us, it seems that academic freedom matters only when it resolutely ignores the continued oppression of Palestinians — in particular, their access to universities and their ability to study.

What struck me most throughout the threats to the ASA and its members — and the labeling and harassment of those who wrote defending the boycott — was that Palestinians were rarely mentioned. They were not part of the background against which arguments were made or blame cast. They did not exist. All that did seem to exist for such critics were people hostile toward Jews: persecutors who called to mind the history of anti-Semitism or those self-hating Jews who had forgotten their history, and were therefore to be classed as enemies.

In the face of such chauvinism, the very idea of a boycott invites another kind of learning: to know what it means to know what has been hidden; to think again about what it might mean to recognize basic rights; to know when actions are discriminatory, or just plain wrong. The boycott, both here and elsewhere, is not only a political, economic, or social question. It is also about knowledge. Voiced in a spirit of understanding and reason, the boycott is a challenge to know how we come to know what is recognized as knowledge, when it is suitable and when not, when it can be declared off-limits, and when it is allowed.

Critics of the boycott, however, have framed its mission — to answer the appeal of Palestinians themselves by bringing attention to Israel’s principle of inequality — as somehow an act of betrayal to our professorial calling. Depending on the point of view, our role as teachers suddenly became a required haven or an unfortunate constraint. We could perhaps talk about the persecution, surveillance, and humiliation of Palestinians. But to take action, in this case nonviolent action harnessed to resistance, was censured by institutional academia.

The consequence of this commitment to nonviolent protest exposes the bond between interests and ideas, and between institutions and values. It introduces a new kind of scholarship based on the possibility of integration and inclusion. How do we learn and teach about what it means to know injustice, not as an abstraction, but concretely, from the ground up? Making discrimination against Palestinians a public, indeed an ethical, cause, the boycott takes a stand on inequality. It draws back the curtain to reveal not only considerable violence and brutality and what John Berger famously called their “stance of undefeated despair,” but also the ferocious and formidable propaganda machine of organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the World Jewish Congress, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that aims to curtail free speech, nourish misrepresentation, and facilitate coercion.


Why did the ASA resolution so roil the academy? We must take into account an immediate and unpleasant fact about certain kinds of political influence in the United States. Over 200 college and university presidents published statements condemning the resolution without campus debate or faculty input; some American Studies programs even terminated affiliation with the ASA. Then the New York State Legislature introduced an “Anti-Boycott Bill” that would prohibit colleges from directing any state aid toward groups that initiate boycotts of other countries. Under this legislation, if any college directs state funds toward the activities of these groups — paying annual membership fees or covering travel costs to a convention — that college would be penalized. They would lose funding for an entire year. Though the bill was tabled before reaching the State Assembly, senators are now tweaking it; while they do that, a bipartisan bill has just been introduced in Congress called the “Protect Academic Freedom Act.”

Attacked by academic administrators, the ASA and anyone who supports the boycott face radical delegitimation not only in their universities but also in the statehouse or Congress, and even criminalization by Shurat HaDin, the Israel Law Center in Tel Aviv, which threatened to sue the ASA over the boycott. The latter case is particularly enlightening. Shurat HaDin uses the language of human rights — much as folks use academic freedom — to discipline NGOs, academics, and journalists who criticize Israel’s illegal activities, especially the ever-expanding settlement enterprise.

The backlash, once thought predictable, is nevertheless astounding in its extremism and extent. We have gone beyond the name-calling: “anti-Semite” or “self-hating Jew.” We have moved into the purview of the state, with assorted blacklists and other repressive tactics. This response to the boycott resolution is instructive. Not only does it call for our consideration of scholarship, the role of the academy, and the relation of teaching to the world in which we live, but it also reveals in not so subtle ways what happens when Palestinians, not to mention Palestinian scholars, become the focus of debates on academic freedom.

