Monday, March 16, 2009

On Academic Boycotts

Stanley Fish at the New York Times has a long and convoluted column that eventually gets around to focusing on the question of academic boycotts of Israel. I'm chiefly linking because he's got lots of useful links in his column, rounding up lots of the key spokesmen these past few years, so that's useful. He also has a good summary of the arguments for boycotting Israel:

(1) The academic critics of neoliberalism complain that one effect of the neoliberization of the university has been the retreat by faculty members from public engagement, with the result that intellectual work becomes hermetic and sealed off from political struggle. “We need,” says Henry Giroux, “to link knowing with action, and learning with social engagement, and this requires addressing the responsibilities that come with teaching . . . to fight for an inclusive and radical democracy by recognizing that education in the broadest sense is not just about understanding . . . but also about providing the conditions for assuming the responsibilities we have as citizens to expose human misery and to eliminate the conditions that produce it” (“Against the Terror of Neoliberalism,” 2008)

(2) In the eyes of many academics, a great deal of human misery is being produced by Israel’s policy toward Palestinians. Eliminating it is everybody’s business.

(3) This includes academics who cannot stop at just talking about injustice, but must do something about it, must act.

(4) The political resources of academics are limited, but one way academics can show political solidarity is to put pressure on colleagues who are silent in the face of injustice: “The boycott or the divestment campaign is the mode of political protest that is left after all other forms of struggle have been tried”; it is “the politics of last resort” (Grant Farred, “The Act of Politics Is to Divide,” Works and Days).

(5) Therefore, it is appropriate and even obligatory to boycott Israeli academics and Israeli universities “that have turned a blind eye to the destruction and disruption of Palestinian Schools” (David Lloyd, Daily Trojan). “If, in the midst of oppression, these institutions do not function to analyze and explain the world in a way that promotes justice . . . but rather acquiesce in aggressive neocolonialist practices, then others may legitimately boycott them” (Mona Baker and Lawrence Davidson).

Fish himself then goes on, eventually, to state a position whereby any academic boycott is wrong, including the one on Apartheid South Africa. This is a reasonable approach, of course. I'd add to it that perverse as it was, that regime was no-where near being the world's worst, not even in the Post-WWII world; Cambodia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Nigeria all spring effortlessly to mind, and a systematic list would be far longer. So, contrary to Fish's comment, including Israel on anyone's list is, indeed, perverse; singling it out as uniquely evil is, quite simply, evil itself.

I also think calls to boycott Israel are deeply hypocritical and harmful to the boycotters. Israel is one of the most creative places in the world, compared to size or not. How many of the boycotters will forgoe on taking advantage of scientific or technological advances created by Israelis? Hands, anyone?


Anonymous said...

The political resources of academics are limited ...The boycott ... is left after all other forms of struggle have been tried

isn't that exactly the same reasoning by which Hamas justifies suicide bombing according to Jeffrey Goldberg and James Bennett at

and as to the powerlessness of academics - this is coquette - whom do they think politicians play golf with while they are on the rise? with Joe the Plumber?


Anonymous said...

It's gratifying to see so many well argued comments in there about the double-standards practised by the anti-Israel academics, gives one a bit more faith in our educational institutions. Seems to me the comments were mostly favourable towards Israel, which was a bit unexpected.

On the subject of boycotts, I like the story about Ilan Pappe. I understand he was asked to resign from Haifa University because "It is fitting for someone who calls for a boycott of his university to apply the boycott himself" Talk about hubris, can anyone fault that logic?

Rgds, Gavin

Jack Steiner said...

Few if any of those involved in the boycotts will actually eliminate products that come from Israeli ingenuity.

As long as they are a step or two removed from Israel it will provide enough cover for them to deny the relationship and continue using them. After all their principles aren't based upon inconveniencing themselves.

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

How many of the boycotters will forgoe on taking advantage of scientific or technological advances created by Israelis? Hands, anyone?

As we say in Argentina, when you're going there I'm already back from there.

I responded in advance to your argument here. Read it; you're in for a few little surprises.

Thermblog said...

Very creative, Hasbara Buster (Ibrahim).

Consider the Zimbabwe boycott, change of government and the situation today; the population is certainly worse off. It's not reported but South Africa is going the same way and may already be there.

The lesson is to not simply destroy producing, western economies by handing them over to untried groups of people. It's a terrible waste and everyone ends up worse off. Make no mistake, the boycott is not about mere reform. (If it were it would acknowledge the Gaza pullout.)

These boycotts are for the purpose of suffusing liberals with the inner glow of sanctimony; they also like to kick around someone who won't hurt back.