On Boycotts and Human Rights

Editors’ Note: In December of last year members of the American Studies Association were asked to vote on the following resolution: 

Council Resolution on Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

December 4, 2013

Whereas the American Studies Association is committed to the pursuit of social justice, to the struggle against all forms of racism, including anti-semitism, discrimination, and xenophobia, and to solidarity with aggrieved peoples in the United States and in the world;

Whereas the United States plays a significant role in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the expansion of illegal settlements and the Wall in violation of international law, as well as in supporting the systematic discrimination against Palestinians, which has had documented devastating impact on the overall well-being, the exercise of political and human rights, the freedom of movement, and the educational opportunities of Palestinians;

Whereas there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation, and Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students;

Whereas the American Studies Association is cognizant of Israeli scholars and students who are critical of Israeli state policies and who support the international boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement under conditions of isolation and threat of sanction;

Whereas the American Studies Association is dedicated to the right of students and scholars to pursue education and research without undue state interference, repression, and military violence, and in keeping with the spirit of its previous statements supports the right of students and scholars to intellectual freedom and to political dissent as citizens and scholars;

It is resolved that the American Studies Association (ASA) endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.  It is also resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.

The election attracted more than 1200 members of the association, faculty and graduate students from around the U.S. More than 66% endorsed the resolution, while 30.5% of voters voted no and 3.43% abstained. 

A firestorm of criticism against the association and its members followed the vote and included congressional threats to strip funding to American studies departments and scores of college and university presidents criticizing the association

Alex Lubin is a member of the ASA, and an Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico and is currently on leave while directing the Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. Lubin lobbied for the boycott and below he responds to its critics. 

By ALEX LUBIN

When a social movement has lost the moral high ground, however, it goes into attack mode in order to shut-down any conversation and to maintain its position; it resorts to epithets, ad hominem attack, and even legal threats to end all discussion.

When a social movement struggles to expand human rights for all it seeks to oxygenate debate and dissent, it invites opponents to engage with the central moral and political issues of the day. Social movements that have the moral high-ground are not threatened by rigorous debate, because the debate reinforces that it is doing something important and of social value.

The American Studies Association’s (ASA) courageous decision to endorse a resolution calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions demonstrates these lessons.

The ASA resolves that it will not collaborate with Israeli institutions of higher education while those institutions violate Palestinians¹ human rights. The resolution does not prevent Israeli scholars from attending the ASA, nor does it prevent American scholars from working with Israeli scholars, or from traveling to Israel. The boycott is a simple statement that does nothing to violate academic freedom ­ a privilege that only some enjoy in Israel/Palestine ­ but does very much to raise consciousness about the very real Israeli violations of Palestinian human and academic rights.

The boycott is a statement of solidarity among members of the ASA and doesn¹t obligate American Studies departments to do anything. The boycott targets institutional relationships and doesn¹t preclude American Studies scholars from hosting Israeli faculty or recruiting Israeli students. Indeed, the boycott is about building bridges and expanding academic freedom for everyone.

LubinMuch of the opposition to the boycott has been fierce and predictable. We knew it was coming and we knew it would be ugly.

One common argument made about the boycott resolution is that it unfairly singles out Israel. Ironically, in arguing that places like Zimbabwe, Syria, Iran, and North Korea are worse than Israel, and should be the actual targets of the ASA’s boycott, opponents implicitly make the case that Israel is among an international cohort of human rights violators and that boycotts are legitimate tactics to address these violations.

Unlike the case of Israel, the U.S. levies harsh sanctions on these other violators and withholds massive sums of foreign aid. The U.S. singles out Israel by blocking any UN resolutions condemning Israel¹s violation of human rights and by making Israel the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

Among the most insidious and predictable of the criticisms have been accusations of anti-Semitism launched by Lawrence Summers, Charles Krauthammer, and many others. The accusation is meant to silence dissent. Summers and Krauthammer know that the ASA’s boycott resolution says nothing about Jews, but only about Israeli state policies. Moreover, they know that there are Jewish Israeli organizations like Boycott from Within that have called for the boycott.

The opposition¹s attempt to equate Israel boycott resolutions, and even boycott discussions, with anti-Semitism represents a politics that has lost the political high ground and can only respond by silencing debate, undermining the ASA’s democratic decision-making process, and bullying its way forward. Its goal is to make us too afraid to speak out in support of human rights. It offers nothing new in the way of solutions to the problem of Israel¹s well-documented violation of international law. The

ASA’s boycott resolution, on the other hand, focuses on institutions rather than individuals, opens up conversation about U.S. policy, and expands understandings of academic freedom to include Palestinians who study, teach, and do research within conditions of an unjust occupation. There was, and remains, disagreement among ASA members over tactics ­ should we boycott, should we censure, should we divest? A large majority of ASA members endorsed the politics of the academic boycott. Boycott supporters are open to discussion and new ideas about how to guarantee human rights for all. Can the same be said for caustic critics such as Summers and Krauthammer?

Alex Lubin in the author most recently of Geographies of Liberation: the Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary (UNC Press, 2014)

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal

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