Perhaps most threatening to the usual partisan account of justice, the boycott resolution came as an answer to a grassroots movement that should be familiar to anyone who witnessed Jim Crow and subsequent civil rights struggles in the South. The ASA academic and cultural boycott (like those of the Association for Asian American Studies and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association) grows out of a larger call from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement — consisting of nearly 200 Palestinian civil society organizations that include doctors, lawyers, teachers, and journalists. It is not an abstract stance on human rights. It is a strategic and precise form of pressure aiming to change the facts on the ground and actively questioning the illusion of “democracy” in the Israeli state and the US role in upholding it with money, weapons, and diplomacy.

What has not been adequately recognized are the facts that led to the long history of this campaign: illegal settlements; the house demolitions at the center of the displacement of Palestinian citizens, dubbed “transfer” or “quiet transfer”; the continued uprooting of trees (over 800,000 olive trees since 1967); the wall or “security fence” that separates Palestinian homes from their places of work, worship, and schooling; the indefinite detention and torture of prisoners — many of them children — often without due process or any process at all; the punishing blockade of Gaza; mass evictions and house demolitions in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, both in East Jerusalem; and, now, the increasing destruction of Palestinian-owned structures in the Jordan Valley, as Kerry tries to broker a “peace” deal. But more than assessing the ultimate aims and motives of these actions, there remain questions of what education, learning, and, yes, academic freedom mean in this state of siege.

Those who oppose the boycott seldom complain about Israel’s systematic curtailment of the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars. Israeli authorities deny students and professors the right to travel within Palestine and between Gaza and the West Bank or Israel or anywhere else. Israel has closed universities in acts of collective punishment. It has denied freedom of movement to students and to Fulbright scholars, who cannot take up their scholarships in the United States. It has prevented Palestinian academics from leaving the country; if they leave, it has prevented them from returning. It hinders US scholars from collaborating with their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank.

At a time when the “humanities” as a discipline is being threatened, along with open access to its gifts of thought and self-actualization, the decisions of academic associations to join the boycott took guts. Not only because institutions of higher learning, especially public universities, are in danger. Not only because literary, historical, or cultural studies have often been condemned as irrelevant or worse. But because, and this matters greatly, the resolution itself — in its formation and reach — brought together young and old, tenured and not, for discussion and debate about Palestine and the Palestinians, a subject and a people who have long been denied a presence.

Unanimity of opinion is always ominous. To hold different opinions and to remain aware that people think differently on issues protects us, in Hannah Arendt’s words in “To Save the Jewish Homeland” (1948), “from that Godlike certainty which stops all discussion and reduces social relationships to those of an ant heap.” Until now, the Israeli occupation that has continued for nearly half a century has prompted a public discourse that is at the least evasive and noncommittal, and at its worst blunt, racist, and fanatical. Nowhere is that assumed unanimity as pronounced as in America. The intellectual who fails to toe the line is caught up in vehement criticism, rejection, and worse, experienced in varying ways and from some quarters more than others, most notably the Jewish establishment here.

But the attacks against writers and thinkers, students and faculty in the United States who dare question the moral immunity of Israel are not my point. Instead, yet again, I ask: Why, when Palestinians and their lives are in question, do things once considered “academic” suddenly become framed “anti-academic”? Why do those who frame it as such bring forward idealizing language as sacred weaponry to do battle with the infidels? Hallowed terms like “democracy,” “freedom,” “values,” and “dialogue” or “free exchange,” even “morality,” are employed in unexpected ways and used to mask sheer irrationality. The righteous haze that surrounds such figurative potential blinds us to the literal violence before our eyes.

On the road to Ramallah: stone slabs, discarded coils of razor wire, dirt, and debris outside of Al-Ram, a Palestinian town just northeast of Jerusalem, cut off from it by the separation barrier.
Photo credit: Colin Dayan

When public discourse threatens to become illegal, what responsibilities do teachers have to speak about actions that some consider mere “ideology”? A group of academics — yes, academics — heard the call of Palestinian popular and civil society and held a vote on a resolution that brings to light — in a strategically meaningful way — the Palestinian lives cordoned off, trapped, demolished, bulldozed, expropriated, uprooted, demolished, or bypassed.

