Why an Academic Boycott?

By David Palumbo-LiuMarch 16, 2014

Why an Academic Boycott?

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. 


I WANT TO START by thanking the Los Angeles Review of Books for setting up this forum. As a member of three academic organizations that have, in turn, each been involved in voicing concerns about Palestinian rights (the Association for Asian American Studies, the American Studies Association, and the Modern Language Association), I am keenly aware of how the issue of censuring Israel for state practices that discriminate against Palestinians has played out within the context of academic organizations.

I am especially grateful that the editors have allowed us to think about this issue carefully many weeks after the meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in January. A slew of op-eds came out immediately after the American Studies Association (ASA) voted in December to honor the call from over 100 Palestinian civil organizations — the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) — with an academic boycott of Israel; many more followed the decision of the Delegate Assembly of the MLA to ask the MLA membership to vote on a resolution regarding the Right to Enter. Given the chance to step back and reflect a bit on these events, I focus not just on the academic boycott of Israel and the MLA resolution, but more broadly on the questions: why an academic boycott, and why should academic organizations get involved? That is, why intrude upon a cherished space where thought and knowledge are supposed to flow freely and disinterestedly, and instead call for votes in which an otherwise peaceful group of scholars (aside from debating about literary value, about the best theories to apply to certain texts, the correct interpretation of novels, plays, poems, et cetera) is asked to take “political” positions? To try to answer that question I will weave together both the particular case of Israel with the idea of an academic boycott, and focus not so much on the world stage as on the classroom and on the university campus.

A few weeks ago, at the beginning of a graduate seminar I am giving on the “Histories and Futures of Higher Education,” I asked the class, “Who listened to President Obama’s State of the Union address?” I was hoping someone would comment on his remarks on education, which were numerous. (The president even opened by talking about teaching.) But the first response was a question, rather than an answer. A student asked, “Why do American presidents always talk about Israel?” The student happened to be Israeli.

Thinking back on my own education, I recall a strong and unambiguous narrative that consisted of the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel, delivered powerfully to us via The Diary of Anne Frank and the Hollywood film based on the Leon Uris novel Exodus, and even the pop song that made the charts, “The Exodus Song (This Land Is Mine).” That powerful narrative of a horribly persecuted people making a desert bloom into a righteous land has stayed deeply ingrained in the American public imagination, entirely undisputed — it is indeed the naturalized version of the history of Israel in American schools and homes. Even the 1967 war, the first and second Intifadas, the bombing of Lebanon, and the Oslo Accords did not change that narrative in the minds of most Americans, and, importantly, it has been on the basis of that narrative that many Americans form their opinions of anything that has to do with Israel. Until perhaps now.

I like to imagine that the ASA’s vote for an academic boycott of Israel brought about the new and critical element that has started to change the nature of the conversation, this time focusing not so much on Israel as on the rights of the Palestinian people. No question, the ASA vote played a huge role. But the ASA also stepped into a context where boycotts, divestments, and sanctions had already started in Europe, and where the Israeli state had already focused attention on itself through actions like the bombing and blockade of Gaza, and the persistent, increased, and illegal building of more and more settlements, and the continual destruction of Palestinian homes, buildings, infrastructure, and, yes, schools. The academic boycott the ASA endorsed was shocking to many, primarily because it exposed longstanding, but silenced, concerns about the Middle East. In other words, another narrative is starting to emerge more broadly and openly in American public discourse. And partially because of this, the ASA resolution was and is vociferously attacked.

Quickly, university presidents wrote angry letters denouncing the boycott, and state and national politicians proposed legislation to punish the ASA in various ways. Each of these acts of protest against the protest focused similarly on the issues of academic freedom and Israel. Notably, their depictions of the ASA resolution commonly distorted the nature of the resolution, which is steadfastly and pointedly against institutions, and not individual scholars. It is worth citing, once again, the ASA’s Statement on the Resolution:

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.

