Beechert: Backward Boycott

by Michael Beechert | 1/7/14 8:04pm

I don’t believe in boycotts. I understand the general idea — a group of people attempts to bring about some form of change through widespread abstention or dissociation. But practically, national and international boycotts, like the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions, almost never work. In fact, boycotts are often counterproductive, because opponents to the boycott can be galvanized to support the business or institution in question.

The boycotts that amass the most attention involve the freedom of speech. This right, above all other provisions of the Constitution, is the sacred cow of American democracy. Any perceived or actual transgressions on the right of an individual to express his or her beliefs are met with swift and reactionary public response — just consider the recent “Duck Dynasty” debacle. Sometimes these responses involve boycotts. And when you add a sensitive issue like free speech to the attention-getting boycott tactic, you create a perfect storm of impassioned publicity, political opportunism and conflicting values.

It is this relationship between boycotts and free speech that makes the association's stand against Israeli academic institutions so disturbing. The association’s boycott against Israeli universities protests “the illegal occupation of Palestine, the infringements of the right to education of Palestinian students and the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.” Standing for academic freedom is simply an endorsement of the vague and difficult concept of free speech. The association’s boycott, then, takes a principled stand against the transgression of a cherished right.

Putting aside the faulty assumptions used to justify the boycott, what exactly is such an action supposed to accomplish? Would it antagonize Israeli scholars? Probably. Would it stem the flow of people and ideas between the association’s members and Israeli institutions? Almost definitely. Would it serve to chiefly punish students, who have no impact on Israeli policy regarding the Palestinian minority? Unfortunately. Not only is this boycott antithetical to the principles of academic freedom that the association itself invoked, it cannot effect any sort of change in the Israeli government’s behavior.

I can imagine that many of the several hundred association members who are boycott signatories realize this. And if freedom of speech is so dear to the signatories, where is their protest of the treatment of Jews or Christians in certain Muslim countries? Nowhere, of course. The actual reason for the boycott, then, might be one of a few things. Perhaps it is a manifestation of some sort of anti-Semitism. Perhaps the association, which has fewer than 5,000 members, craves some publicity. Or perhaps the boycott is just another effort by certain far-leftists in American academia to land a punch on one of their favorite targets — big, bad Israel.

Fortunately, President Hanlon, along with the leaders of many other prominent universities, offered a public endorsement of academic freedom following the association’s boycott. Unfortunately, two Dartmouth faculty members — history professor Russell Rickford and Native American studies professor Bruce Duthu — have endorsed the measure. Sure, they have the right to make their opinions public — the freedom of speech, after all, should not discriminate. But these opinions endorse a meaningless rallying cry that does more harm than good, which is shameful. The widespread condemnation of the boycott by the academic community, however, is an important defense to an actual assault on academic freedom — one being committed by the association, not Israel.

This article has been updated to reflect the following correction:Correction appended: January 8, 2014The original version of this piece did not fully identify the American Studies Association on first reference. For clarity, the column has been revised.