Opinion | Columns

Don’t boycott discussion

On Dec. 15, the American Studies Association called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The American Studies Association, which describes itself as “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history,” has around 5,000 members, of which 1,252 participated in the vote to endorse the boycott. About 66 percent of the voters endorsed the resolution, passed in the name of the “preservation and support of academic freedom.”

Despite Columbia’s tendency to explode into protests, finals mania successfully distracted us from the ASA boycott.

In the few weeks following, though, the American academic community went berserk as only academic communities can (with strongly worded op-eds in prestigious newspapers), and the presidents of more than 80 United States colleges, including our very own presidents, Lee Bollinger and Debora Spar, have condemned the vote. Even Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said, “we do not support the boycott of Israel. But we ask everyone to boycott the products of the settlements.”

This column isn’t on the efficacy of boycotts as an instrument of change, though, or even the situation in Israel as a whole (as impossible as that may be), but on the concept of an academic boycott.

President Bollinger has long been a defender of a free and open global discourse. He famously invited now former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the World Leaders Forum, stating in his opening remarks that “free speech asks us to exercise extraordinary self-restraint against the very natural but often counter-productive impulses that lead us to retreat from engagement with ideas we dislike and fear.” Bollinger also strongly criticized the ASA boycott, along with the similar 2007 boycott by the British University and College Union.

Meanwhile, Spar released a much more powerful statement of condemnation, writing that “all scholars have the right to speak out against issues or policies with which they disagree, but academic boycotts pose a threat to the intellectual exchange and open debate that sit at the very core of our educational mission.”

Of course, the supporters of the boycott vehemently reject this accusation, stating that in no way would their academic boycott censor academic freedom. In the ASA petition, they claim that the opposite is true—Israeli academic institutions impose restrictions on education, scholarships, and participation in campus activities, conferences, and research for Palestinian students and academics, and are complicit in Israel’s violations of international and human rights law by not taking “measures to oppose the Occupation.”

Thus, the only natural step is to restrict academic freedom in turn by boycotting Israeli academic institutions (an eye for an eye makes the whole world equal, as I believe Gandhi once said). But academic freedom, as safeguarded in the petition, will not truly be restricted, because the “ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the BDS movement.” In other words, if you agree with what the ASA does, they won’t boycott you.

Although I may not agree with the rationale, I understand the idea of a boycott of Israeli goods or corporations through the idea of disinvestment. Boycotting academic institutions is a whole other matter. It’s boycotting open discourse, and ensuring that the people—and not only the people, but the intellectuals—with whom you disagree won’t be part of your discussion.

I’ve always considered myself to be on the very left of whatever spectrum you draw up, and although everyone’s definition of liberalism and leftism is entirely subjective and indeterminate, to me, the one constant and cornerstone is freedom of expression. An increasing trend from people on the left is to ignore this cornerstone, and dogmatically defend certain ideas they hold to be absolute truth, with any dissension meaning an ignorant, and personal, attack.

Discourse is broken on the left. I know I’ve written about this in the past, but the more I see of it at Columbia and in academic circles, so-called bastions of liberalism, the sadder and scarier it is. Too many times, people justify shutting down others’ opinions or right to speak in the name of social justice, without realizing the injustice they’re doing to themselves and their cause. If you care deeply about something, the easiest reaction when you hear a challenging view is to shut it down—to be convinced that the reason for the view is ignorance or misunderstanding, and that the person holding the challenging view needs to be educated. But if you’re this passionate and convinced in what you believe in, it can blind you to the flaws in your reasoning. 

Too much of the discourse on campus is inclusive only to people who agree with one another; this accomplishes nothing. To make any headway in mitigating massive problems such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shutting down entire groups of people from the conversation will never lead to progress. The same is true with any type of discussion. True inclusiveness means accepting and working with opinions different than your own. 

Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. Rationalizing the Irrational runs alternate Mondays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com


Plain text

  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Your username will not be displayed if checked
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
missing the point posted on

Leo, you've missed the problem with the boycott completely, none of which is "an eye for an eye" or anything similar. An eye for an eye is the whole point of any boycott -- in theory, I have leverage of some sort that I can exercise to hurt you until you do what I want.