The boycott does nothing to prohibit ASA members from working with Israeli scholars, collaborating on research, or traveling to Israel, or vice versa. The crucial point here is that, as many have pointed out, critics of the boycott falsely use the issue of academic freedom to criticize any organization that decides to censure Israel. A recent piece by Corey Robin makes the important connection between actual academic freedom and the ways critics of the ASA boycott, arguing for academic freedom, in fact deny it to those holding opposite views to theirs. Robin’s article nicely draws the connection between these acts of silencing and those found during the McCarthyite trials of the 1950s.

It is of course ironic, then, that we find one of the main linchpins of McCarthyite fearmongering — the fear that “foreign governments” (i.e., the USSR) will influence our own — set aside when it comes to the state of Israel. There has been no cry in Congress or elsewhere in our government to protect American supporters of the boycott against the Israeli government’s suggestion to use its state resources, including the Mossad, to spy on their activities and to intimidate them. The fact that antiboycott legislation proposed on the floor of Congress was acknowledged to be “inspired” by a former Israeli ambassador to the United States drew no criticism or concern — that this was mentioned so publicly and openly indicates the impunity with which support for Israel leverages the promotion of even unconstitutional laws. Returning to Obama’s State of the Union speech, we can find this sort of sentiment ultimately negating even an opening comment on the rights of Palestinians: 

As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there; to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel — a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side [emphasis added].

Given the violence and scale of the response to the academic boycott of Israeli institutions coming from university administrators, and state and national politicians, we have to ask again why it is that academic organizations such as the ASA and MLA took it upon themselves to censure Israel. Whereas some argue that the academy is the last place where the issue of Palestinian rights should be politically engaged, I believe it is rather the reverse — it is in the academy, and within academic organizations, that we should precisely draw on our rights of academic freedom to extend those rights universally. This is done largely because of the mentality that informs the attacks on the academic boycott: a mentality that I trace to the originating narrative of the founding of Israel that has until very recently been the only one with which most Americans understand the conflict in Israel-Palestine. The acts of the ASA and MLA were intended in part to create a more open space wherein various narratives could be entertained, discussed, and debated, within our organizations, on our campuses, and in our classrooms.


Let me now say a few words about how the practices of the state of Israel work to deny academic freedom to Palestinians, and in particular Palestinian students. I’ll then turn to the campus climate at US universities, and end by arguing that the academic boycott, as conceived of in the BDS framework, is a fitting and powerful way for academic organizations to protest Israeli state practices.

One of the main tenets of the academic boycott against Israeli universities (again, against collaboration with these institutions, but not against being in dialogue with Israeli scholars) is that academic freedom is indivisible.

On the way to undertaking basic educational activities such as attending or conducting class, Palestinian students and teachers need to queue up at checkpoints, often for hours; they are frequently subjected to taunts and physical attacks by Israelis and threatened with arrest or detention on the basis of what is called “secret evidence.” UNICEF has documented these sorts of difficulties, and argued that Palestinian children and young adults deserve the right to a safe education. At the level of higher education, in both 2008 and 2014 Palestinian students were denied visas to accept appointments as Fulbright scholars, and, under Israeli pressure, US officials “canceled a two-year-old scholarship program for students in the Gaza Strip, undercutting one of the few American outreach programs to people in the Hamas-ruled territory.” Famously, at Ben-Gurion University the entire political science department was threatened with closure for espousing certain viewpoints. These and many other cases that reflect the day-to-day existence of Palestinian students and educators are documented by organizations such as New Yorkers Against the Cornell-Technion Partnership and Right to Education.

It is not surprising then that here in the United States an increasing number of students and educators feel particular sympathy for their Palestinian counterparts — the academic boycott has both attuned us to this counter-narrative and prompted us to bring attention to these cases and work for extending the right to academic freedom universally.

As Lena Ibrahim, a student active in Students for Justice in Palestine, says,

As student activists, and as students who believe in the indisputable right to academic freedom, we are responsible to speak up against Israel’s illegal occupation and apartheid systems, which directly restrict Palestinians from their basic human rights such as academic freedom and education. SJPs are, in my opinion, one of the most powerful forces shifting the discussion on Israel in America because SJPs are making it clear to their American audience that our academic freedom means nothing while we continue to profit off the oppression of Palestinians.

