I had to go to college to realize not all professors are smart.
Yet I don’t think any UC teacher I had was silly enough to vote in favor of the American Studies Association’s ostracism of Israeli scholars under the pretense that an “academic boycott promotes dialogue and collaboration.”
Alas, that is one reason why Sunaina Maira, a member of the ASA Council and a professor of Asian American studies at UC Davis, told me she supports her group’s boycott.
A large motivator in the American Studies Association’s decision to forbid its members to collaborate with scholars at universities in Israel is impenitent prejudice.
They will point to particular problems they have with Israeli policies, but no attempt whatsoever is made to compare Israel’s human rights record with that of any other country in that part of the world. In the past 5,000 years, no place in the Middle East has a better record than Israel has when it comes to democracy, civil rights and human rights. No country. Ever.
I don’t suggest Israel is perfect. Far from it. Israel deserves blame for many things, including its allowance of illegal settlements in the West Bank. Instead of promoting peace, these outposts have provoked conflict, harmed innocents and made it hard for moderate Palestinian voices to be heard.
The ASA action, however, is not a statement of principle against the Israeli government. It is a boycott of academics who work at schools like Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute of Science.
The American Studies Association has never voted to boycott schools in any other land. When Russia was slaughtering tens of thousands of Chechens who were fighting for their independence, the ASA was silent. Chechnya today is a hell hole compared with Israel and Palestine. But the ASA is mum.
It has been equally quiet regarding China’s ongoing brutalization of Tibet. No country in the world has a worse human rights record than North Korea. But the ASA has no boycott on Pyongyang’s scholars.
I asked Diane Wolf, a professor of sociology and the director of the Jewish Studies Program at UCD, what she thought of the ASA’s move.
“I am very much against a boycott of Israeli academics and of Israeli universities,” Wolf explained. “It is crucial for Americans to be exposed to Israeli academics so that they understand there exists a multiplicity of voices in Israel.”
Professor Wolf is not alone in her condemnation. Even the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, opposes boycotts. Last month, while attending the funeral for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Abbas was asked if he supported the ASA action.
“No, we do not support the boycott of Israel,” he said. Abbas does favor a boycott of exports from Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
I asked Professor Maira to explain why her group picked out Israel alone. “The ASA responded to the call from Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as an act of anti-colonial and anti-racist solidarity …,” she said.
That excuse fails every test of common decency.
Her group does not decide whom to boycott, but waits for individuals calling themselves “civil society” to appeal to the ASA for a shunning of certain academics? If so, the ASA could never take up the cause of people suffering far more in places like Iran, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Turkmenistan, where regime victims have no civil rights.
Another reason the ASA hates Israel is because the United States is its ally.
Maira explained, “Israel is the largest single recipient of U.S. financial and military aid and receives unconditional U.S. diplomatic and political support. It is the only country in the world that receives $3 billion annually from the U.S. Moreover, the U.S. has singled out Israel for exceptional impunity in protecting it in the U.N., despite its ongoing failures to comply with international law.”
Even if all that were true and its enemies were not determined to erase Israel from the map, it does not follow that American professors should shun Israel’s scholars. The logical rejoinder is that the ASA should speak out against American policy.
Maira claims that “the Israeli state has been largely exempt from criticism of its human rights abuses, unlike, say China, North Korea, etc. A double standard has long been applied to Israel’s human rights violations in the U.S. mainstream media and state policy.”
It does not seem to have occurred to her that rights violations committed by Israel do not compare to those in slave states like North Korea? Has she any idea what life is like in Camp 14?
The true double standard, Ms. Maira, is the failure of the ASA to condemn the far more serious human rights abuses in all the countries in Israel’s neighborhood. Where was the ASA last year when Egypt’s Islamist government was promoting murderous attacks on Christians?
So far, five institutions — Bard College, Brandeis University, Indiana University, Kenyon College and Penn State Harrisburg — have quit the ASA in response to its bigoted boycott.
Carolyn A. Martin, president of Amherst College, shares the sentiments expressed by all fair-minded university leaders, saying, “Such boycotts threaten academic speech and exchange, which it is our solemn duty as academic institutions to protect.”
If UC Davis has any integrity, it too should withdraw from the American Studies Association. Unfortunately, being prejudiced against Israel is a popular position among puerile professors.
— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. His full interviews with Sunaina Maira and Diane Wolf are available at http://lexicondaily.blogspot.com