The taboo on boycotting Israel has been broken

26 November 2013

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The American International School in Gaza, visited by then-Senator John Kerry in 2009, is one of hundreds of Palestinian educational institutions that have been bombed by Israel.

(Ashraf Amra / APA images)

Something extraordinary happened on Saturday evening at the American Studies Association’s annual meeting in Washington, DC.

At a packed open meeting called by the ASA’s National Executive Council to discuss a resolution to “endorse and honor” the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, speaker after speaker rose to express strong support for the resolution.

They urged the council to vote on it without further delay or deferral.

Israel and US complicity

Out of 44 speakers, whose names were submitted in writing and then drawn at random from a box, 37 spoke in favor of the boycott. They ranged from senior professors to graduate students and even undergraduate members of the association. All recalled the association’s fundamental commitment to the study and critique of racism and the US histories of imperialism and settler colonialism.

Many made the connection between Israel as a settler colony and US complicity in politically and materially supporting its colonial projects. In doing so, several remarked that they were members of the association because its commitment to anti-racist and anti-colonial scholarship made it especially hospitable to their work. For them, the connection was self-evident between anti-racist work within the United States and solidarity work with the victims of a settler colonial project that has the fullest support of the United States.

Over and over, speakers refuted the charge that endorsing the boycott is a contradiction that engages in limiting academic freedom in the name of academic freedom. They pointed out that this assertion is simply false, in the face of a campaign of misrepresentation evidenced in the room by a “Frequently Asked Questions” flyer opposing the resolution. That campaign implied that the boycott targets individuals on account of their national belonging or identity.

If anything, the resolution stands to further academic freedom — in particular that of Palestinians whose access to normal scholarly life is continually infringed by occupation, blockade, collective punishment in the form of school closures, and the denial of the fundamental right to travel. No Israeli scholar would be denied the right to express or publish an opinion, attend a conference, do research, or travel wherever they wished.

Speaking without fear

But the most significant thing about this event was that already it showed that engaging in the boycott, and even in discussion of the boycott, is an extension of academic freedom.

Despite years of lawfare in which pro-Israel lobbies and pressure groups have tried to shut down any criticism of Israel and refused to debate the facts, those who spoke at this meeting felt free to voice their opinions and their experiences without fear of harassment or recrimination.

It was deeply moving to hear younger scholars, graduates and undergraduates, one after the other, express feelings of liberation and legitimation. They were finally able to speak and to hear others speak publicly about an issue that has for so long been the third rail not only of US politics, but of academic discourse.

Palestinian academic freedom is our freedom

Opponents of the boycott tend to focus on its potential impact on the relatively privileged Israeli scholars, who will in fact only feel an impact in so far as they act as ambassadors for the Israeli state. For once, on Saturday, it was the actually restricted academic freedom of Palestinian scholars that was on the table. And it became clear that the extension of academic freedom to Palestinians is at the same time the extension of our own academic freedom here in the United States.

In a letter to the National Council, available at the meeting, opponents of the boycott claimed to have some fifty supporters. The petition in favor of the resolution had already amassed 850. What is missing even in that huge majority of supporters is the large number of scholars who would have wished to support the boycott, but dared not sign on for fear of intimidation or retaliation.

Ending the blockade on debate

The ASA’s open meeting was a clear indication that the time of fear and of the blockade on debate may be over — and that there is a new climate in which critical discussion of Israel’s policies towards Palestine will no longer be taboo.

But something yet more significant happened. The fifty or so opponents of the boycott claimed the support of “several former presidents, Council members, and ASA award winners.” The speakers in favor of the resolution did not appeal to such institutional or official authority, though many indeed could have.

What they appealed to was a sense of justice, of consistency with our values. They invoked the principle of solidarity with the oppressed, as the ASA encourages — and what everyone recognizes is the very condition of anti-racist work.

Time after time, speakers saw support for the resolution not as potentially divisive but as an enhancement of the meaning and significance of their association and of the relevance and value of scholarship itself. As one speaker put it, support for the boycott by the ASA would renew her belief in the meaning of scholarship itself — at a time when we are called to an increasingly professionalized separation of our intellectual work from our moral and political commitments.

Any association always runs the risk of becoming merely an institution, with its protocols and procedures and traditions. As an institution settles into its routines, it ossifies and forgets the values that brought people together to form it. What happened at the ASA on Saturday night reminded us that an association is not just a means to certain professional ends, but a voluntary gathering together of people with shared intellectual values and commitments.

To participate in that gathering was indeed a deeply re-energizing experience, renewing one’s faith both in the possibilities of that particular association and in the capacity for intellectual work to be at once scholarly and engaged with the world.

Attacks

At the time of writing, it remains unsure what the ASA’s National Council will decide regarding the resolution, though there is no doubt that the open meeting gave them a ringing endorsement should they decide to pass it.

But, already and predictably, attacks on the association have commenced. Based on past experience, few of the attacks will engage with the substance of the resolution — or with the facts of Israel’s ongoing denial of academic freedom to Palestinians and its relentless assault on the rights of a people to reproduce its cultural and intellectual life.

