Israel and Campus Boycotts

On two issues a chasm exists between the academic mainstream and views outside the campus walls. The first, of course, is using racial and ethnic preferences in faculty hiring procedures and (except for Asians and Asian-Americans) in elite university student admissions. A virtual article of faith in the academy, the use of racial preferences attracted a mere 28 percent support in a 2013 Gallup Poll.

The second issue revolves around matters relating to Israel. A March 2013 Gallup Poll indicated that popular sympathy for Israel was at an “all-time high.” And there’s no reason to believe that college students don’t feel the same way. Among the faculty, however, the situation is much different.

The latest reminder came today, via an Inside Higher Ed report that the American Studies Association is seriously considering a resolution endorsing an academic boycott against Israel. Academic boycotts against Israel are so extreme that even the AAUP departs from its usual defense of the faculty majority to formally oppose them. If the measure is adopted, the American Studies group would be the second academic organization–following the Association for Asian American Studies, which did so in a unanimous(!) vote–to urge a nationality-based boycott of the world’s only Jewish state.

Defenders of the boycott proposal cite their distaste for Israeli national security policies, and argue that the organization should “keep primarily in mind the freedom and ability for Palestinians to study free of a military occupation.” Yet by this line of thinking–that universities should be isolated based on professors’ distaste for a nation’s foreign policy–shouldn’t the boycotters also be urging a boycott against their own academic institutions? After all, the United States currently is engaging in drone warfare against some areas of Pakistan, which surely affects the “freedom and ability” for Pakistanis to study. And surely U.S. backing of sanctions against Iran affects the “freedom and ability” for Iranians to study. Or could it be that the members of the “Academic and Community Activism Caucus,” which proposed the anti-Israel resolution, apply one standard toward Israeli professors and another toward themselves?

Over the past several months, another academic anti-Israel boycott had percolated, this one among members of the Oral History list-serv. The topic was a proposed international conference organized by the oral history program at Hebrew University. Oral history offers a way to hear voices sometimes excluded from the official narrative, so it might have been presumed that campus activists would have welcomed the Hebrew University proposal. And certainly the conference outline–which promised panels on such themes as “the subject of reflexivity in teaching and the place of interviews in educational research,” Minorities Studies, Gender Studies, and Culture and Identity–seemed sufficiently politically correct. It is, in short, highly unlikely that this conference will feature a lot of pro-Likud narratives.

Yet the list-serv featured aggressive calls for American oral historians to boycott the conference. Cal St.-Long Beach’s Sherna Berger Gluck cited the fanatically anti-Israel Bishop Desmond Tutu and the far-left U.S. historian Robin Kelley to urge U.S. oral historians to boycott the conference. For “guidelines” in dealing with Israel, Gluck suggested recognizing that “all Israeli academic institutions, unless proven otherwise, are complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights, whether through their silence, actual involvement in justifying, whitewashing or otherwise deliberately diverting attention from Israel’s violations of international law and human rights, or indeed through their direct collaboration with state agencies in the design and commission of these violations.”

The conference will announce its program on January 1; at this stage it’s unclear how many oral historians heeded Gluck’s call for a nationality-based academic boycott.

Figures like Gluck and groups like the American Studies Association and Association for Asian American Studies have virtually no power off-campus, and are (understandably) all but ignored by the mainstream media. The result of this lack of attention, however, is that parents, alumni, and policymakers might be lulled into believing that campus attitudes related to Israel fall more or less within the national mainstream (with, perhaps, a few more anti-Israel extremists on campus than in the population at large). Yet the fact that the campus debate is over whether to boycott a nation’s academics to protest their country’s foreign policy gives a sense of just how out-of-whack campus sentiments toward Israel have become.

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