Last November anthropologists attending the AAA business meeting in Denver voted by an astounding 1040-136 to endorse the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, but this was just a resolution to put the boycott to a vote, not an actual endorsement of that boycott by the entire AAA membership. The actual voting is now taking place by electronic ballot. It started on April 15th and lasts until May 31. For this reason it is crucial that all AAA members, whether or not they support the boycott, vote to make their voices heard in this historic decision. Because each update to the AAA website seems to make it even more difficult to navigate, please read this useful guide on how to vote.
A running joke in the 2009 movie Up is that the otherwise intelligent talking dog gets distracted by squirrels, forgetting everything it was saying whenever it sees one.
Opponents of the AAA resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions attempt to similarly distract progressive academics by shouting “Tibet!” or “Saudi Arabia!” whenever the topic of Palestine comes up. Judging from the posts on my Facebook timeline, it seems that academics aren’t much better at ignoring these distractions than the squirrel loving dog in Up.
But is this even an argument? Just think for a moment about how this logic would work if applied to other topics: Why are you brushing your teeth when your feet are still dirty? Why are you reading that book on Russia when there are books on Nigeria to be read? Why are you fighting against the gender pay gap among white collar workers when there are women workers working for next to nothing in Bangladesh? Why are you fighting for indigenous people’s rights in Canada when there are children dying of malnutrition in Haiti? While it is somewhat true that we necessarily prioritize our actions, we are not limited to taking one and only one form of political action at a time. Nor do we prioritize which action to take by weighing up all the various causes in the world and ranking them from least to worse. Progressive academics are often engaged in multiple struggles simultaneously (regular readers of this blog know about my concern with India’s DNTs and indigenous rights in Taiwan) and often engage in those struggles for a wide variety of reasons other than the gravity of the wrongs being committed.
But what really galls me about this line of reasoning is how selectively it is applied. It is only applied as an argument against challenges to the occupation, never as a reason for challenging those policies that help maintain the occupation. Where are these objections when reading headlines about how “Israel Receives More Than Half of US Global Military Aid“? (Which amounts to “American taxpayers giving Israel $10.2 million per day.) If peace in the Middle East is really such a low level problem, why are we giving them such outsized military support? Shouldn’t anyone genuinely committed to a world view in which political action ought to be allocated according to a ranked list of global issues be thus motivated to protest these extraordinary expenditures? Except they are not motivated by any such a belief system. It is just a diversion tactic. As the Middle East Monitor put it:
in reality, Israel is ‘singled out’, but for diplomatic protection and impunity, military partnerships and aid, preferential trade deals, and institutional and governmental cooperation.
Lost in all of this (deliberately so) is the fact that there is actually a very good argument to be made for boycotting Israel as opposed to every single other country whose policies we find objectionable: Palestinian peace activists have called for a boycott. That’s right, the BDS movement was called for by “a clear majority of Palestinian civil society“:
The BDS call was endorsed by over 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions and movements. The signatories represent the refugees, Palestinians in the OPT, and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
This is enormously important to me for two reasons. For one thing, I don’t think boycotts can be effective if they are imposed top-down by outside groups. Boycotts are most effective when they work in support of, and in coordination with, grassroots movements, as was the case with the South Africa boycott which was called for by the African National Congress. Oh, and speaking of South Africa, does this sound familiar?
Why is South Africa so harshly condemned while completely different standards apply to black Africa? Despite human rights violations in Zaire, President Bush applauds Mr. Muboto for his contribution in the Angola talks, while mentioning the atrocities in South Africa.
The second reason why I believe the involvement of Palestinian civil society organizations is crucially important is in response to those who claim it is just a “feel-good” gesture that serves no purpose other than to sooth our own egos. But nothing could be further from the truth. Although it is impossible to tell what the long-term consequences will be (just as it is hard to tell how important the South African boycott was for the eventual overthrow of Apartheid), it is the tactic that was chosen by Palestinians and we are doing it to support them in their struggle.
This raises another important question, one that critics rarely bother to answer: what else could the Palestinians do? As Corey Robin put it:
The Palestinians have tried four decades of armed revolt, three decades of peace negotiations, two intifadas, and seven decades of waiting. They have taken up BDS as a non-violent tactic, precisely the sort of thing that liberal-minded critics have been calling upon them to do for years (where is the Palestinian Gandhi and all that). So now you say BDS is bad too. Fine. What would you have the Palestinians—and their international supporters—do instead?
In short, I believe that the boycott movement is one of the best tools available to Palestinians, and I believe the fact that they have called upon their allies to endorse this tactic is sufficient reason to do so. Assuming you support their cause, that is. Obviously not everyone does – but the concern-trolling criticisms addressed above are always made by people who claim to support Palestinians in their struggle.
In this post I have still not addressed one issue about the use of a boycott as a tactic which I think deserves serious discussion: the targeting of academic institutions by the boycott. While many of the most common objections to a specifically academic boycott have been covered in posts like Dialogue vs. BDS? Responding to arguments against an academic boycott of Israel and Myths and Facts About the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, I think more can be said on the topic, so that will be the focus of my next post.