(An earlier version of this essay first appeared in the Algemeiner on December 30, 2013.)
Now that the American Studies Association has passed its resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israel, universities and fellow academics all over the country are denouncing it. These and other critics of an academic boycott of Israel generally resort fully only to one of the two arguments that can and should be made in response to these calls. The first argument is principled, the second substantive, and one argument offered in the absence of the other deprives Israel of the ethical force of the full condemnation that those who traduce Israel in this way deserve.
There are those who restrict the anti academic boycott argument to addressing, in Stanley Fish’s words, “a limited, guild notion of academic freedom … the freedom to pursue scholarly inquiry, not the freedom to advance justice and equality on university time.” Fish begins in the right place, in citing “the freedom to pursue scholarly inquiry.” That freedom, like so many in so free a nation as the United States, is often taken for granted, its significance and origins lost, in this case, to the non-scholarly, the unscientific, or the anti-intellectual. Yet history’s most famous attack on intellectual freedom – the conviction by the Roman Catholic Church of Galileo Galilei for heresy, for propounding heliocentrism – should serve for all time as the sole necessary reminder of the importance of the principal. The freedom of scholarly and all intellectual inquiry is instrumental to the advance of civilization and was critical to the advent of the Enlightenment. It is basic to the intellectual activity that developed into academic guild work, into that merely, it might seem, professional work of the academic.
But Fish’s “limited guild notion” is just the workaday action of a more profound and, indeed, political idea.
Fish observed that his own critics, often in defense of academic boycott, were emphasizing the element of “freedom” over that of the “academic.” The latter does name the professional parameter, and that is where Fish wants to contain the argument. “Freedom” accentuated, on the other hand, is the leverage boycotters and activists use to bring the weight of their academic work to bear, as through a boycott, on political matters external to their actual scholarly fields. However, it is academic freedom, the two words emphasized equally together, that names neither the professional nor a possibly shifting political interest, but the greater political ideal instead, of individual freedom exemplified by mental freedom, of freedom of speech at the intellectual apex of thought and speech, and of independence from authority and authoritarianism.
To claim, then, that academic freedom is best conceived as a non-political freedom is fundamentally wrong. No advocacy of freedom can be non-political. To advocate freedom, as liberty, is to promote a political idea. The question is what are those politics? What do they fully stand for? What ends do they pursue? What methods do they use? With whom are they aligned, against whom opposed?
Conceiving academic freedom in this way, it will be difficult ever to defend an academic boycott. In the most closed and repressive conditions, the free mind, in sight of an opening, will seek its freedom. As no body is freed by imprisonment, no mind can be opened separated from other minds. Yet the American Studies Association has argued in its statement proclaiming the boycott that it “represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.” That is to say, as a political tactic to achieve a social end, the ASA advocates the restriction of a right (now, among some people) in advancement of the ideal goal of its greater enlargement (among others in the future). Restricting the academic freedom of some will expand the academic freedom of others.
This represents, of course, as a belief and a methodology, the purifying utopianism of twentieth century totalitarianism, in which dictatorships of the proletariat now would lead to human liberation later, terror in the present would found the stateless, classless society of the future. Such a concordance of practice is not surprising, as many of those driving the ASA’s activism, both from without and within the association, do think out of just that tradition of theoretical critique elevated above actuality, and of restrictive tactics in the name of a liberating ideal. Advocates of boycotts and the more general BDS effort have consistently manipulated the process and limited access during organizational efforts to pass anti-Israeli resolutions, they limit the notice of and the time for debate and voting, and they make available to potential voters information promoting only anti-Israel, pro-boycott arguments. These practices were pursued in the ASA effort, too. They are practices themselves that violate the spirit of intellectual freedom inherent in the idea of academic freedom.
Academic freedom thus understood, like all intellectual freedom, is not narrowly apolitical – it is the essence of the political. It is not a mere procedural norm, stripped of the history of intellectual striving that produced it; it is the representation in practice of that striving and of the history and values that gave rise to the principle.
The question, thus, as always, is not whether those values are political in nature, but whether they are the right politics – free thinking, egalitarian, just, and socially progressive politics. It was, indeed, the desire to promote just such values that directed the one boycott now raised regularly as our ethical exemplar, that against apartheid South Africa.
In truth, however, the boycott of South Africa, both economic and academic, was always controversial, if not, among most people and nations, regarding the justness of its intent, then for its effectiveness and potential for greater harm. We have the example of Cuba for how futile even the longest-term economic sanctions can be in opening a society to the free intercourse of people and ideas. We have the example of North Korea for how a nation may turn itself into a virtual prison for its own population and survive for decades as a closed society.
Still, not every act, we may sometimes feel, need be productive of an end. Some acts are properly symbolic. We stand for and against some things, and we will be known to do so, even if we see no reason to hope we can soon change them. So many people came to feel this way about South Africa.
