In contrast to the more careful institutional approach by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), 560 individual scholars and librarians, including leading scholars who study the Middle East have signed on to boycott “Israeli academic institutions.” The list of signatories includes 6 directors of Middle East Studies centers at US major universities such as Columbia, Duke, NYU, and UCLA. The centers they lead are US Department of Education Title VI National Resource Centers, required as such to “maintain linkages with overseas institutions of higher education and other organizations that may contribute to the teaching and research of the Center.” If there’s any silver lining to this story, it is to point out that MESA has always opposed academic boycotts. You can read here about MESA and the sensitivity about bias regarding Israel and Palestine here. But it’s the sad news upon which I want to remark. For that you can read the BDS statement and a list of individual signatories here. My own sense is that a statement such as this will involve unintended consequences. While the intent is to pressure Israel along with Israeli universities and faculty colleagues in Israel, the unintentional damage will be to academic life in the United States, including Jewish Studies and Middle East Studies itself, and upon the study of and discourse about Israel and Palestine here in the United States.
The grounds given for the boycott and the statement itself indicate no special knowledge or insight that a scholar might have otherwise brought to a discussion about the Middle East. What’s exceptional, and potentially damaging about the boycott is not the statement itself, but that is has been brought forth and has been joined by so many colleague-experts in Middle East Studies, and the way it attempts to shame not just Israeli institutions and university colleagues in Israel for complicity and silence in the face of what the signatories present as an injustice. Applauding the few token Israeli professors who protested the war in Gaza, like so many BDS statements, this one transcends this or that act of war, and it transcends the 1967 occupation of Palestinian lands in that call to boycott has as its goal undoing the traumatic core at the very establishment of the state in 1948. Following standard BDS format, the signatories advance three principle demands, the most controversial of which has always been demanding that Israel accept the Palestinian right of return to ancestral places in pre-1948 British Mandate Palestine. Most critics of BDS and many of its proponents understand this last demand to entail a comprehensive right of return, one which would entail the transformation of Israel into a Palestinian majority state with a Jewish minority. In other words, the boycott call signed on by Middle East Studies professors follows BDS in establishing conditions opposed by the vast majority of Israeli Jews outside and inside the university. A maximalist position, the signatories have signed on to a position that precludes a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict based on the principle of mutual recognition.
After a lengthy preamble, the call of the boycott reads:
“[W]e call on our colleagues in Middle East Studies to boycott Israeli academic institutions, and we pledge not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences and other events at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel. We call for doing so until such time as these institutions end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law, and respect the full rights of Palestinians by calling on Israel to:  End its siege of Gaza, its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967, and dismantle the settlements and the walls;  Recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and the stateless Negev Bedouins to full equality; and  Respect, protect, and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”
Without wanting to rehearse all the arguments about, against, and in favor of boycotting Israel and only Israel, on what grounds and under what conditions, it’s hard to see how this will not be a damaging thing, if not to Israel itself then to the scholarly study of Israel, Palestine and the larger Middle East. Would I would like to add to the discussion is to argue my opinion that BDS undercuts the work of Jewish Studies as an academic discipline. While, I don’t pretend that this argument is universally shared by my Jewish Studies colleagues, academic BDS of Israel undercuts the special interest in and even bind between Jewish Studies and Israel. The intent of BDS is meant to cut off US researchers from universities, research resources, colleagues, and events upon which for many of us our work depends. In terms of its moral component the boycott call pushes Jewish Studies and other university colleagues into a corner, forcing them to choose moral and political sides when perhaps there are no good choices readily at hand.
For these reasons, I’d like to take one step back and one step forwarding by asking two sets of questions. The first is addressed to scholars of the Middle East, the second to professors of Jewish Studies. While I understand that many of my colleagues in Jewish Studies might take umbrage, I will not pretend to speak otherwise than in the first person. This is what I’d ask:
–Will such a boycott undercut the work for those signatories whose own work is actually focused on Israel and Palestine? Does it make sense for them to cut off ties to university colleagues in Israel? And what does it mean for scholars interested in the Middle East as a whole to distance themselves from an important country and academic resource in the region they study? Is the boycott intended to push Israel Studies and will it not push Jewish Studies out of Middle East Studies as an intended or unintended consequence? Signed by powerful and well placed figures in the field, will the petition become a litmus test for invitations, hires, and promotions, placing particular pressure on new Phd’s and junior faculty to sign on or suffer uncertain consequence? And what might be the impact of this act on the quality of their own research and teaching when scholars refuse to engage the academic life and resources of the country? Will the study of Israel and conversation about Israel and Palestine get reduced more and more to the level of group-think, agitprop, or caricature?
