Pushing the Academic Boycott in the US

This is a guest post by Ben Cohen of Z Word

I’ve never thought that the academic boycott campaign would catch on in any meaningful way on North American campuses. Even against the background of campus anti-Israel demonstrations which have occasionally turned violent, Israel apartheid weeks, divestment campaigns and the foaming pronouncements of certain faculty members, the idea that US academics would boycott their Israeli colleagues along similar lines proposed by the UCU in Britain has seemed about as probable as a Hamas fundraiser headlined by Jackie Mason.

Still, the Electronic Intifada can always be relied on to push the envelope. Neither of the two academics who have written this piece actually teaches at a US university. Their argument, in both content and structure, is hardly novel: they ground their boycott call as heeding the will of PACBI (the Palestinian Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) just as the UCU and its antecedents always did; they portray Israeli academia as a willing partner in the “colonial domination” of the Palestinians; and they link the academic boycott campaign to the wider BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign which seeks to cast Israel as an apartheid South Africa for our own time.

One of the reasons the academic boycott has been marginal here in the US is the simple fact that some of those you might think would push it didn’t want to. The arguments outlined in the EI piece above have not resonated. “I think the action is wrong in principle,” Noam Chomsky told the THES back in 2003. “Israeli academics as a class have not done anything wrong and it is not right to subject them to a blanket ban,” wrote Juan Cole on his blog in 2006.

Chomsky, of course, has pushed for divestment, which indicates that he rejects – or at least rejected it in 2003 – this notion of Israel as a perfectly integrated colony, where each element assists the other. Put another way, he hasn’t regarded Israeli academics as equally responsible for the actions of the IDF. My sense is that most other academic opponents of Israel in the US feel the same way – or, if they don’t, that they regard pushing the academic boycott is more trouble than it’s worth. After all, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the nearest equivalent to the UCU here, has a long history of opposing academic boycotts in the name of academic freedom. Some University Presidents went so far as to tell the UCU, if you boycott Israeli universities, then boycott us too.

We can probably all think of one or two American academics who would be willing to push an academic boycott. They may feel that the current climate on the left – in which comparisons between Zionism and Nazism have become almost normalized, and when minor celebrities like Naomi Klein are endorsing the BDS campaign via an explicit reference to apartheid South Africa – offers the best opportunity so far. But the kind of systemic academic boycott advocated in the UK, which exempts only those Israelis prepared to take a disloyalty oath, remains a far-fetched prospect in the American context. After all, this is a country whose public remains well-disposed towards (though not unthinkingly supportive of) Israel, as this recent poll shows. Consequently, academics who want to ostracize their Israeli counterparts simply on the basis of their nationality may find themselves shunned by their own colleagues.