As a Vassar alumna, I was proud to see Vassar’s President and Dean of Faculty—along with over 230 other universities and colleges—denounce the boycott of Israeli academic institutions adopted by the American Studies Association (ASA). But because so much misinformation is spread about the goals of this boycott and about Israel itself, I am compelled to write.
Academic boycotts are, to put it simply, a bad idea. They are antithetical to the fundamental values underlying our academic institutions, most spectacularly, the free and open exchange of ideas. Some proponents argue that the ASA academic boycott is acceptable because it is restricted only to “formal institutional” interactions, suggesting that Israeli scholars will be free as ever to collaborate with their counterparts in the United States. This is impractical. How, for example, does an Israeli professor become a visiting professor at an American college without some institutional interaction?
Even more telling, though, is the manner in which the ASA presented and passed its resolution. It would allow only pro-boycott views to be posted on the ASA website and refused several members’ requests to air their opposing views. Similarly, another academic association that considered adopting an anti-Israel boycott, the Modern Language Association (MLA), refused to include pro-Israel speakers in its panel or sponsor a panel that would present opposing views.
Why are these boycott proponents (led by the BDS movement) so afraid of being challenged? Because their rhetoric does not bear factual scrutiny. Using all the popular buzzwords, they assert that Israel is an apartheid, colonialist state that mistreats its Arab population. But Israeli Arabs not only have the same rights as other Israeli citizens (and can and do attend the same universities, hospitals, and recreational places), they also have active roles in the government. Israeli Arabs hold 12 seats out of 120 in the parliament, and an Israeli Arab serves on its Supreme Court. As for the colonialism canard, Jews lived continuously in Israel centuries before its UN-sanctioned creation in 1948. And, those who came in waves of immigration (both before and after the Holocaust) were not claiming land for foreign powers but rather escaping those powers and the anti-Semitic restrictions placed on them.
Boycott proponents would rather focus on the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, two areas that Israel captured in a defensive war in 1967, neither of which constituted a Palestinian state previously. (Gaza was controlled by Egypt and the West Bank by Jordan). Israel unilaterally dismantled its settlements and withdrew from Gaza in 2005; its reward has been periodic pounding by thousands of rockets under the leadership of Hamas, a terrorist organization that also persecutes gays, deprives women of basic rights, and executes perceived traitors without trials. (Yet Judith Butler, a prominent BDS proponent who spoke at Vassar last spring, has characterized Hamas as “progressive”) . As for the so-called “apartheid wall,” it is a security fence that exists solely to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel as they did in 1990-2008 (killing hundreds of civilians). It has achieved that goal; Suicide bombing has been reduced by over 90 percent. Notably, when Palestinians complained that part of the security wall was built on their land, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in their favor and declared that portions of the wall had to be torn down and rebuilt, which was done.
The Palestinian-Israel issues are complex. Israel is surrounded by nations whose leadership largely wish to eliminate it and who have cynically used the Palestinians as tools in their fight against a Jewish state (including by refusing to assimilate Palestinian refugees into their populations, a state of affairs that troubles the boycotters not at all). Polling shows that most Israelis favor a two-state solution in which the Israelis and Palestinians peacefully co-exist in their sovereign nations. Right now, Israel is in intensive negotiations with the West Bank’s Palestinian leadership to arrive at a two-state solution. Significant stumbling blocks exist on both sides: among other things, Israel does not want to freeze settlements before a comprehensive agreement is reached, and the Palestinians do not want to acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish homeland .
There are no easy answers for Israel or the Palestinians in their efforts to move forward from their often tragic and entangled history. As they analyze current events, Vassar students, like students everywhere, should be wary of those hurling epithets of racism, colonialism and apartheid as a way to preclude frank discourse and acknowledgement of facts that might not fit the accusers’ agendas. The efforts of the academic boycotters to stifle debate and demonize Israel aid neither the peace process (Israel cannot give up its demands for security) nor our understanding of what is at stake for both sides.
—Laurie Josephs ’78