Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On the Academic Boycott of Israel and the Current Georgetown Brouhaha

The Magnes Zionist has never written a post on the attempts of individuals in the United Kingdom to organize boycotts of Israeli universities, or of Israeli academics. That is because the matter has been endlessly discussed (a brief summary of the arguments appears below), and I have little to add. But events at Georgetown U have convinced me to weigh in.

In 2005 I heard the boycott discussed at al-Quds university in Jerusalem by a panel that included Hilary Rose, one of its main proponents, and activists and academics from Israel, Palestine, and abroad. (The event was sponsored by the Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which organizes excellent fact-finding missions for faculty to Israel-Palestine; see their website here.) My impression was that most of the attendees were not convinced by Dr. Rose’s presentation. This was before the British Association of University Teachers issued a more focused boycott of Bar Ilan and Haifa Universities. The boycott resolution created an uproar, and was subsequently canceled. Last May, the congress of the newly-formed University and College Union in the UK, after condemning Israeli activities toward the Palestinian, decided to circulate among its members a call by Palestinian trade unions to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Last month, citing legal difficulties in implementing its decision, the UCU decided to shelve action on the boycott issue, while allowing for debate on Israel’s policies.

It is difficult to get many academics, even strong critics of Israel, to support the boycott, both for reasons of principle (academic freedom, fear that it constitutes collective punishment) and of tactics (the ineffectiveness of the boycotts, which usually are canceled after prominent intellectuals and groups weigh in on the other side.) By stressing analogies with academic boycotts of South Africa, the boycotters invite two objections: first, that the situation in Israel is not sufficiently comparable to apartheid of South Africa, and second, that the academic boycott of South Africa was not really effective in helping to end apartheid. The response to this is that the situation in Israel-Palestine is as bad as or worse than it was in South Africa, and that academics as a guild should focus on academia, especially since Israeli universities are implicated in the machinery of the Occupation.

I do not support the academic boycott of Israel, mostly because I think it is a counterproductive tactic. I believe strongly in academic freedom, but I am not an absolutist; there are times when academic freedom can and should be restricted, if it will help stop the restriction of even more fundamental freedoms. Under certain circumstances, an academic boycott, like sanctions of all sorts, can be justified – the question is what circumstances, and whether the time is ripe. And my feeling is that the time is not ripe for an effective boycott. Perhaps it never will be.

Franz Rosenzweig, the Jewish philosopher, was once asked if he put on tefillin (“phylacteries”). His reply was, “Not yet.” That is the answer I give to people when they ask me whether I support the academic boycott.

On the other hand, I will not condemn supporters of the boycott or deny that they have done some good. They have drawn attention to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and they have done so in the name of principles that I accept. I do not question their motives or the intentions, only the practical wisdom of what they are doing. I will, if necessary, express my objections to the boycott, but I will not vilify the boycotters.

Which brings me to the current Georgetown brouhaha…

Last summer, the American Jewish Committee sponsored an ad in the New York Times that included a statement by Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, and which was endorsed by many other university presidents, including my own. The letter criticized the UCU for “advancing a boycott” (which it didn’t; it merely called for discussion of the boycott). Bollinger’s statement was seriously flawed in two ways: it said nothing of the context of the British protest against Israeli academic institutions, and, worse, it characterized the attempts at boycotting as “intellectually shoddy and politically biased.” Thus Bollinger went far beyond opposing the boycott on the principle of academic freedom; he implicitly took a pro-Israel stand, which is why the American Jewish Committee seized upon it and started to marshal support among other university presidents.

Note that the university presidents were asked to endorse Bollinger’s statement rather then sign a petition using Bollinger’s language. The difference is subtle, but the former allowed them to go on record opposing the boycott without having to be bound to the statement’s pro-Israel sentiments. But at least for one Georgetown university professor, the endorsement was bad enough. Louis Michael (Mike) Seidman, Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Constitutional Law at Georgetown Law School, has written an open letter to President DeGoia, criticizing him for endorsing the Bollinger statement. The full text of the Seidman letter is cited below. Seidman has not been allowed to disseminate his letter to the Georgetown community using the university email or materials. Now that all this is public, he won't need them.