The need for such public advocacy in our schools and by academic organizations is intimately tied to our educational mission. We see this mission as directly opposite to that which Paulo Freire has called the “banking” concept of schooling, wherein students simply receive knowledge as “deposited” into their educational accounts by teachers whose role it is to keep the currency moving, the actual assignment of value unexamined. As more and more cases of the denial of rights to Palestinians come to light, it is harder and harder to turn a blind eye to the contradictions we find as educators between the inherited narrative of Israel and the counter-narrative that is becoming more and more clear. We are ethically and morally compelled to present the counter-narrative and open a space of contestation and debate. Notice that I said “present,” not “insist upon.” We are talking about democracy, not demagoguery.

Seeking to widen the dialogue to accommodate dissident voices, recent discussions about the notion of an “Open Hillel” have started at places like Swarthmore, and questions have been raised as to what kinds of speakers and points of view are allowed by Hillel. One finds an increasing impatience with the narrowness of discussion permitted on campuses. It is our job as educators to present a fuller history of Israel-Palestine, to test out the veracity and completeness of the narrative we have inherited.

The case for engaging in a thorough discussion of the denial of rights to Palestinians is particularly urgent now because the more the boycott grows, the more opponents of free discussion of Israel-Palestine attempt to curtail discussion on this critical topic in our universities and colleges. And those doing so are not only university presidents and Congressional leaders. The tactics used here are too often not solely restricted to logic and reason, a debate on the facts. One group arguing against divestment had these words of advice on how best to shut down debate, urging anti-divestment speakers to appeal to emotions, to say that an “attack” on Israel was an attack on them. There is no doubt that this issue is an emotional one. My response would be that it is important for both sides to acknowledge this, and then go further to find the sources for those emotions.

The AAAS, ASA, and MLA each in different ways are registering the need for a fuller discussion. This goal is in no way contradictory to the academic boycott as construed by BDS. If anything, the boycott will allow better communication and discussion between US and Israeli scholars because such discussion will take place outside the strictures of state institutions. In sum, the academic boycott and the MLA censure of Israel is based on the belief that the status quo is unacceptable, that state remedies (if there are any) have proven ineffective, that state practices like those documented above are abhorrent to those who believe that academic freedom is indivisible. It must be stressed that this is a legal, nonviolent form of protest. As an Israeli friend of mine asked me,

What do people expect the Palestinians to do, if they are faced with such conditions and told not to engage in armed insurrection, and are denied any meaningful political voice? Can they now not even employ legal means of protesting their condition and garnering support from the international community?

I will end simply by repeating what I wrote in another piece:

Academic boycott is a tool available to all academic organizations and institutions to register their opposition to Israel’s policies and practices that are intended to harass, intimidate and silence Palestinian scholars. These include restricting their travel, assembly and free-speech rights. The ASA’s vote is a rejection of the notion that events in Palestine are acceptable as they are, and it is part of a growing multifaceted protest movement against Israel’s racist policies. The very fact that we are now having these discussions is in large part because the ASA took this bold stance. Regardless of individual positions on the boycott, the public discourse has finally turned to the critical issues of the occupation and to basic Palestinian human rights. We can all be grateful to the ASA for initiating and keeping alive this very important discussion.

Returning to the question I posed at the start of this piece, this is not a political issue, it is an ethical one, and the academy’s interest in portraying its disinterest in politics should not be taken as a license to bypass ethics.


David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, and Professor of Comparative Literature, and, by courtesy, English, at Stanford University. He has written three scholarly books and edited three academic volumes on issues relating to cultural studies, ethnic studies, and literary theory. His recent books are: The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age (Duke UP, 2012), and a co-edited volume, Immanuel Wallerstein and The Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture (Duke UP, 2011). He is part of the Public Intellectual Project at Truthout, and blogs for the Boston ReviewAl Jazeera America, and The Huffington Post.

LARB Contributor

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, and Professor of Comparative Literature, and, by courtesy, English, at Stanford University. He has written three scholarly books and edited three academic volumes on issues relating to cultural studies, ethnic studies, and literary theory. His recent books are: The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age (Duke UP, 2012), and a co-edited volume, Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture (Duke UP, 2011). He is part of the Public Intellectual Project at Truthout, and blogs at The Nation, Salon, The Huffington Post, The Boston Review, and other venues.


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