Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Stanley Fish: To Boycott or Not to Boycott

Stanley Fish, a law professor and former dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago, addresses the question of the academic boycott on Israel in his weekly New York Times blog:


In the last line of the [previous] column I say that the arguments of the academic critics of neoliberalism lead straight to support for and participation in the boycott of Israeli academics. (Which isn’t to say that all critics of the neoliberal university are necessarily pro- boycott, only that it is easier for them to arrive at that position because they are already halfway down the road.) Several posters wondered how I could get from here to there. Here’s how, in five easy steps:

(1) The academic critics of neoliberalism complain that one effect of the neoliberization of the university has been the retreat by faculty members from public engagement, with the result that intellectual work becomes hermetic and sealed off from political struggle. “We need,” says Henry Giroux, “to link knowing with action, and learning with social engagement, and this requires addressing the responsibilities that come with teaching . . . to fight for an inclusive and radical democracy by recognizing that education in the broadest sense is not just about understanding . . . but also about providing the conditions for assuming the responsibilities we have as citizens to expose human misery and to eliminate the conditions that produce it” (“Against the Terror of Neoliberalism,” 2008)

(2) In the eyes of many academics, a great deal of human misery is being produced by Israel’s policy toward Palestinians. Eliminating it is everybody’s business.

(3) This includes academics who cannot stop at just talking about injustice, but must do something about it, must act.

(4) The political resources of academics are limited, but one way academics can show political solidarity is to put pressure on colleagues who are silent in the face of injustice: “The boycott or the divestment campaign is the mode of political protest that is left after all other forms of struggle have been tried”; it is “the politics of last resort” (Grant Farred, “The Act of Politics Is to Divide,” Works and Days).

(5) Therefore, it is appropriate and even obligatory to boycott Israeli academics and Israeli universities “that have turned a blind eye to the destruction and disruption of Palestinian Schools” (David Lloyd, Daily Trojan). “If, in the midst of oppression, these institutions do not function to analyze and explain the world in a way that promotes justice . . . but rather acquiesce in aggressive neocolonialist practices, then others may legitimately boycott them” (Mona Baker and Lawrence Davidson).

Nor will they be saved by the invocation of academic freedom, for rather than protecting Israeli academics, academic freedom, as the boycotters understand it, demands reprisals against them for having stood by while the freedom of Palestinians was being violated. “There is a whiff of hypocrisy,” says Steven Rose, when after failing to protest against the atrocities of their government “Israeli scientists complain that those of us . . . who refuse to collaborate with them . . . are attacking their academic freedom” (The Guardian, May 27, 2004).

David Lloyd drives the point home: “Israeli institutions are complicit in immense infringement on Palestinian academic freedom, so it’s really hard, it seems to me, for Israeli institutions to claim the rights of academic freedom that they are so systematically denying to their Palestinian counterparts.”

Lloyd’s last phrase — “their Palestinian counterparts” — raises a question that helps us to see what has happened to academic freedom in these statements. Counterparts in what respect? Not, obviously, as co-religionists or citizens of the same polity, but as academics — men and women trained to engage in research and to follow lines of intellectual inquiry wherever they might lead.

Whatever their political or religious or geographical situations, scholars throughout the world are linked by a set of concerns to which they have a responsibility that is distinct from (although not necessarily antithetical to) the responsibilities they may have in other respects. The strength of an academic discipline, Murray Hausknecht observes, “depends on maintaining relationships across national borders.” (Dissent)

Academics, Hausknecht explains, “can be likened to citizens of a nation,” and while they are also citizens in political units (particular nations and finally the world), if we conflate the two citizenships by making academic judgments (whether to accept a paper in a journal or invite a speaker to a conference) on political grounds, we do great damage to the scholarly community, the nature of which “is exemplified by academics who publish papers in foreign journals, attend international conferences, and collaborate with colleagues in research projects.”

But it is just such a conflation that the boycotters insist on, as Grant Farred makes clear when he declares that “academic freedom has to be conceived as a form of political solidarity.” Political solidarity, not academic solidarity. Farred denies to academic work any distinctive identity (he of course would receive this as a compliment, not an accusation), and insists that decisions about how to engage in it — where, in collaboration with whom — should be guided by political considerations, by a determination of whether this or that scholar is on the right side.

