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Hysterical responses to academic boycott

Palestinian students protest outside their school in the occupied West Bank village of Sawya on 20 October 2010, after Israeli settlers set fire to it. Photo by Wagdi Eshtayah / APA images

Ten things we’ve learned about opposition to academic boycott

By Steven Salaita, Electronic Intifada
Januay 14, 2014

With four scholarly associations in the past year articulating support for the academic boycott of Israel, it seems a good time to review the major responses that have emerged in opposition.

The boycott movement shows no sign of slowing, so periodic assessment is a useful way to evaluate political moods and to highlight the spectacular inconsistencies of logic and ethics that define anti-boycott activism.

Academic boycott – along with its partners, divestment and sanctions – serves the greater goal of Palestinian decolonization.

No matter the specific nature of the argument, all negative responses to boycott illustrate a profound discomfort with that possibility.

Here are ten things we have learned amid the intense debate:

1. Zionists have few substantive arguments against academic boycott; in turn, they resort to intimidation

In the absence of facts and policies that would absolve Israel of its violence, most opponents of boycott deploy the age-old methods of sloganeering, shouting down opponents and litigious grandstanding.

For defenders of Israeli colonization, hysteria arises where imagination fails.

2. Corporate media are silent when Israel kills Palestinians, but eagerly cover criticism of Israel

The press attention to boycott has been, on the balance, a positive development, but it is crucial to remember that the narrative of a besieged Israel reveals a profound disdain for the Palestinian people.

Major newspapers – The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal – have vigorously recapitulated Zionist talking points while marginalizing anybody who might present a more measured or factual analysis.

Even Democracy Now’s coverage of the boycott movement has been substandard.

3. The perception of Palestinian nationalism as a popular anticolonial movement and Zionism as a symbol of the power structure is stronger than ever

This binary has always existed and in its broadest forms it is accurate, but it has been reinforced by the fact that the most vocal opponents of boycott are university presidents, politicians, professional propagandists and functionaries of private wealth like Larry Summers.

4. Zionists are terrified – and they should be

We’ll not know for some time the extent of the influence of these boycott resolutions (along with others currently working their way through governance at various associations).

We do know that Zionist forces from campus groups to the Israeli government have mobilized to prevent further momentum.

Few people are more histrionic than a desperate Zionist. Of all the horrible things that befall people, none generates such hysteria as that of a political or economic elite threatened with a loss of power.

We are seeing this process in action. I am uninterested in prognostication, but I feel comfortable saying the days of near-complete fealty to Israel in American political discourse are almost over.

5. Until forced to answer to their actual beliefs, most academics are world-class dissimulators

If they’re not dissimulating, they’re angrily denouncing the gall of audacious upstarts doing stuff without their leadership or approval.

One of the great features of boycott is its demand that people who are accustomed to hiding behind the sanitizing power of nuance and objectivity make a concrete choice.

Israel has always had a special ability to expose the furtive racists and colonial agents within progressive and radical communities.

Academic boycott has accelerated the exposure, nowhere more effectively than in the case of ostensible freedom-lover Cary Nelson, past president of the American Association of University Professors, whose performance the past two months has been nothing less than shameful.

6. Critical race theorists (and Eric Lott) were right about liberal intellectuals

A key tenet of critical race theory is that racism is a structural phenomenon that cannot be dislodged by the liberal pieties of tolerance and dialogue.

Israel is a good test-case for the existence of structural racism because Zionism so readily coheres to other forms of white supremacy.

Along with Nelson, scholars known for liberal-left commitments — for example, Todd Gitlin, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Richard Slotkin, Sean Wilentz, and Laura Kalman — have proved themselves unwilling to challenge the colonial paradigms in which structural racism flourishes.

Israel is a practitioner and beneficiary of American state violence, an indisputable reality many liberal intellectuals submerge beneath high-minded praise of Western exceptionalism.

7. Fear of boycott is often a form of demographic anxiety

Zionism has long been a strong voice of colonial authority in American universities, participating in discourses that inform majoritarian angst.

Just as Israeli Jews are obsessed with balances of demography, an unacknowledged form of eugenics, some commenters see the boycott of Israel as a symbol of the subaltern invasion of the academy.

If people of color are left to their own devices, all kinds of wicked things will ensue.

8. Everybody is against “the occupation,” but nobody wants to do anything about it

I encountered this phenomenon many years ago when a delegation of students brought a divestment proposal to the faculty senate of the university where I worked at the time.

Over ten of my loudly liberal colleagues turned up to contest the proposal. One of them beseeched the senate with a line I’m certain exists in the first chapter of a secret book distributed by Abe Foxman’s minions, Defending Israel for Dummies (with an introduction by Eric Alterman): “I’m against the occupation, but this proposal is disingenuous because it singles out Israel.”

One of the students replied, “Well, if you’re against the occupation, then why won’t you do anything about it?” That inquiry, as always, was greeted by the contemptuous silence of institutional power.

And so it remains. Corey Robin’s pertinent question to boycott critics has not yet been satisfactorily answered: “What do you propose as an alternative strategy?

9. Criticizing Israel is still “anti-Semitic”

It’s the rejoinder that never dies. Quite beyond its stupidity, this argument is dangerous and logically risible. It alters the fundamental meaning of anti-Semitism from something noxious to something honorable.

10. Academic freedom is a red herring (and available only to those who defend Israel)

There has never been academic freedom for supporters of Palestinian liberation in any era of American higher education.

Until one of the heroes screaming “academic freedom” can produce but a single line he or she has written in support of Ilan Pappe, Teddy Katz, Joseph Massad, Nadia Abu El-Haj, Neve Gordon, David Shorter, and the thousands of Palestinian students and faculty who have been mistreated in Israeli academe for no reason other than their ethnicity, or until one of these champions of academic freedom decries the hundreds of closures of Palestinian universities, then I’ll feel free to treat the entire concept as a rhetorical distraction.

Steven Salaita is an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech. He is the author of six books and writes frequently about Arab Americans, Palestine, Indigenous Peoples, and decolonization. His current book project is entitled Images of Arabs and Muslims in the Age of Obama.

Steven grew up in Bluefield, Virginia, to a mother from Nicaragua (by way of Palestine) and a father from Madaba, Jordan.

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