Academic journal article Shofar

BDS, Credibility, and the Challenge to the Academy

Academic journal article Shofar

BDS, Credibility, and the Challenge to the Academy

Article excerpt

In January 2017, at its annual conference, the Modern Language Association (MLA) hosted a town hall–style debate on the merits of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and whether to pass a resolution in support of it. With more than 24,000 members, MLA is the largest professional organization of humanities scholars, and, because of its importance, was determined a critical battleground for BDS activists.1 Members not present at the Philadelphia convention could listen to a live podcast of comments made by audience members, who lined up at microphones to express their opinions. A large screen displayed the short, real-time comments of MLA members not in the room. These projected comments exposed many of the ethical issues that faculty face in engaging in the boycott movement. Supporters of the boycott resolution argued that the academy in Israel reinforces the military-industrial complex; one commentator’s criticism accused the Hebrew University of aiding and abetting the occupation because: “The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel’s premier university, runs a School of Military Medicine for the Israeli military. The military’s only active deployment is enforcing the illegal occupation of Palestinian land.”2 Defenders of the boycott resolution also stressed that it is necessary to privilege Palestinian rights over Israeli rights; one insisted, “I fully endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions in support of academic freedom and the right to education in Palestine.” But a number of other scholars argued that the discussion of BDS was part of a larger threat to the humanities: “The relentless politicization of our field is a national poison killing the humanities as a serious discipline for young scholars and students at the expense of the follies, like this Israeli boycott, of an out-of-touch privileged elite.” Several in direct opposition to the BDS movement stressed that an academic boycott not only undermined critical voices within Israeli society, but that American academics would certainly fail a comparable litmus test: a boycott “would stifle academic freedom and harm those very centers of free speech and critique that remain in Israel. … Who in this room would like their own home institution to be held responsible for the actions of the incoming American government?!” For many there was an overriding sense that a boycott undermined the very values of the profession: “scholars and teachers should promote scholarly dialogue and cooperation between Palestinians, Israelis, Americans, and colleagues around the world.”

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), a branch of the larger BDS movement, has become a flash point on university campuses, among student groups, and in professional associations in recent years. The history of the movement in Europe, and particularly the United Kingdom, is much longer and even predates the official formation of the BDS movement in the early 2000s.3 The nature and function of BDS, and particularly PACBI, raises critical questions for scholars who address such fundamental academic values as free speech, academic freedom, discrimination, and the role of activism within the academy. At academic conferences, panels masquerading as intellectual inquiry have brought together papers supporting BDS positions that use activist language and eschew the traditional expectations of scholarly research, including factual accuracy, knowledge of the regional languages, the reliability of sources, or situating the work within a wider analytical discourse outside of activist writings. BDS has created a very slippery slope between criticism of the Israeli government’s actions and policies, questions about whether Israel has a right to exist, and, ultimately, public displays of antisemitism. Through its methods on campus, the materials it disseminates, and its behavior within academic organizations, PACBI is undermining the values and structures of academia, thereby causing long-term damage to the credibility of the humanities and institutional infrastructures more broadly. …

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