A prominent critic of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement surprised many observers last week by voting in favor of the American Studies Association (ASA) resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
Claire Potter, professor of history at The New School in New York City, is the author of the widely read blog Tenured Radical, where she has engaged in intense debates about the movement to boycott Israel among a range of other topics including politics, academia, queer activism and feminism.
Earlier this year, Potter defended, in the name of academic freedom, a Brooklyn College event featuring BDS supporters Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler that had faced political calls for cancellation.
Yet Potter still asserted that her “chief problem with BDS … is its call for ‘a comprehensive economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel.’”
And though a member of the ASA, Potter wrote that she was not attending the academic organization’s conference last month. She made her decision “long before” learning that the boycott resolution — which she opposed — was on the agenda.1
On 4 December — after two weeks of deliberation — the ASA’s National Council, its governing body, endorsed the Palestinian call for boycott and called a referendum of the ASA’s full membership to endorse or reject its decision.
I wrote to Potter and asked her how she came to her decision and for her perspective on the BDS movement — and the specific campaign within the American Studies Association.
During the ASA conference, as Potter continued to criticize the boycott initiative and campaigned against it, BDS supporters were confrontational and sometimes inflammatory with her on social media. As those who follow Potter’s blog know, she gives as good as she gets.
Potter reflected: “Part of what was awful about the experience, and I expect this was awful for resolution supporters too, was the time pressure. It raised the emotional temperature, and adrenaline levels, unnecessarily high.”
“Leap of faith”
Elsewhere, she engaged her friends and colleagues on the issue. “These conversations made me ask myself whether I was setting the bar too high on this resolution” and that led her to take what she calls a “leap of faith.” She adds:
I interpret the delay of the National Council as a sincere attempt to come to consensus … The fact that the phrasing was altered, and the resolution was put to a member vote … means that supporters of the resolution also addressed concerns voiced by many of us. I think when a group of people with diverse views has worked this hard to come to a unanimous decision, you give them a chance to act on what they produced together.
Potter recognizes that the BDS movement is “particularly attractive to young people, and older people need to find some way to honor that.” She adds:
One reason I was able to give the resolution a chance is that I remembered all of the times, as a young person, that older people told me and my allies that our politics, or our intellectual projects, would never work. They were often wrong. So my view is we should give younger people a chance to solve this problem. My generation hasn’t done so great with it.
“Academic freedom is not something BDS supporters can afford to dismiss as a secondary issue,” Potter says, underscoring a concern woven throughout her blog writings and career.
While she has been outspoken about the potential impact on academic freedom of a boycott on Israel, she acknowledges that “many young people who spoke at the ASA meeting spoke about how vulnerable they feel in their institutions because of their activism” and “that Palestinian intellectuals, Palestinian students, and Palestinian human rights activists who are trying to teach and create programming around that issue, are attacked, excluded and silenced in very violent ways. That’s true around the globe, in Israel, in the occupied territories and in the US.”
That Palestinian students and academics feel vulnerable should only underscore the importance of academic freedom to boycott proponents, but Potter worries that proponents see academic freedom “as a finite thing to be doled out to the deserving and withheld from the undeserving.”
“This is where I differ with feminist colleagues like Judith Butler and Joan Scott,” Potter says. “I don’t think we make an exception, or reduce its status: I think we need to look more closely at how academic freedom is intertwined with other rights, and how the violation of all of these rights has created a state of emergency for Palestinian people.”
Boycott in practice
A crucial aspect for Potter’s change in thinking has been recognizing how the boycott has worked in practice:
Do I still have my doubts about the academic boycott? Yes. Again, however, conversations with friends about how the boycott has worked for them allowed me to see how intellectual and cultural exchanges could continue outside the support of Israel’s government. I realized from these conversations that it is important to look at what has happened, instead of what might happen, and vote on that basis.
Others probably share Potter’s skepticism but will support the resolution in good faith. If these tentative supporters are ever faced with an opportunity to actually engage in academic boycott of Israel, they will need to be confident that their decision sustains and promotes academic freedom.
Perception of the BDS movement and ASA campaign
Given her engagement with the issue, I asked Potter directly about her perceptions of the BDS movement. She acknowledges that boycott, divestment and sanctions is “an activist strategy that a lot of people clearly believe in.” The movement is “well organized” but “way too ‘on message.’”
“Impatience with dissent is a problem,” she writes. “It seemed impossible for people to hear my concerns about academic freedom.” What she calls “cadre-style politics” of the BDS movement “don’t respond to the questions that ought to emerge as a political movement tries to expand its alliances.”
So far, she has found the conversation to be polarizing. She says that BDS supporters and opponents deploy “very repetitive sets of statements … many of which are real conversation stoppers.” In addition to being “impatient with outsiders,” she remarks that “referring to the the unconvinced as Zionists and racists … doesn’t help.”
What really doesn’t work — at least it didn’t work with me — was people advising me to read statements and books by famous supporters, often things that I had already read, and just check my brain at the door. I don’t know Judith Butler personally, but I don’t think she intends for us to read her work and then stop thinking.
Although the campaign for the ASA boycott resolution played out over four years, Potter believes supporters should have done more work to promote the resolution to the entire ASA membership before the conference.
BDS: cult, cadre or consensus?
The demands that motivate the BDS movement are the fundamental demands of the Palestinian people. Refugee return and equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel are not part of the two-state partitionist agenda. So the BDS movement has been notoriously described as a “cult” because the “mainstream public” also does not prioritize or even acknowledge these basic demands except to end the occupation that began in 1967.
The three demands of the BDS movement — ending the occupation and dismantling the wall, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and respect for refugee right to return — are not controversial among Palestinians. A Palestinian who supports those three political positions is well within the Palestinian mainstream regardless of whether they are located in Palestine or outside it.
In responding to some challenges, supporters of BDS often refer to calls, guidelines and statements from the Palestinian organizations that advance the tactics. These texts and artifacts are outcomes of careful ethical and strategic deliberation, debate and consensus building, too.
Though the demands of the BDS movement have broad support among Palestinians, Palestinians are also critical of it as well.
While Potter did not call the BDS movement a “cult,” she did perceive “cadre-style politics” and disparaged all appeals to authority. The fears of “litmus tests,” litanies of hypothetical prohibitions and obstructions to academic freedom are dispelled when the movement shows it can embrace multiple analyses, demonstrates its independence and relevance and actually fosters opportunities to engage in dialogue and debate.
Potter’s willingness to take a leap of faith suggests that despite the high temperature — and the heat has certainly come from her as well as from those arguing with her — the conversations are making a difference.
This post originally stated that Potter did not attend the ASA meeting because of the boycott resolution, but this was Benjamin’s misunderstanding. She had decided not to attend for other reasons before she learned about the boycott resolution. ↩︎