By and large, Zionists have refused to debate and have ceded that ground to their opponents. Instead, they rely increasingly on other means, predominantly legal and institutional harassment, to close down debate, force student senates to rescind democratically approved divestment resolutions, or punish students and academics for criticizing Israel.

There is no doubt that Zionist organizations have great power and the material resources to enable them to engage in a forceful assault on the American Studies Association.

But in the intellectual world, the resort to force is not a position of strength. Saturday evening at the ASA showed the power of reasoned, moral argument. And there is no going back from that. In the struggle for justice for the Palestinian people, a turning point has been achieved.

David Lloyd is Distinguished Professor of English at University of California, Riverside.

Comments

Thank you, David, and the organizers. It was indeed a pivotal moment for ASA, and I was proud of my colleagues for speaking clearly and largely in defense of the Resolution, as well as for their willingness to listen to the other side. Opponents of the Boycott did not offer effective arguments, but they were neither jeered nor taunted but heard with respect.

Thank you for this inspiring piece, hope it is shared with academic institutions around the world. It certainly will be shared here in Dublin, Ireland.

Every has to act according to his/her values, ethics and morals, and if you know that Palestinians are living under aparthide system from Israel and under the British Emergency laws from 1945, it is a must to Boycott an Aparthide system and struggle to stop the discrimination against Palestinians.

The BDS movement is in direct opposition to Zionism. Whether BDS is legitimate or effective depends on the nature of Zionism.
If Zionism is a racist movement of Jewish supremacy, to dispossess the Palestinian people, steal their land in order to establish an exclusionary state, then BDS is a moral and efficacious way to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian movement for freedom and self-determination.
If Zionism is a multicultural nationalist movement to counter antisemitism and provide a permanent safe haven for Jews, living with Christians, Muslims, and others, in peace in their homeland, then BDS is an immoral movement that supports antisemitism.
I am a Zionist and I support the State of Israel. I also support the human rights of Palestinians. I do not support BDS. I support groups that are pro-peace and pro-reconciliation, such as:
Peace Now
Mar Elias Educational Institutions
Seeds of Peace
Police Executive Research Forum
The Parents' Circle
JustVisions
Givat Haviva Educational Foundation
Kids for Peace
Hebrew University

Excellent that you support the human rights of Palestinians. Surely these must include the right to education without schools being bombed, freedom of travel for children to school, the right to have electricity to do their homework, the right to a home that isn't bombed or cleared, the right to clean safe water, the right to food and work, the right to your own land you own and the right not be raided at night by soldiers and the IDF. In a word, the right to a childhood.
So how are you supporting the Palestinians in these rights in a way that makes a difference?

Zionism never sought to counter anti-semitism. Rather to the contrary, Zionist founder posited "The antisemites WILL BECOME our most loyal friends, the antisemites nations will become our allies." (quoted in One Palestine Complete by Tom Segev). The Zionists, tacitly or not, welcomed anti-semitism which drove Jews from other countries to Israel, and there's some evidence they even planted a few bombs in synagogues in Iraq to encourage Jews to leave.

As far as Zionism providing a haven for Jews to live "with Christians, Muslims, and others, in peace in their homeland," the part about living with Christians, Muslims and others in peace is absolute b.s.. It was no accident Israel is confiscating land from Palestinian farmers in order to build Jewish-only settlements today, or otherwise do everything possible to make life untenable for Palestinians living under occupation. Getting rid of the native people of Palestine to make way for Jewish immigrants has always been a Zionist goal. It was no accident Zionists took over villages in 1948, imprisoned the men then shot them in mass in more than one instance, ordered people out of their homes and lined them up and shot them, or boarded them up in their homes then killed them by exploding the homes over them. That is the essence of Zionism, get rid of the native people to make way for immigrants.

Didnt british do that to the native americans in the u.s.?

Brother the disparity between access to higher education is glaring...u have students not being cleared to attend their universities overseas in a timely manner from Gaza..u have schools in Gaza with blackouts, power plant is under constant disruption forom israeili policies so they are using candlelight, the university policies in Israel do not allow palestinian students...if Israel did an about face and allowed the best and brightest palestinian students to attend universities in Israel then i can change positions on Academic Boycott but this is far from the case...my conclusion is the Israels are engaging in limiting the education of Palestinian youth. The other policies of ISrael vis a vis the Palestinians are conclusive...Apartheid, no freedom of movement...i conclude that BDS is the only real pressure from civil society..the politicians/international community does not have the critical mass to take proactive measures to end the Occupation.

The comment above should be entitled "the lies we tell ourselves, in order to be able to look ourselves in the mirror." Zionism is racist, it is wrong and in a short time will be no more. Good riddance.

Something to think about, regarding standing on the side of truth and justice.
Israel have hit bottom; there is no going back. Israel is drowning in.it's own mess. Remember Reagan was the last president to support South Africa Apartheid; now is Obama time to make history.
Israel is almost over. Viva Free Palestine