The Israel Boycott

By Wendy Kaminer       

        Last month, a British union of college and university professors called for a boycott of Israeli academics, revitalizing a vituperative debate.  The presidents of NYU, Columbia, and Yeshiva University have strongly protested the proposed boycott, which is officially opposed by the American Association of University Professors.  Last year, the AAUP issued a statement affirming and explaining its opposition to academic boycotts in general and a targeted boycott of Israeli universities in particular.

        Academic boycotts pose obvious threats to free speech and the exchange of ideas:  “(P)lainly the search for truth and its free expression suffer if a boycott is in place,” the AAUP report stressed.  But, not surprisingly, this general proposition doesn’t impress people who condemn Israel as a brutally oppressive, racist state that systematically denies Palestinians basic rights and freedoms, including educational rights, with the tacit support of Israeli academics.  In their view, extending what are framed as academic courtesies to Israelis effectively “privileges” the speech rights of oppressors over myriad human rights of the oppressed.  So, the debate about the boycott inevitably entails comparisons of Israel to the former regime of South Africa – comparisons that Israel’s defenders dismiss as anti-Semitic.

        Is it possible to stand for or against the boycott proposal without staking out a position on the merits of this case against Israel (or the charge of anti-Semitism?)  I think so. Assuming that Israel is not Nazi Germany (as its most extreme critics charge) but accepting for the sake of argument some comparisons of Israel to South Africa, I’d still oppose the boycott (partly for reasons expressed in the AAUP report.)  And I’m troubled by the way some self-identified civil libertarians critical of Israel dismiss the threats that boycotts pose to free speech.

        Some stress the obvious – that private groups have the right to engage in boycotts – ignoring the potential influence of private boycotts on the marketplace of ideas.  Hollywood studios had the legal right to engage in blacklisting in the 1950’s and private universities had the legal right to require loyalty oaths of professors, but I know of no civil libertarian today who would defend McCarthyism or deny its effect on the exercise of speech and associational rights. 

        (Lamenting excesses of the past is always easier than standing up to them in the present: For instance, it took some 30 years for the ACLU to acknowledge and apologize for the fact that ACLU officials cooperated with the FBI and even informed on ACLU activists during the McCarthy years; perhaps 20 years from now, the ACLU will apologize for its post 9/11 complicity in government blacklisting.)

        In any case, it’s not hard to imagine that people arguing against the free speech interests threatened by an academic boycott of Israel would be arguing in favor of those interests if confronted with a proposed boycott of gay, socialist, Muslim, Cuban, or Iranian scholars (name your category.)  In fact, human rights are best served not by boycotting writers and scholars from repressive regimes, like Iran, but by engaging them, or by aiding them with fellowships and teaching jobs.

        Finally, academic boycotts impart troubling messages to students.  We cannot expect them to grow into citizens who will appreciate and protect free speech and association if they’ve been taught to blacklist politically unpopular groups.  (Indeed, proponents of the Israel boycott describe it as a moral imperative.)  Students are already encouraged by speech and “anti-harassment” codes not to speak freely; boycotts would encourage them not to listen.

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