–How might, in particular, Jewish Studies and Israel Studies professors and faculty program-directors respond to what might be an impossible position? On the one hand, one respects the right of colleagues in Middle East Studies to make political decisions. On the other hand, for many of us, much of our own work is dependent on ties to Israeli universities, as well as to established bonds of collegial friendship with university professors at Israel institutions of higher learning. Will Jewish Studies and Israel Studies faculty and programmers respond in kind? Will they be less likely and less interested, or even less willing to reach out to us? Will we be less likely or less interested, even less willing to reach out to colleagues in Middle East Studies, particularly to those who support BDS? What would be the impact of such counter-actions on our own work? Will BDS and the way we respond to it make or own work less open and more reactive? Or are Jewish Studies professors supposed to cut ties with Israeli universities and our colleagues who work there in order to count as “the good moral Jews” who might win the sympathy and support of our colleagues in Middle East Studies who signed on to this petition?
Complicating the BDS by Middle East Studies colleagues is the moral dimension brought into the statement they signed, i.e. the explicit “moral claim” to hold this one country accountable. Based as it is on a moral assertion, the boycott statement signed on by our colleagues in Middle East Studies will foment bitter and pointless arguments about moral and professional hypocrisy. For now, it’s enough to note that the boycott and arguments against it will draw critical attention away from places like Syria and Iraq and the fragile state of civil society across the larger Middle East. An exclusively political claim in favor BDS would have been easier to understand and even justify than the moral claim per se. It is not clear why the case of Israel and Palestine should be more morally pressing than any other place in the modern Middle East studied by our colleagues, whereas politically one could make the case why a group of academics want to act on this specific cause. Political claims can be relativistic and particular to an individual case, whereas the moral claim signed on by the signatories tend to trade in values that are absolute, or at least universal in reach.
Around a contested issue such as Israel and Palestine, comprehensive boycotts of Israeli institutions of higher learning will surely raise the level of critical and counter-critical scrutiny and rancor. There’s every reason to suspect that the boycott of Israeli universities by U.S. based scholars of the Middle East will create a new level of mistrust, hostility, and suspicion that will be reflected in our research, teaching, and everyday professional encounters between many Middle East Studies scholars and scholars of Islam, on one side, and many Jewish Studies and Israel Studies professors on the other. Instead of seeking out critical interstitial spaces across cultures, members of the two academic communities might start dissociating one from the other because of the boycott. It is always unclear to interpret and negotiate together the yawning gap between what gets said and all the things that go unsaid between university colleagues. In contrast, MESA has done its best as an institution to avoid bias. In contrast to MESA, which has done its best as an institution to avoid bias, the boycott signed on by such a large number of individual Middle East Studies colleagues will make that effort even more labored.
As an organization, it would seem that MESA understands in sharper perspective than do the individual signatories to the boycott the purpose of its association, which would be the study of the Middle East in all its varied ramifications. With or without too much hope, my own view is that professors of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies should continue to seek common cause with those colleagues amenable to professional and personal contact and exchange. Especially given the fact that MESA as an organizational body opposes BDS, the best course of action would seem to me to be ones that isolate the phenomenon and contain the damage, to listen carefully to and when possible to heed colleagues, morally and politically. Certainly one should also push back where one thinks one should, while avoiding direct confrontation and the appearance of confrontation. Any act carries its own consequence. More often than not, the best course of action is not to act at all in an obviously hostile way. On the ground, Israel and Hamas prove again and again that each are their own worst enemies. Armed resistance against Israeli civilians has turned out to be a self-destructive act that only further isolates the Palestinian people. For its part, with the ongoing and deepening occupation of the 1967 territories, Israel does more to undercut its own moral, political, social, and national standing than any act of BDS by individual scholars who, by every measure, appear to hate the country with what can be shown to be an extreme prejudice.