Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. his most recent book is Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence (2012). He is also the director of the documentary film Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists, available at bestfriendsfilm.com.
Sign the “Open Letter” calling on the MLA membership to endorse a resolution in support of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Only the signatures of (former or current) MLA members will be included.
Show Up at Macy’s!
March 27, 2016 marked the 83rd anniversary of a mass rally at Macy’s in New York City to boycott German goods. Subtracting 1933 from 2016 does not yield a round or otherwise important number, but it’s an opportunity for an edifying moment of retrospect. The Nazis had just come to power, and the rally had been called in response to the steps they immediately took—steps we now see as prophetic– against Jews in the universities and against Jewish businesses. What’s amazing to discover (I found it in D.D. Guttenplan’s compulsively readable biography of I.F. Stone, which has become even more fascinating in the miraculous months of the Bernie Sanders campaign) is how many Jewish leaders back then refused to get involved in the anti-Nazi boycott. After all, they complained, why single out Germany? Won’t innocent people, including Jews, be harmed by such a boycott? And so on.
How do you defend the ongoing theft of land for settlements, the periodic butchery of children in Gaza, the refusal to allow Palestinians on the West Bank to use the water that lies under their houses and fields?
All political action has some quotient of unpleasantness attached to it. All political action is divisive. But if you manage to step back and consider what will be most meaningful when time has gone by, meaningful to oneself and to others, it may come to seem mean-spirited to have let those up-front disadvantages make your ultimate decision for you. Demonstrating against the Nazis was worth some inconvenience. One wonders what the people who said no to that boycott came to think of their position afterwards.
Reasons for saying “no” to BDS seem to me similarly shortsighted, but that is not to say they have no merits whatsoever or that all the arguments in favor are well-chosen or watertight. “The academy is firmly planted within the structures of power and domination in Israel,” one supporter of BDS wrote recently. This is true, of course. (One thinks of the Dahiya Doctrine of disproportionate force, which premeditates the committing of war crimes against Palestinian civilians, one representative product of Israeli academic brainpower.) But leading with it may be counter-productive. Some Americans, especially those with a weakness for the “people in glass houses” objection, will immediately say that the same holds for the American academy. This is unfortunately also true. They will then conclude that what the opponents of BDS are saying is true as well: that Israel has been unfairly singled out. I don’t believe that Israel has been unfairly singled out, but in order to avoid the appearance of unfairness it is necessary to admit something that many Americans will not want to admit: that Israel is guilty of doing certain things that the United States is not doing. There are plenty of such things. Talking about them does not let America off the hook for the things it is doing. You can’t weasel out of this by implying (as other supporters of BDS do) that the only reason we are not asking for a boycott of the US as well is that the boycott would not be effective because the US is too big to boycott. Especially after 2008, we don’t want to encourage the making of “too big to” arguments.
Racism has of course not disappeared from the United States. Far from it. But racism is not explicit government policy here, as it is in Israel. One of the problems with the overuse of the epithet “racist” by the pro-BDS side is that it severely discourages any effort to compare better and worse situations. If X is racist, it’s racist, and that’s all that needs to or indeed can be said. Like being pregnant, degrees are ruled out. But this is a fight that can’t be won without allowing for a discrimination of degrees. It is a fight whose center is Israel’s greatest economic, military, and political supporter, the United States. If this fight is going to be won, it must be won by arguing that Israel, while not unique in the world, contravenes values that Americans hold dear, like human rights, values that Americans insist on, even if not always successfully, in the conduct of their own government. It is necessary to say that the government of the United States is less racist than the government of Israel and that (along with US funding, of course) is an important reason why, for all our own faults and flaws, Americans should be engaging in a boycott of Israeli institutions.
Yes, there is a legitimate anxiety that, in spite of the distinction between individuals and institutions, some hypothetical Israeli scholars might be harmed by BDS. That is possible. What is certain, on the other hand, is that Palestinian scholars are already massively and systematically being boycotted. The material circumstances of their work lives are such, what with checkpoints, visa delays and denials, and campus closures lasting weeks or months or even years, not to speak of university buildings bombed into ruins, that for them academic freedom is a joke. There is nothing to stand in the way of us doing something to stop it from being a joke. BDS is currently the best option we have.
Today, all but the most stalwart of Israel’s defenders have given up on the project of actually defending Israel’s misconduct. How do you defend the ongoing theft of land for settlements, the periodic butchery of children in Gaza, the refusal to allow Palestinians on the West Bank to use the water that lies under their houses and fields? Little remains for those who (however appalled they may be in private) refuse to speak up against such things except to attack the political forms and the vocabulary in which others do speak up. Like BDS. Or like the more general idea that the conduct of states can be judged by universal principles.
Elevated to the level of the nation, “people in glass houses” becomes the post-poststructuralist common sense that on matters like Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians, there are no principles, only exceptions. All nations are founded on acts of violence for which there is no room or justification in the legal and ethical code that violence establishes. Everyone does it, in short, so why pick on Israel? In any case, Israel’s very survival is at stake, so all rules are off. Of course what they present as a matter of life or death is really only a matter of survival as a preferred and indeed privileged identity– “as a Jewish state,” meaning a state where Jews have special privileges and non-Jews can be treated not just as second-class citizens but as if they were not there at all. It is probably not the self-conscious espousal of Carl Schmitt’s philosophy that sponsors most cries of anti-Semitism (and how ironic would that be?), but I would bet that a closet Schmittianism is operating silently and potently in many of those who can’t quite articulate their resistance to BDS but don’t mind acting as if they didn’t have a horse in the race.
This is not to say that the anti-BDS side never appeals to principle. Whenever the subject of academics’ reluctance to engage in boycotts comes up, as it will, someone will mention academic freedom and our principled investment in the free circulation of ideas. Equally characteristic of us academics, however, is a still stronger disinclination to look into the material circumstances on which academic life depends, including the injustices of access that we know are there but would much prefer not to think about. The fear is that if we did think about them, the whole enterprise would suddenly start to look untenable. It’s these material circumstances that have to be contemplated, however, if we are going to understand why academic freedom is not a good argument against BDS. Yes, there is a legitimate anxiety that, in spite of the distinction between individuals and institutions, some hypothetical Israeli scholars might be harmed by BDS. That is possible. What is certain, on the other hand, is that Palestinian scholars are already massively and systematically being boycotted. The material circumstances of their work lives are such, what with checkpoints, visa delays and denials, and campus closures lasting weeks or months or even years, not to speak of university buildings bombed into ruins, that for them academic freedom is a joke. There is nothing to stand in the way of us doing something to stop it from being a joke. BDS is currently the best option we have.