There is a third way between boycotting and not boycotting – and that is the way of critical engagement. No, I am not talking about the type of engagement preached by the “Engage” crowd, a liberal Zionist group in the UK whose main task is to take on the “new anti-Semitism” (boogah-boogah). I mean engaging Israelis and challenging them to conform to their self-image of a civilized and humane democracy. I am always surprised when I meet critics of Israel who tell me that they have not been to Israel nor do they plan to go, on principle. That seems to me an easy way out, not Rachel Corrie’s way, or Jeff Halper’s way, or the way of Machsom Watch or Breaking the Silence.

Go to Israel and Palestine, witness for yourself the human rights violations, become an activist or support an organization – and then write, and talk, and spread the word – not just to the world but to the Israelis themselves. That is a lot better than an ineffectual and counterproductive boycott.

Here is Prof. Seidman’s letter:

Dear President DeGoia:

As an American, a Jew, and a member of the Georgetown faculty for over half my life, I want you to know how disappointed I am that you signed the full-page advertisement that appeared in the New York Times on August 8. I am even more disappointed in the way that you have behaved in the weeks since the advertisement appeared.

The advertisement criticized the boycott of Israeli universities in the most vitriolic and unbalanced fashion imaginable. Instead of reasoned debate about the issue, it resorted to name-calling, characterizing supporters of the boycott as "intellectually shoddy" and "politically biased."

My own view is that at this point in history, a boycott of major Israeli institutions might play a useful role in undermining disastrous Israeli policies, much as the boycott of major South African institutions did a generation ago.

I can nonetheless understand how reasonable people might disagree with this assessment, and your mere opposition to the boycott would not have caused me to write this letter. I do not understand how you could have signed a statement opposing the boycott without any acknowledgment of the actions that gave rise to it in the first place. The statement you endorsed makes no reference to the suffering of the Palestinian people, to Israeli defiance of international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions, to the racism that pervades Israeli society, to Israel's provocative and arrogant insistence that it, alone among Middle Eastern countries, has the right to maintain nuclear weapons, or to the way in which Israeli policies endanger international peace.

To sign a statement condemning the boycott without mentioning any of this is to take a side on a contested political issue. It is to ally oneself with those who deny that these things are true or who minimize their importance. It is analogous to signing a statement condemning the founding of the state of Israel without mentioning The Holocaust.

In the weeks following your signature on the advertisement, you generously agreed to meet with me about it. In our meeting, you stated that you agreed that the advertisement was unbalanced and that it did not accurately reflect your views. You also stated that you believed that corrective action on your part was necessary. You promised that you would get back to me about the nature of the corrective action within two weeks.

Today, I received a letter from you quoting from your statement at a town hall meeting. I can't imagine that you suppose that the statement does anything to undo the damage that you caused with your signature on the advertisement. The statement does no more than to reiterate in marginally more temperate language your determination not to support the boycott. Once again, it completely ignores the tragic suffering of Palestinians and Israeli responsibility for that suffering.

As I have already indicated, I believe that a boycott of Israeli institutions is the most forceful way to communicate our disapproval of Israeli policies. I can understand why a person might believe, as you apparently do, that engagement with those institutions, would be more productive. If we are going to engage, however, I would have thought that we have a special responsibility to frankly and vigorously confront our engagement partners with our disapproval of their conduct. Surely, engagement is useless or worse if it consists of nothing but support for the oppressors against the oppressed. I am afraid this is what your statements so far have amount to. Such support is unworthy of the President of this great University. I strongly urge you to reconsider.


Louis Michael Seidman

Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Constitutional Law

1 comment:

Richard said...

Has this story been covered by the Georgetown campus paper? I'd love to read a story giving all the background.

Also, I love that Franz Rosenzweig story. It's one of the top 50 great Jewish sayings of all time perhaps.