Guest Column: Boycotting Israeli universities is counterproductive

Jeff Rice, African Studies Lecturer

Amid the cold and snow, we have been hit with multiple stories with a common theme: The American Studies Association votes to boycott Israeli academics; Hillel is debating whether to sponsor (intentionally vague) “anti-Israeli speakers” (also vague); President Schapiro and Provost Linzer have issued a sensible and wise statement opposing the boycott; and a coalition of student groups have endorsed the boycott. My head is spinning, or more to the point, my Facebook account is spinning. I promised myself no more attempts at op-ed columns and to never publicly voice an opinion on the Middle East in order not to offend everyone. Yet this somehow seems impossible to let pass without some effort at finding some inner logic with which I can sleep calmly.

Let me begin with a clear and definitive statement: I am opposed to this boycott. Period, full stop. Why am I so opposed? I can think of nothing more inane than to limit political debate in a highly contested political culture. For me, the Middle East (a euphemism in this article for Israel) is not a clear cut, black or white, alpha or omega situation. It is shadowy, murky, nuanced and full of hyperbole on all sides. Triumphalist rhetoric on the part of Israel disguises the colonial origins of the country (don’t take my word for this; read “My Promised Land” by Ari Shavit, the most honest and painful book about Israel I have read since Anton Shammas’ “Arabesques”). Yet in the present time Israel faces a genuine existential threat and no nation should refrain from defending itself against such. Palestinians were thrown off their land (yes, simple-minded Zionists, accept the reality), yet calling for or pursuing a course of action that would lead to the destruction of Israeli Jewry is little more than the worst kind of bad neighbor politics one could imagine (n.b. The ANC did not expel the white settlers from South Africa after democracy arrived nor did they expropriate their land or businesses). Issues such as a two-state solution versus a one-state solution requires broad and inclusive arguments which we cannot have if we limit our options for positions represented.

So here is the problem in a nutshell. I am reading a book called “The One-State Condition: Occupation and Democracy in Israel/Palestine” by Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir of the University of Tel Aviv (Ophir once visited NU and we became friends). Both of these scholars are leading critics and activists against the occupation (Ophir wrote his first book while in jail for refusing to serve on the West Bank). Yet they would be denied access to NU should the boycott be enacted, on the grounds that their presence would somehow legitimate the Israeli colonial hegemony. Likewise, if you take the International Hillel position to its logical outcome, they might not sponsor a visit by these authors. (For the record, there is a difference between the Hillel position and the American Studies Association-endorsed boycott.) On the one hand, the Hillel position states that they will not endorse or provide a room for a public event of a speaker they take to be anti-Israeli. While, on the other hand, the boycott is more inclusive and would disallow inviting these speakers altogether, regardless of who is sponsoring them.

Many advocates of the boycott look back to the time of Apartheid and the worldwide snub of South Africa. There are certainly some analogies between the situations, but to be honest, as someone who has taught the history of South Africa, I find the similarities less convincing than the differences. And even, in retrospect, the cultural and intellectual boycott of South Africa was in no small part misguided. During the “boycott” of South Africa I visited the offices of “New Left Review” and we discussed their blatant disregard of the boycott. They gladly shipped books and copies of their journal to anyone in South Africa wanting to buy them. To deny counter-hegemonic literature and debate to the apartheid state was, in their view, counterproductive.

Schapiro and Linzer are right to oppose this boycott because it is both counterproductive and incompatible with the basic need for all societies to have a robust debate about policies and practices, and above all, the morality and utility of state behavior. And this debate should take place globally with the maximum number of people participating.

So let’s make a deal! Let’s have lots of argument, lots of debate. Let a thousand arguments flourish. Perhaps we should really engage in the A.B. Yehoshua argument over who is an Israeli since that cuts to the heart of the matter, but how can we do that without a proper group of debaters?

Now that I have likely offended many of the readers with my sarcasm, let me make the point more directly.  I cannot accept Israeli expansion at the expense of the Palestinian access to land; I cannot accept the elimination of Israel under any circumstances. So let’s have at it. And no boycotts please.

Note from guest columnist: Jeff Rice (Weinberg ’72) is a Senior Lecturer in African Studies and a Weinberg College Adviser. He was raised for fourteen years in a combination of an orthodox and reform home (different generations) and was ‘Bar Mitzvahed’ in both traditions. Since then he has wandered off that plain into the secular world of modernity but has never forgotten the fistfights he had as a child just because he was Jewish.

To respond to this guest column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].