A few weeks ago, the members of the American Studies Association have voted in favor of boycotting Israel. In their words, they refuse “to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others), or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.”
Many American universities vocally opposed this boycott. The Executive Committee of the Association of American Universities, which includes Duke President Richard Brodhead, issued a statement that urged “American scholars and scholars around the world who believe in academic freedom to oppose this and other such academic boycotts.” Nevertheless, one cannot ignore this growing phenomenon, which started a few years back in the United Kingdom, and quickly expanded to the United States, Canada, Australia and many other countries. David Lloyd, a professor of English at the University of California at Riverside, recently argued “…you’ll see over the next year more and more academic associations taking up this issue.”
One might ask, what is wrong with these boycotts? Israel violates human rights in the Palestinian Authority, and if we boycott them, as we boycotted South Africa in the past, they will opt for peace. Not only is this statement wrong by making ludicrous comparisons between two very different situations and countries, it fails to recognize the hypocrisy of such a boycott and its counterproductive effects.
Why are these boycotts hypocritical? According to the U.S.-based NGO “Freedom House,” Israel is the only country in its region that ranks as “free,” the highest ranking possible. Indeed, the autonomies of the West Bank and Gaza Strip rank low in this research, but much of it is due to the fact the first is controlled by the corrupt Palestine Liberation Organization and the second by the fundamentalist terrorist group Hamas. Nevertheless, these territories still rank higher than countries such as China and Saudi Arabia. When asked why they are boycotting only Israel when there are countries that have much worse human rights conditions, ASA President Curtis Marez said, “…you need to start somewhere.” Some might argue it is easier to boycott a small country like Israel with no natural resources or global economic impact. Others might have a more disturbing approach, such as Harvard President Larry Summers who described Israeli boycotts as “anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.”
Why are the boycotts counterproductive? The goal of these boycotts is to pressure the Israeli government to disengage from the West Bank and lead to a two-state solution. Unfortunately, by boycotting Israeli academic institutions and Israeli professors, they are weakening the voice of the moderates in Israel. The public in Israel often views its academia as a proponent of peace and human rights, and silencing it only serves the desires of Jewish religious extremists, a minority in Israel, who oppose a two-state solution. As far as these extremists are concerned, the less connections and interrelations Israel has with the rest of the world, the better. As the biblical verse states: “The [Jewish] people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.”
It is important to note that most Israelis view these boycotts as anti-Semitic actions. Therefore, boycotts on Israel lead many Israelis to believe that the extremists might have been right, and that America and the West are not to be trusted. Since Israel is a democracy, public support is crucial to achieving peace. If American academic institutions truly want to protect human rights and international law in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, their best option is to support, rather than boycott, Israeli institutions and scholars who advocate a two-state solution.
Aviv Canaani is a second-year MBA student at the Fuqua School of Business and formerly a senior advisor to a member of the Israeli parliament.