For the most part, opponents of the boycott do not engage on this point, but instead put forward arguments that are weak, either because they are counterproductive or merely strategic. In the counterproductive category is the charge that the boycotters are anti-Semitic. Rather than shaming or cowing those it is aimed at, this accusation only produces indignation, both on the part of those who favor a boycott and are Jewish (like its founders Steven and Hilary Rose) and those who declare that they have been fighting all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, for their entire lives.

The charge of anti-Semitism also provokes two responses of principle: first that one can and should distinguish between opposition to the policy of a state and prejudice against that state’s racial majority (Are you telling me I can’t criticize Israel without being a racist?); and second, that the invocation of anti-Semitism has the effect, if not the intention, of chilling speech (a First Amendment no-no). How can one “vigorously advocate the idea that the Israeli occupation is brutal and wrong . . . if the voicing of these views calls down the charge of ant-Semitism?” (Judith Butler, “No, It’s Not Anti-Semitic” London Review of Books, August 21, 2003).

A second line of anti-boycott reasoning invites counter-responses that merely continue the debate without in any way clarifying it. It asks, why single out Israel when European and North American academics regularly engage with researchers from countries (including, perhaps, the United States) with well-documented records of human-rights abuses? The trouble with this debating point in the guise of a question (you’re supposed to realize that you’d end up boycotting everyone) is that it implies that if Israel were the only state performing bad acts it would be O.K. to embargo its academics.

The real question is, should the policies (whatever they are) of a country an academic happens to live in ever be a reason for denying her the courtesies academics extend to each other in recognition of the collaborative nature of the work they do? (Yes, I would include academics from the Third Reich.) That question has the advantage of facing squarely the issue of what academic work is and isn’t, an issue that is obscured if you’re just toting up and rank-ordering atrocities as a preliminary to determining which scholars you will or won’t deal with.

Boycott opponents do no better when the focus is narrowed to just Israel and Palestine and they argue, as Anthony Julius and Alan Dershowitz do, that it is incorrect and a suspicious distortion to regard Israel “as the pure aggressor,” and the Palestinians “as pure victims” (“The Contemporary Fight Against Anti-Semitism”).

But again, the degree of culpability assigned to the two states (and of course that is a matter that will never be settled) should not yield a formula for treating its academics differently (you guys can come to our conference, but you lot can’t). Even if it were agreed that Julius and Dershowitz are right and there is blame all around, that agreement would say nothing about whether or not to boycott, unless you believe that the question is an empirical one that can be answered by history and analogy.

Because anti-boycotters offer arguments that trade in comparisons and calculations of relative guilt, they are vulnerable to the boycotters’ trump card: If you supported the boycott of South Africa and the disinvestment by universities from companies doing business in or with that country, you are obligated, by your own history, to support the boycott of Israeli academics. Hilary and Steven Rose reported in 2002 that they knew many academics “who thought that cooperating with Israeli institutions was like collaborating with the apartheid regime” (“The Choice Is to Do Nothing or Try to Bring About Change,”

In response, anti-boycotters say that (1) boycotting is a “blunt instrument” that harms individuals and institutions indiscriminately; (2) it wasn’t the boycotts that brought down the South African regime; (3) the boycott against South Africa was economic and was not aimed primarily at scholars, and (4) despite the loose use of the word by boycott promoters, Israel is not an apartheid state, for it accords its Arab citizens political rights that were denied to blacks in apartheid South Africa.

But the effort to detach Israel from South Africa by claiming that the sins of the latter were much greater than the sins of the former has not been successful, in part because those who make it are trying too hard. (You can almost see the sweat on their foreheads.) The American Association of University Professors ties itself up in knots explaining that while its own history includes “support for divestiture during the anti-apartheid campaigns in South Africa,” it nevertheless opposes this boycott. The rationale seems to be that South Africa was a special, one time case — “South Africa is the only instance in which the organization endorsed some form of boycott” — but that is hardly going to satisfy those who are prosecuting the “if-you-protested-injustice-then–you-should-protest-it-now” argument.

The better course would be for the AAUP and other boycott opponents to accept the equivalence of the two situations, and repudiate what they did in the past. Not “what we did then is different from what we decline to do now,” but “we won’t boycott now and we were wrong to boycott then.”

Whether or not divestiture and other actions taken by academics were decisive in, or even strongly contributory to, ending the apartheid regime is in dispute. What should not be in dispute is that those actions, however salutary and productive of good results, were and are antithetical to the academic enterprise, which while it may provide the tools (of argument, fact and historical research) that enable good and righteous deeds, should never presume to perform them."

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