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Anti-boycott academics demonstrate lack of excuses in supporting Israel

In recent days, a group of American scholars have been debating publicly whether or not to boycott Israel. According to the New York Times, the American Studies Association (ASA) will disclose today the results of its members’ vote on a resolution to endorse an academic boycott of Israel that was approved unanimously by the association’s National Council on 4 December. This follows a decision last April by the Association for Asian American Studies to endorse the academic boycott, which only focuses on institutions, so does not include Israeli scholars as long as they do not represent Israeli universities or the government.


Meanwhile, last week the president of Palestine categorically rejected any boycott of Israel. Speaking to reporters in South Africa, President Mahmoud Abbas stated firmly that, “No, we do not support the boycott of Israel,” citing the Palestinian Authority’s relationship with Tel Aviv. Instead, Abbas only supports boycotting products made in illegal settlements.

By confining the Palestinian people to a “we” that only consists of the PA, based in the West Bank, Abbas is symbolically ceding East Jerusalem to the occupiers, since under the Oslo Accords the PA is prohibited from carrying out any activities there. In addition, he is turning his back on those Palestinians in Gaza who are suffering under a draconian Israeli-led siege, a fate far worse than any proposed boycott. He is also abandoning the millions of Palestinian refugees who are being denied their right of return, as upheld by UN resolution 194.

Indeed, by placing the relationship that the PA has with Israel above the daily humiliations the Palestinians are forced to endure under Israel’s military occupation, Abbas has clearly put aside the rights of his own people, reaffirming once again his own illegitimacy (his term of office actually expired in 2009).

With these remarks Abbas has illustrated that he is out of touch not only with the Palestinian people, but also with the international community. The world is increasingly supportive of the boycott of Israel as called for by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), launched in Ramallah in 2004 by a group of Palestinian academics and intellectuals, as well as the wider international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, launched by Palestinian civil society in 2005.

Indeed, this week Haaretz cited “new research published by the Molad Centre for Renewal of Democracy”, a progressive Israeli think tank, which “addresses Israel’s standing in the world”. The group’s research findings suggest that “Israel is particularly vulnerable to sanctions and boycotts by Western countries due to the animosity of neighbouring countries, and because 40 per cent of Israel’s Gross National Product is based on exports, primarily to Europe.” The findings, adds Haaretz, also “show that Israeli businessmen, artists and academics are confronting increasing refusal of international agencies and potential partners to collaborate with them.”

But at least Israel still has the support of Abbas, who continues to carry out the charade of a US-brokered “peace process” while Israel carries on building more illegal settlements.

Interestingly, both Abbas and the whole “peace process” share the same framework as those American scholars who have campaigned to reject the ASA resolution to endorse an academic boycott of Israel; this is no coincidence. All those refusing the boycott are employing a “rights-based” framework that seems to recognise the rights of everybody but the Palestinians.

Members of the ASA had until 15 December to decide whether or not to back the boycott resolution; opponents of the boycott have been tireless in making their case against it. Similar to Abbas and the “peace process”, they all end up denying Palestinians their rights, either directly or indirectly.

For example, only two days after the ASA resolution was proposed, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) called upon ASA members to vote down the motion. In an open letter, the president and vice president of AAUP argue: “In seeking to punish alleged violations of academic freedom elsewhere, such boycotts threaten the academic freedom of American scholars to engage the broadest variety of viewpoints.”

Of course, the “alleged violations” of Palestinians’ academic freedom include the fact that the occupation authorities place unfair bureaucratic obstacles on Palestinian universities, close institutions by military orders, ban textbooks, and prevent Palestinian students and their lecturers from travelling to and from class. During the 2006 aggression against Gaza, Israel deliberately bombed the Islamic University, as well as 18 schools. Despite this, when efforts are proposed to try to redress these injustices, the AAUP says no because it will infringe upon the rights of American scholars.

Although the AAUP letter also reaffirms the association’s “stand in opposition to academic boycotts as a matter of principle”, it gave active support to the boycott against South Africa’s apartheid regime. As David Lloyd, a professor of literature at the University of California, points out, “That movement did call for individual boycotts of South African scholars, cultural workers, and sports persons,” whereas “PACBI’s call is specifically and exclusively institutional.” So it seems pretty clear that the AAUP’s position is not related to the rights of scholars, but only to the rights of American scholars; it is not a principled stand against boycotts per se, but a stand against the boycott of Israel in particular.

