The American Studies Association has voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. As an American historian who worked closely with American studies colleagues in graduate school and then for two years while teaching at Harvard’s History and Literature program, I am not surprised by this “politically correct” assault on academic freedom, basic logic, and democratic decency. Nevertheless, I feel betrayed. I will now boycott the ASA. I will not sit on a panel, review a manuscript, or deal professionally with any ASA member — to broadcast my contempt for this decision and demonstrate the deleterious effect of academics boycotting one another: one bad boycott provokes others.
In graduate school, we historians joked that we ate red meat, while our fey, literary, American studies’ colleagues were the “quiche-eaters.” I remember at my first Hist and Lit meeting, being shocked at my new colleagues’ self-righteousness, superciliousness and plain silliness. Many — not all — were walking tweedy stereotypes, with overly-earnest airs, impenetrable academic prose laden with $10 words — even when trying to banter — and their prejudice against “DWM”s (Dead White Males”), an overly broad, intellectually sloppy category that assumes you can unite in any serious way Socrates, Ernest Hemingway, David Ben-Gurion, and Joe the Plumber.
So I know not to take seriously anything political the ASA members would endorse. Most are political outliers who probably would vote for the Communist Manifesto, too. Most are Blame America First fanatics, caricaturing the U.S. as only racist, sexist and (their word) “classist,” easily Blaming Israel First. These radicals erred so egregiously, starting in the 1960s, “not merely by criticizing particular government policies, but by attacking the symbols, and in extreme cases the very idea of America itself, by burning flags; [and] by blaming America for all that was wrong with the world,” as Barack Obama noted in July, 2008 warning “that there’s nothing smart or sophisticated about a cynical disregard for America’s traditions and institutions.” These people are so PC they could tolerate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s calls to exterminate America and Israel, but went ballistic when he denied there were gays in Iran.
Still, the boycott decision rankles. Predictably, it became a front-page story in The New York Times and elsewhere, thus helping to mainstream the odious attempt to ostracize the Jewish state, singling out democratic Israel while so many universities collaborate with repressive China, cash big checks from sexist Saudi Arabia and try to “deconstruct” sympathetically lethal outlaws like Iran.
This boycott continues the anti-Zionist war on academia. Most academics seek intellectual precision — yet calling Israel an apartheid state sloppily makes apartheid mean “apartness,” separation, sanitizing its ugly racial distinctions while falsely making the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians seem racial. Most scholars recognize the world’s complexity — yet regarding Israel, simplistic sloganeering and one-sided finger pointing prevail. Most intellectuals defend ideas’ permeability — yet boycotts impose harsh borders in what should be a seamless cerebral world. Most teachers applaud diversity, yet boycotts shut down debate. And most professors aspire toward scholarly objectivity, yet targeting Israel — especially given Palestinian terrorism, extremism, and authoritarianism, along with so many other countries’ crimes — reeks of bias and a particular, historic prejudice, anti-Semitism.
I hate making this argument. But how else can we explain this disproportionate, one-sided, pile-on against this one country that is also the world’s only Jewish state?
The boycott call is also politically counter-productive. It emboldens Palestinian rejectionists, enrages the Israeli right, demoralizes the center, and undermines the left. Compromise cannot occur in the lynch mob atmosphere the ASA endorsed.
The Jewish community should use this ASA boycott as a wake-up call to challenge leftist anti-Semitism rather than further scrutinizing Israel. Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught that such outrages should spotlight the unfair accusers, not the unfairly accused. Our professors, thinkers and rabbis must confront the anti-Semitism festering on the politically correct left that is starting to infect the Democratic Party. Otherwise, they risk enabling the latest form of one of the world’s oldest afflictions — Jew-bashing.
Unfortunately, this anti-Zionist war against academia is part of a broader attempt to transform academics from educators to activists, and make the universities centers of a highly politicized radical universe. Scholars, along with tuition-paying parents and students, should oppose the boycott as part of a broader fight for truth, for scholarly integrity, and for the rigorous, open-minded, knowledge-based, skill-honing, soul-stretching, higher education system America built — and still needs.
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University. His latest book, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism-as-Racism, was recently published by Oxford University Press. His next book is on Bill Clinton and the 1990s.