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Jewish Journal

Boycott Israel? Not on my campus

by Judea Pearl

January 3, 2014 | 12:14 pm

Judea Pearl

Judea Pearl

There are many good reasons to oppose the American Studies Association (ASA) decision to boycott Israeli universities. But there are some bad reasons as well. Many arguments against the boycott play exactly into the hands of the pro-boycott propagandists and give them the ammunition they need to continue their racist campaign with renewed vigor and self-righteousness.

The two most dangerous “objections” to the boycott consist of these arguments: 1) There are worse violators of human rights in the world, so why pick on Israel?  And 2) Israel is aware of her crimes, and is willing to confess and repent, with the help of an international team of expert “confessors” who are about to fix all that is broken with Zionism.

I will not comment on the second point because anyone who has been watching Israel’s relentless effort to extricate itself from having to control other people’s lives, how her poets, playwrights, educators, philosophers, journalists, jurors and political leaders have been struggling for the past 66 years to redefine Zionism to fit the changing dynamics of society and circumstances would laugh at the idea that what Zionism needs at this point is expert confessors from the Diaspora, to teach it what it truly stands for.

But the first point deserves a comment or two, because it has been used as a crutch by many commentators, not least among them UCLA professor David Myers, writing in these pages.

Admitting “You caught me stealing, but there are bigger thieves in town” is precisely what the boycott cronies want to hear, and the ASA president’s response, “We have to start somewhere,” sounds much more compelling and honest than the plea for first chasing after the other thieves in town. After all, once you admit to being part of the Mafia, you have no business telling the police how to go about fighting crime, and you should not be surprised if you are arrested first.

I want to assure our students that the case against academic boycott is not as flimsy as these arguments make it sound, and that the majority of faculty on our campuses do recognize both the difficult predicaments of Israel and the non-academic character of the boycott campaign. They recognize that Israel did not choose to occupy another people; her presence in the West Bank was imposed upon her by neighbors who admit to wishing her disappearance and who make sure she understands that lifting the occupation would only intensify their wishes.

They recognize that, obviously, the occupation “has a negative impact on the working conditions of Palestinian researchers and students” (this is a quote from the ASA resolution). But it is also obvious that Israel cannot lift movement restrictions in the West Bank while she is intimidated daily, both rhetorically and physically, with existential threats; normalcy must be symmetrical.

They recognize that while occupation is ugly and unsustainable, the Arab side shares (at least) equal responsibility for prolonging this conflict by nourishing a culture in which coexistence is non-existent.

In particular, Palestinian educators, researchers, students and academic institutions who now call for boycotting Israel are greatly responsible for perpetuating this culture of anti-coexistence, hence no less deserving of a boycott than their Israeli counterparts. Most ASA members should agree that denying peoplehood to a people, for more than 65 years, is no less a crime than causing students at Nablus University to be late to class.

ASA members should be concerned about the reputation of their organization if allowed to be hijacked by the rhetoric of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement and its radical supporters.

While the resolution itself may sound benign, ASA members should take a hard look at the purpose for which this document will be used in the future, given the radical agenda of its supporters.

The leaders of the BDS movement do not hide that purpose: In every conversation with them. they make it crystal clear that their ultimate goal is not to end the occupation, nor is it to achieve a peaceful solution in the Middle East, but rather to defame Israel in the public eye, to choreograph an arena where Israel’s criminality is debated, to intimidate pro-coexistence voices into silence, if not shame, and eventually bring about Israel’s isolation, if not her demise.

Omar Barghouti, a key ideologist of BDS, stated publicly (Sept. 29, 2013),  “Colonizers [read: Zionists] are not entitled to self-determination, by any definition of self-determination.”

ASA members should also take a hard look at what the passing of this resolution would do to campus climate, how it would isolate faculty members who choose to collaborate with Israeli universities and what it would mean to the posture of Jewish students on campus once BDS supporters sense the smell of victory, however mild.

The commentary by UCLA professor Robin Kelley, who wrote in support of the boycott in these pages, was a perfect reflection of this BDS mentality. We are witnessing a “professor of history” who is as quick to desecrate the word “apartheid” as he is to ignore the historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the responsibility of the Arab side in sustaining that conflict. Some “professors of history” can preach for hours and hours on the moral right of the Palestinian people to self determination and, at the same time, ignore or deny the historical right of their neighbors to the same self determination.

In the old days we used to label such professors “racists,” but nowadays that label is reserved strictly for Islamophobes and “white settlers’ colonial societies,” so, on a technicality, Kelley is exonerated. One of Israel’s painful misfortunes is that professors like Kelley formed their worldview at a time when the only villains in town were “white settlers.”

Today, when there are no such settlers in existence (except perhaps the British settlers in the Falkland Islands), history professors must invent them, no matter how absurd the resemblance. And you can guess whom they chose for the honor — the only functioning society in the Middle East that speaks the language of its historical birthplace.

On the positive side, we should not forget that despite its symbolic victory in the ASA case, the BDS movement has given the Jewish people two important gifts. First, support of BDS has become a crisp and unmistakable litmus test by which to distinguish potential discussants from hopeless bigots, and by which to determine whom to include and whom to exclude from the broad tent of “Jewish conversation.” Drawing such red lines was one of the smartest things our sages enforced to preserve Jewish identity. At times it involved painful decisions, which left the Karaites, the early Christians, the Shabtaim, the Spanish Conversos and “Jews for Jesus” out of the community. But these were necessary, life-saving decisions. Today, as if by divine supervision, BDS supporters find themselves excluded from the Jewish conversation — a life-saving demarcation line has been drawn, and a stronger, more united community has emerged

The second blessing has been a miraculous awakening and an unprecedented galvanization of Jewish students and faculty to confront the dangers of the BDS assault. It is still too early to assess, but I would nevertheless venture to predict that next year will not be an easy one for Israel’s enemies on campus. 


Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (danielpearl.org), named after his son. He is a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

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