College campuses like ours are — well, should be — defined in large part by open-mindedness and a willingness to listen to people with different perspectives. Swarthmore Hillel’s decision to welcome speakers of all opinions, “be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist or non-Zionist,” in the organization’s words, reflects its acceptance of intellectual diversity and academic freedom. Swarthmore Hillel’s decision to open its doors to intellectuals and academics who represent a spectrum of opinions on Israel and its conflict with Palestine is an encouragement of open dialogue and free speech.
But if Israel’s critics deserve to be heard, well, so do its supporters. That’s how good academic debate works, a point obvious to everyone but those who think of the academy as fundamentally a political instrument like any other. Which is to say, a point obvious to everyone except angry cultural studies professors: in December, the members of American Studies Association, a fairly unimportant academic group, voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. On this logic American universities are already politically complicit with evil Israel and only these enlightened, morally superior professors are brave enough to stand up to injustice — by stamping out free exchange and debate.
In the wake of backlash against the boycott, the cultural theorist Judith Butler defended it by asserting that it will only affect formal ties between institutions, not exchange between individual academics. So: the boycott is all right because it won’t really have the effects of a boycott. But what’s most disturbing is the principle of the thing. In principle, it is unambiguously wrong for an academic group to boycott a nation’s institutions on the grounds that it dislikes that nation’s policies. It is not as if Israeli academic institutions are mouthpieces of the government. Unlike many of its neighbors, Israel is a healthy democracy that affords its citizens the right to free speech. In fact, as many commentators have pointed out, Israeli academics tend to be critics of the country’s treatment of Palestinians, not supporters.
And it’s not at all clear that there won’t be negative concrete effects as well. How will the ASA draw the line between an individual, his or her affiliation with an Israeli academic institution, and even his or her affiliation with the state of Israel? Cutting off Israeli academics’ access to information and dialogue with American academics who are members of ASA will hinder their efforts to address the mistreatment that the ASA claims to be so concerned about.
And why, of all countries, Israel? There are plenty of governments that treat their own people worse than Israel treats Palestinians. Why isn’t the ASA boycotting Zimbabwe or Syria? One response is that the governments of those countries aren’t supported by the US government. But then what about Pakistan, whose government puts people on death row for “blasphemy,” routinely tortures criminal suspects, and has opponents of its military “disappear.” The real reason for singling out Israel is that opposing Israel has become a kind of cause célèbre among left-wing academics. At bottom, this boycott isn’t about legitimate moral indignation or effective political action.
As Swarthmore Hillel suggests, it is entirely possible to subscribe to a particular perspective in a multi-faceted conflict and yet engage in dialogue with others whose opinions may differ from one’s own. Members of the ASA should follow suit.