What happened to open academic debate?

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.


  1. 0
    Steve says:

    RM wrote: When does open-mindedness include Palestinians who are excluded from equal participation in Israeli life.

    Reality Check: Israeli Arabs are included in Israeli life. Palestinians are in Palestinian life.

    RM wrote: The author claims “Israel is a healthy democracy”. Huh ? Since when did the Palestinians get to vote for representation in the Knesset.

    Reality Check: Israeli Arabs get to vote in Israel. Palestinians vote for Palestinian leaders. And Palestinians elected the Hamas terrorist group as their reps.

    RM wrote: So why hold the ASA to a standard that the Swarthmore Hillel does not hold.

    Reality CHeck: The above statement makes no sense.

    RM wrote: Israeli institutions are mouthpieces of the govt.

    Reality Check: No, they aren’t. Israeli institutions are mouthpieces of… Israeli institutions.

    RM wrote: And Israel uses that money to perpetuate Apartheid.

    Reality Check: No, they don’t.

    RM: Is Apartheid an American value ?

    Reality Check: No, but apartheid is a value upheld in most Arab and Muslim countries. Not in Israel, where Israeli Arabs enjoy more freedom than many Arabs in some Arab countries.

  2. 0

    @RM – You apparently don’t have very good information sources about Israel.

    You ask “Since when did the Palestinians get to vote for representation in the Knesset?”
    Arabs who live within the 1949 Armistice lines are full citizens of Israel and vote in elections. There are 12 Arab MKs in the current Knesset. This includes Ahmad Tibi, who heckled the Canadian Prime Minister during his speech to the Knesset this past week. There have been Arab members of the Knesset, since the first Knesset.

    Israeli Arabs enjoy the highest standard of living and highest levels of education of all Arabs. There is much integration into all levels of civil society. That is not to say there is no discrimination. Israel, like all countries, is not perfect, and the majority of people are constantly working to make things better.

    The Arab residents of Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank, became Jordanian citizens when Jordan annexed the area following the 1949 Armistice. King Hussain surrendered any claim to the area following the Oslo peace accords and rescinded the citizenships of the residents. About 95% of the Palestinian residents of the West Bank live under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. They last voted for their President in 2004. The last elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council were in 2006. The Palestinians of Gaza live under the authority of Hamas, which overthrew the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Arabs who live in the areas of Jerusalem that were under Jordanian jurisdiction prior to 1967 are able to become Israeli citizens, if they choose.

    Unfortunately, the regimes governing the West Bank and Gaza are corrupt and have little regard for human rights. This is a Palestinian problem.

  3. 0
    RM says:

    When does open-mindedness include Palestinians who are excluded from equal participation in Israeli life. The author claims “Israel is a healthy democracy”. Huh ? Since when did the Palestinians get to vote for representation in the Knesset.

    Acknowledgement is not acceptance. Just as the Swarthmore Hillel is open to its critics, this boycott does not exclude Israeli academia from being heard. The Swarthmore Hillel allows its critics to be heard, does that mean the Swarthmore Hillel enters into open cooperation with its critics on say projects. So why hold the ASA to a standard that the Swarthmore Hillel does not hold.

    Israeli institutions are mouthpieces of the govt. A very tiny minority support Palestinians. A far larger majority support, with technical and other know how, Israeli military and civilian institutions to disposses Palestinians.

    What about Pakistan. Aid to Pakistan is to defeat the Taliban. We don’t hear members of Congress claiming aid for Pakistan because “Pakistan is just like America”. Aid to Israel is supposedly to uphold American values in the Middle East . And Israel uses that money to perpetuate Apartheid.

    Is Apartheid an American value ?

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