Anti-Israel academics advocating boycotts of the Jewish state are increasingly at risk of becoming punchlines, with prominent commentators and scholars from across the ideological spectrum accusing backers of the so-called boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement not just of hypocrisy but also of incoherence and absurdity. The American Studies Association (ASA) recently voted to disassociate itself from Israeli academia, triggering a backlash described by academic trade publications as “unprecedented.” Over 150 institutions of higher learning have rejected the vote, more often than not in withering terms rarely seen in institutional academia.
When university professors, stewards of knowledge for the next generation of thinkers, propose to fence off all contact, all mental commerce, with others of their kind, they lose the right to be called professors. When they selectively embrace a boycott of a single country’s academics and institutions, they reveal themselves as activists. Not professors but propagandists. No scholar with any intellectual integrity would support freezing all contact, or seeking to isolate other scholars and researchers, simply because of their national origin, ethnicity or religion. The very idea of an “intellectual boycott” is a betrayal of a scholar’s mission.
Peter Schmidt, a senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, on Sunday evaluated that the reaction has made the ASA into “a pariah of the United States higher-education establishment, its experience serving as a cautionary tale for other scholarly groups that might consider taking a similar stand on the Middle East.” Schmidt cited formal condemnations from a range of colleges and universities, denunciations from “three of the United States’ most prominent higher-education organizations,” and decisions by ASA institutional members to withdraw from the organization. Judea Pearl – president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named after his son, the slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl – assessed that the ASA’s gambit has generated “unprecedented galvanization of Jewish students and faculty to confront the dangers of the BDS assault.” The ASA has scrambled to backtrack regarding the scope and significance of its call to isolate Israel – the specific defense is that only Israeli institutions, and not individual Israelis, are being targeted – generating eye-rolls that “they intend to catch fish but vow not to go near the water.” Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg today ridiculed an upcoming conference at American University of Beirut’s Center for American Studies and Research, which will see presentations from some of the top ASA figures associated with the boycott, for hosting academics “opposed to the existence of Lebanon’s southern neighbor: Israel.” Goldberg particularly cited one presentation, which had already been highlighted by Washington Post blogger Max Fisher for implicitly equating Palestinians with Antarctic penguins, as his “favorite offering.” Meanwhile the Modern Language Association (MLA) is gearing up this week to host a conference in Chicago that will feature a panel on BDS and vote on an anti-Israel resolution that – though it does embroil the literature-oriented academic association in the intricacies of the Middle East conflict – falls short of calling for a boycott. The group has dealt with the easily foreseen controversy – coming from journalists, academics, and the public – with something less than cutting-edge public relations acumen. It denied media credentials to the Daily Caller, with predictable results, and it denied a request by the Israel on Campus Coalition and Hillel International to hold a counter pro-Israel panel, a news story that went international.