The Anti-Israel Left Suffers a Rare, Close, and Welcome Defeat in Academia

BDS protest in Melbourne, Australia, 2010. (Wikimedia)
The American Anthropological Association votes ‘no’ on a BDS resolution.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) voted yesterday against a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. In recent years, these types of resolutions have been passed by three academic associations — none of which represent fields of study related to Israel — so the AAA’s decision is a welcome counterpoint to a worrying trend.

Such resolutions are advanced as endorsements of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Among the defining features of BDS are the labeling of Israel as an apartheid state, the notion that its existence is an insidious instance of colonialism, and an unyielding belief in the Palestinian right of return. Academic associations that endorse BDS tend do so as part of a post-colonial impulse.

It’s hogwash. In backing BDS, leftist academics violate the very principles that the academy ought to represent. It is one thing for a professor to make a scholarly argument against Israel’s building of settlements in the West Bank, for instance. It is quite another to prohibit members of an academic association from cooperating with an Israeli university. Academic freedom is hurt by these boycotts, not promoted.

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Further, the academic argument for these resolutions is reductive: It replaces the immense complexity of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict with a simple but ahistorical narrative of displacement. To assert that Arabs are exclusively indigenous to the land in question is to deny the ancient connection between that land and the Jewish people. Academics from Asian-American studies, indigenous studies, and American studies — the three disciplines whose associations have voted “yes” to BDS — provide a textbook example of willful ignorance.

So the AAA’s “no” vote, though close (2,423 to 2,384), shows that at least some academics are staying honest.

It also might be evidence of backlash to American academia’s obsession with Israel. In a recently filed lawsuit, the American Studies Association (ASA) is accused of violating its corporate charter when it passed its boycott resolution. The lawsuit’s plaintiffs are four professors of American studies who left when the ASA backed BDS. (Disclosure: My father is among these plaintiffs.) Their legal team includes the Louis D. Brandeis Center and the legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich. Perhaps news of the lawsuit scared members of the AAA; perhaps not. Perhaps the lawsuit will succeed; perhaps not. In any case, it demonstrates that boycott resolutions have nontrivial consequences.

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BDS resolutions showcase a bizarre anti-Israel fetishism within certain academic disciplines. Why not pass resolutions boycotting academic institutions in legitimately oppressive states? The ineluctable but unnerving answer is that the professed concern for human rights contained in these boycotts is cover for a leftist political campaign to delegitimize Israel.

But there is something far more disturbing about the way academia embraces BDS. Disciplines in which anti-Israel sentiment is most common come from the cultural-studies line. There, orthodoxy demands denial of legitimacy to states whose history is colonial. Looking for the silver lining, the pro-BDS faction of the AAA cites a “ground-breaking report by a AAA Task Force recognizing the settler-colonial practices of the Israeli government.” The post-colonial instinct is to see indigeneity as the true marker of legitimate sovereignty.

#related#This is radical. While the classical tradition contends that states are legitimated by representative government and preserved through a structure of law, this new orthodoxy pretends that such institutions are inherently polluted, and therefore illegitimate, because the settlers who erected political structures drove out indigenous people. Such displacement is historical fact in many countries, both Western and non-Western, but it hardly constitutes sufficient reason to throw away the benefits of modern democratic institutions. Academics who support BDS resolutions show their true convictions: They trade John Locke for Edward Said.

BDS in academia should be resisted, so the AAA’s vote ought to be applauded. It is too soon to say whether, when taken in conjunction with the lawsuit, it constitutes an effective countervailing force against BDS. But it is not too soon to hope that it does.

Theodore Kupfer is an intern at National Review.


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