The objections to the boycott are rooted in several things:
1) The existence of Israeli universities on Israeli territory is morally legitimate. If the boycott had been exclusively of researchers and institutions residing in the settlements, the public reaction might well have been _very_ different. As an American Jew, and thus a member of the most reflexively pro-Israel group out there, I can say I probably would've supported it under those circumstances.
2) Israeli researchers have no particular influence in government (and they're leftists anyway...), so putting pressure on them will accomplish nothing but a) restricting academic freedom and b) potentially pissing off the ASA's biggest allies in Israel and persuading them that (as Netanyahu & co. believe), when push comes to shove Israel is all alone.
3) There are lots of far worse offenders out there (Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, etc.) so it's a little odd that the ASA chooses Israel of all countries to beat up on. Any sane observer looks at this and sees that anti-imperialist leftism is trumping a cool, reasoned look at the facts on the ground.
4) Israeli researchers are involved in major collaborations at universities across the United States but usually not in American Studies, so every other department looks as the American Studies department and says "seriously, you want to mess up our relationship with Hebrew University and/or Technion? Fuck off." And given that no one actually cares about American Studies (in contrast with the sciences, which bring prestige and money), the university administration tosses the ASA under the bus.
5) A huge chunk of American academia is Jewish, even within American Studies, and it's pretty much impossible to persuade them that their cousin/sibling/colleague who works in Israel should be personally singled out for their government's dumb decisions. It _reeks_ of anti-Semitism. Yeah, I know I said it's anti-imperialist leftism before, but as a Jew you can't help but wonder if there isn't a wee little bit of anti-Semitism lurking under the surface (Larry Summers, one of academia's better-known Jews, said this in almost so many words). There isn't actually, but I'm more immune to anti-Semitism-paranoia than most, and even I kinda wonder.

GAB posted on

There's been a lot of thoughtful discussion on both sides of the ASA boycott debate, and I'm a little disappointed that this column doesn't address the more nuanced points of either camp. The argument that the boycott is antithetical to free speech is one of the most generic and often-cited points brought up in this discussion, and one that's been answered by a number of different writers, including our own Judith Butler: http://www.thenation.com/article/177512/academic-freedom-and-asas-boycott-israel-response-michelle-goldberg

In a nutshell, the boycott does truly aim at increasing discussion, not limiting it. The boycott targets institutions and funding from the state, not individuals of any nationality--including Israeli scholars. Rather than go through all the points here, I'd recommend reading Butler's article.

And to address some of the other concerns, including the arguments of anti-Semitism and unfairly targeting Israel while other countries also systematically violate human rights, I would suggest reading at some of this series of essays: http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/15697/substantive-erasures_essays-on-academic-boycott-an

Your larger points about broken discourse and the same circles of partisans only speaking to each other are certainly worth saying, here and the other times you've brought them up. But in this particular case, in order to really discuss the issue at hand, it is necessary to entertain more information and more perspectives.

Julian NoiseCat posted on

Leo, the BDS movement is about the occupation. If you are really a "man of the left" maybe you should take a moment to reflect upon the incredible plight of the Palestinians, and read a little bit more about BDS from Columbia professor Judith Butler in The Nation. Thank you for saying something about this though--I swear my criticism has nothing to do with your identity as you so often fear.

SaWaS posted on

Come on, Leo, drop the John Stuart Mill act; it doesn't suit you. You know systems of oppression are not brought to their knees by "shutting opinions down" in this ideologically-neutral, egalitarian "roundtable of discussion" so cherished by the liberal imagination.

Anonymous posted on

Julian, forgive me, but the official BDS movement is not about the occupation alone, as even Norman Finkelstein (no friend of Israel) has publicly admitted. The three aims of the BDS campaign, according to its website, are for Israel to:

1) end the occupation of the lands captured in 1967,
2) recognize the full equal rights of Israel's Arab citizens, and
3) respect, protect, and promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes IN ISRAEL.

Don't get me wrong, I fully support goals 1 and 2, but goals 2 and 3 together would essentially spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state. To claim, therefore, that the BDS movement is only about the occupation is either disingenuous or misinformed. Omar Barghouti, the founder of the BDS movement has admitted as much, stating in an interview that the BDS campaign would continue even were Israel to entirely pull back to it's 1967 borders.