We may usefully ask, though, why – why South Africa and not, for instance, the Soviet Union or China?
Certainly both nations oppressed and destroyed the lives of many more people. In sheer numbers of deaths and the magnitude of the inhumanity, those two nations far exceeded South Africa. Why were they not the objects of a now historic organized and global demonstration of worldwide opprobrium? The explanation is clear. Whatever their true tyrannical and totalitarian natures, both the Soviet Union and China professed principles of social equality and justness. They claimed to seek a new, greater human freedom of mind and body. They lied, of course, (as do lie all the decades-long Arab foes of Israel, including the Palestinian Authority, in invoking the vocabulary of human and civil rights in their political campaigning against Israel) but in the manner observed by Oscar Wilde, their hypocrisy was the homage vice paid to virtue. The difference in South Africa’s was that its white, Afrikaner regime was avowedly racist. Institutionalized apartheid professed and enacted a belief and a policy of dehumanization against a discrete group within its population. By doing so, it openly declared South Africa a moral outlier among nations, fit thereby to be outcast.
For this reason, South Africa became the target of the contemporary world’s one great global boycott. While the USSR and China long had their allies, and defenders of their communist vision, no one defended South African apartheid.
In all these considerations we find the grounds for opposition in principle – with one clear and circumscribed exception – to academic boycotts. If one has no great interest in Israel, is even highly critical of Israel as a political actor, but retains a clear understanding of what academic freedom most profoundly means, then the argument in principle will serve and satisfy. But from the perspective of all who recognize the historicity of the Jewish people in Israel, who know the full history of Jewish willingness to compromise and accommodate competing claims to the land, and who know, too, the contrary history of Arab rejectionism and rank anti-Semitism, who are not blinded by animus to Israel’s vibrant democracy, in contrast to the utter illiberalism surrounding it – for all such people, an argument in principle cannot be sufficient, and is even a dereliction.
A boycott against Israeli academics and institutions is wrong not just because academic boycotts are very nearly always wrong, but because the argument for such a boycott applied to Israel is a moral outrage. While none actually argued in defense of South African apartheid – supported the philosophy or policy and upheld the moral character of the regime – free, good, and honest peoples all over the world recognize the free and democratic nature of the Israeli state. The know the historical background of its creation, and they offer moral support against its foes.
It is in the nature now of those swept along by the kinds of political currents that so often rush over the intellectually fashionable not to recognize what it must mean that Israel, even beleaguered, and so far from a South Africa or any of the true repressive states of the world, has its true defenders among the democratic and free.
It is no matter of happenstance that Israel’s traducers have adopted, among a variety of slanderously false epithets, that of “apartheid state.” They seek with characteristic dishonesty to tie Israel linguistically to that sole justifying historical precedent. Among the many deceptions embedded in the lie is the analogously false suggestion of any institutional nature to the separate treatment of Palestinians that boycott advocates claim. It is, to the contrary, otherwise well known that the twenty percent minority Arab population of Israel is the freest Arab population in the Middle East, as free as any people in the world – free, too, to emigrate were it truly so that they find themselves persecuted. In contrast, in the years after Israel’s recreation, nearly eight hundred thousand Jews fled Arab lands, leaving them now nearly absent of Jews; on the other hand, it is the expressed intention of Palestinian Authority leadership – in contradistinction to another great lie, demographically refutable, of ethnic cleansing by Israel – that a Palestinian state would be, as the Nazi’s called it, Judenfrei.
The boldness of these lies, the magnitude of their deception, stuns the imagination not only of Israelis and Jews, but of all honest and informed people, and what follows are only more lies and deceptions, without limit. The deception, for instance, that where Palestinians do confront impediments to full autonomy, it is not within Israel, as an institutionally separated and oppressed population as was present in South Africa, but on disputed territories captured in war, as a belligerent foreign population that has refused, amid a near century of massacres, wars, and campaigns of terror, ever to make peace. The deception aht the organized campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, with whose U.S. arm the ASA now allies in mutual support, has as its most well known founder Omar Barghouti, who is equally well known, in full academic freedom, to have earned a masters degree in philosophy from Tel Aviv University.
The campaign of lies to which the American Studies Association has now allied itself only begins with these examples. As the world’s current prevailing example of the infamous “big lie,” this iteration’s provenance is the same, and now three American academic associations, of which the ASA is the largest, serve as purveyors of it. Influenced, in part, by theoretical constructs that have become, in application, completely untethered from reality, these academics add now not their scholarly contributions, but their measure of ill to the world. To counter this foolish contribution, this signal misguidance, it is no longer adequate to argue only from principle, however great we think that principle to be, that academic boycotts are wrong. It is necessary to argue firmly and clearly that an academic boycott of Israel is wrong. It is important to know and to state, without faltering, why it is wrong.