Palestinians in the West Bank are criminalized for political activity, and that includes public demonstrations or protests. So are their flags, banners, and symbols. These subjects are up for lively debate, especially now as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government targets speech, assembly, association, and the right to dissent. In 2011 the Knesset approved the Law for Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott, also known as the Boycott Law, which stifles dissent by banning citizens from calling for boycotts of Israeli goods, businesses, or cultural or academic institutions. Under this law, any Israeli individual or organization proposing or even talking about a boycott may be sued for unlimited compensation by any individual or institution that claims possible damage. Evidence of actual damage is not required.

Another gross violation of equality and the right to freedom of expression is the so-called “Nakba Law,” the censoring of schoolbooks that mention the Nakba, the Palestinian “disaster” or “catastrophe” of Israeli statehood in 1948. The government has also passed a law barring public institutions, including schools and libraries, from receiving state funds if they so much as refer to the Nakba.

Haaretz reported at the beginning of February that Aviad Bakshi, a constitutional law expert from the Institute for Zionist Strategies, is revising the high school civics textbook Being Citizens in Israel. A consultant on the Nationality Law, he suggested that Judaism should be given priority over democracy in defining Israel. Arab teachers, in particular, confront the problem of teaching a book that includes lessons such as “minorities have a right to culture within their own communities, but they have no right to culture in the sense of shaping the state’s identity in general.”

Discrimination is infectious; it knows no bounds. It was just a matter of time before governmental actions against Palestinians were applied to those Israelis who defend Palestinians’ right to resist persecution. So it should not be surprising that in the wake of the boycott resolution, our state senators and federal legislators right here in the United States are proposing bans and boycotts of their own. What remains unsettling is the large number of professors, prominent critics of academic boycotts, who solemnly warn about an end to the free flow of ideas even as they try to silence their colleagues.


The boycott, it is true, is not mere conversation or lofty debate. It is an action that means to be a tactic, one of the few that remain, it seems, that can not only draw attention to the systematic denial of rights to Palestinians but also possibly bring about change, opening a space for voices that have not been heard — voices of nonviolence, equality, and academic exchange. Critics continue to frame this civil rights action in expressly discriminatory terms. Viewed through their colored lens, an action intended to focus in on a government engaging in the haughty dismissal of humanitarian considerations — the same government that once based its claims for existence exclusively on equity and still claims democracy as its essence — turns out to be a panoptic affront, to academic freedom, to open discourse and reason — to the university’s “ivory tower” itself.

For an academic organization to cease its disinterest over a matter of civil rights and, instead, engage in solidarity with students and professors denied freedom of movement and worse begs the question: what would be a coherent rationally defensible statement in favor of silence and disregard?

There are means of comprehension that should find a place in the liberal embrace of the academy. Consensus and civility often mask the ultimate foundations of authority — political and otherwise — as does the delusionary conceit of “neutrality.” Discussion and debate can lead to a more nuanced, even respectful environment. It is worth considering whether this engagement promises to reclaim the real meaning of academic freedom. No one acquainted with the words of the ASA resolution can deny that it embodies in a most inconspicuous way moderation, clarity, and restraint. It also makes a strong appeal to our conscience and our imagination.

One has to wonder whether the backlash against the ASA is the real action to be feared. Such retaliation hides behind a logic that is at once exclusionary and authoritarian. This policing of thought indulges in all manner of intolerant behavior. In such a context, the boycott calls for a reaction to prejudice, to collective punishment, to coercion and threat found in the least likely of places: the university’s so-called “ivory tower.” The resilience of genuine academic freedom is that it ensures that these abuses, and the watchdog groups and alumni that abet them, are no longer hidden from the eyes of the world, immune to the prescriptive force of morality, beyond the judgment of society. 


Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. Her recent books include The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons and The Story of Cruel and Unusual. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


LARB Contributor

Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. Her recent books include The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake PersonsThe Story of Cruel and Unusual, and, most recently, With Dogs at the Edge of Life. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


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