You have to admire a group that has an ideological principle and sticks to it, come what may. The American Studies Association, an academic group representing professors of that august subject, proudly proclaimed in its resolution to boycott any academic conferences or publications in Israel issued yesterday : “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…” Wonderful. Finally, an academic body with the courage of its convictions. But if you think that they’re also taking action against China for oppression, or the Congo, or perhaps in Saudi Arabia or other Muslim states, you would be very disappointed.
It may not be immediately obvious to you that an Israeli professor who specializes in Faulkner is a threat to international stability, but you are sadly deceived. Because as the “FAQ” sheet of the ASA helpfully informs us, the universities themselves are part of “the ideological and institutional scaffolding of the Zionist settler colonial project.” If you thought such fusty pseudo-Marxism crumbled with the Berlin wall, welcome to the modern professorate, guardians of the good and moral scold of the only western style democracy the Middle East has to show.
Professors parse words carefully, so let us do the same. Here is a paragraph to savor from the New York Times:
Mahmoud Abbas, standing in the former Apartheid state of South Africa, publicly acknowledged that to boycott all of Israel is to deligitmate the entire state. To spurn a medical conference at Tel Aviv University is not to ennoble the Palestinians, it is to erase Israel as an member in the community of nations. These distinctions may be lost on the ASA, but in the sphere where decisions have consequences even the titular head of the Palestinian people rejects their approach. But don’t hold your breath for this to occasion second thoughts.
The cost of this self-righteousness carries with it the stench of Anti-Semitism. On our troubled globe, where states do truly terrible things to their people, gassing them, slaughtering them en masse, impoverishing and immiserating them, I am aware of only one country whose continued existence has been called into question. Should Zimbabwe exist? Or Sudan? Or Syria? Only Israel is subjected to constant questioning of its right to remain a nation. Israel, a sliver of a country surrounded by tyrannical regimes or perpetually unstable governments, free for the moment from war because of strength and not because of neighborly goodwill, this Israel is the target of the opprobrium of preening academics the world over. The question is not whether members of the ASA are anti-Semites, as individuals. All this is not because the world’s only Jewish state is uniquely evil. It is just uniquely Jewish.
Palestinian suffering is real and Israel’s record is far from perfect. Every person of goodwill should feel both compassion and outrage for the fate of Palestinians, which is not monocausal, but a complicated and tragic situation. As for Israel’s part, it is fair to say that when you are surrounded by people who fervently wish you did not exist, your equilibrium is liable to tip. Imagine, just as a thought experiment, how the US would react if a hostile power — say, Khomeini in his heyday or Castro — took over Canada or Mexico. Moral situations between antagonists are complex, but complexity is what we hire academics to think through and represent. This boycott is taking a cleaver to a silkscreen; it is simplistic, heavy handed, destructive and ugly.
It has been observed that Israel has too little land and too much history. It is not an easy place to understand, and even harder from the comfortable distance of an American university. People who think they have it all figured out are liable to show themselves clumsy and counterproductive. One would think that members of the ASA, even if muddled about the Middle East, would understand American values better.