To take another example, in an open letter to the president of ASA, Claire B. Potter, a professor of history at The New School, suggests: “Scholars of any nation ought to be free to travel, publish and collaborate across borders; I consider this to be a fundamental human right, and so does the United Nations. We in the American Studies Association cannot defend some of those human rights and disregard others.”

The irony of such a statement is acute. By only granting the right of education to “scholars of any nation” Potter is denying this right to Palestinians, as well as to all stateless persons, whereas the UN insists that “all peoples and all nations” have this right. Thus, her position is actually doing precisely what she warns against – defending the rights of some and disregarding others. Considering America’s history of trampling the rights of Native Americans and African Americans, Potter’s turn of phrase is especially ill-thought.

And although Potter does recognise that there are people who are “suffering under, and threatened by, the exclusions, violence and expulsions that are characteristic of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands”, she argues that the proposed boycott would impact on “anti-occupation academics, including Palestinian scholars employed by Israeli institutions.”

While it is nice that Potter is at least trying to think about the rights of Palestinian scholars, a recent Haaretz survey of Israeli research universities “found few Arab scholars in the highest professional level at each university. Hebrew University has two Arab professors at the highest level out of 20 senior faculty members. Ben-Gurion University has 13 Arab professors out of 451, five at the highest level and eight in lower positions. Haifa University has two Arab professors at the highest rung and 10 in lower levels, out of 265 professors.” Tel Aviv University officials said that they have about 25 senior Arab faculty members there. The university boasts a 25:1 ratio of student to faculty, so with 30,000 students this means that it employs around 1,200 professors in total. At “Bar-Ilan University there are two senior Arab faculty members. Ariel University’s 80 professors include not a single Arab.”

Considering that Palestinians comprise around 20 per cent of the Israeli population, and almost 50 per cent of the total population when including the occupied Palestinian territories, these numbers are even more shocking. The opportunities for Palestinian students are almost as limited. According to a special report published by the Washington Report for Middle East Affairs, Palestinians make up just 11.2 per cent of all undergraduates, 6.1 per cent of all master’s students, and only 3.5 per cent of all PhD students.

Thus it seems more than a bit unfair to privilege the rights of a few dozen anti-occupation scholars while ignoring the rights of millions of Palestinians, regardless of their politics.

In yet another example of an American scholar using a “rights based” framework to promote the rights of some over others, Mark Rice, a professor of American Studies at St. John Fisher College, says that he opposes the ASA boycott because “the primary role of a professional academic organisation is to advocate for the needs and concerns of its members within their professional lives.” Again, he too is presenting the argument that the rights of American scholars ought to come first, in this case to enhance our own professional careers, thus perhaps raising the tyranny of “rational choice theory” to a whole new level.

Rice also rejects the boycott because he thinks that ASA members will be “discouraged from pursuing Fulbright research or teaching opportunities in Israeli universities, as Fulbright opportunities typically require explicit affiliation with host institutions. That, to my mind, is a restriction of the academic freedom of individual scholars.”

This seems a reasonable concern. That is, until you look at the countries where Fulbright grants are being offered. During the 2014-2015 academic year Fulbright awards will not be available to scholars wanting to study in: “Algeria, Gaza, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the West Bank, or Yemen.” What Middle East countries are left? Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and the United Arab Emirates; all are current allies of the US government. One can only wonder if Rice has anything to say about that.

Of course, there are also American scholars who are adopting a much cruder framework for completely rejecting any boycott of Israel. For example, Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard University and former US Treasury secretary, suggests simply that targeting Israel is “anti-Semitic in effect”. Furthermore, while he insists ardently that boycotts are against the principle of academic freedom, he also hopes that universities will stop funding faculty participation in ASA if the resolution is passed.

Regardless of whether ASA members choose to uphold the boycott or not, what having this public debate highlights more than anything else is that those who continue to support Israeli apartheid and occupation are quickly running out of excuses.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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