‘Tis the season of the long holiday for toilers in the Groves of Academe. Learned professors of the American Studies Association (ASA), who recently adopted a call for a boycott of contact with Israel’s academic institutions, presumably to protest Israel’s “treatment” of Palestinians but perhaps because they just don’t like Jews very much, should take a break from grading papers, or partying with academics who think exactly as they do, and use the time to reflect on something important. One such topic should be why they single out the one democracy in the Middle East for criticism of its imperfection.
It’s not an academic question.
These academics teach interdisciplinary approaches to history, religion, literature and philosophy in the American culture, but many of them obviously missed their own critical study of intellectual history. How else to explain why they’re unable to distinguish between scholarly arguments and arguments extracted from their own attitudes, prejudices and uninformed opinions?
Perhaps they’ve been too busy researching scorn to heap on the United States for presentation in a learned paper at their next convention. The latest call for ASA “scholarship” is to provide papers on “The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain In the Post-American Century.” (You might want to wait for the movie, which is not likely to be coming soon to a theater in your neighborhood.)
It’s a long time since we’ve looked to tenured professors to guide moral thinking on anything, but this recent ASA resolution is political posturing of the worst order. Not even Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, favors the boycott of Israeli professors, who actually teach a multicultural mix of students in their universities, including, in addition to Jews, Arabs, Palestinians, Ethiopians and exiles from despotic countries who are enjoying academic freedom for the first time.
For an organization devoted to cross-disciplinary study, the ASA boycotters might refresh their recollections with unpleasant anti-Semitic models of intellectual boycotts, such as Hitler’s order against patronizing Jewish businesses in Germany in the 1930s, or the Arab League’s boycott in the Middle East in 1948, when it still held high hopes of seeing the extermination of Israel.
It’s particularly bizarre for academicians to single out Israel to be the most imperfect of imperfect nations, since Israelis debate with each other with a passion that would set off a rush to the fainting couches in almost any American university, over such subjects as the treatment of the settlements, prospects for peace and the two-state solution. But the ASA academics are so accustomed to listening to each other compete to scorn America and Israel that outrages across the world never intrude on their intellectual isolation.
They share their prejudices and attitudes with colleagues on smartphones and laptops made in China, which imprisons dissenting academics who speak their minds. The Palestinian Authority does not allow discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Palestinian schools and colleges. Iran executes dissenters, Russia imprisons outspoken feminists, neither gays nor women can be hired at a university in Saudi Arabia, and dissenters are treated brutally in Cuba. There’s rarely a peep from the faculty lounges about any of that.
The boycotters single out only academic institutions in Israel, “whose universities have affirmative-action programs for Palestinian students who boast a higher level of academic freedom than almost any country in the world,” writes Alan Dershowitz in Ha’aretz, the Israeli newspaper. Larry Summers, who was bounced as president of Harvard because he urged an honest discussion of why women often don’t do well in math, observes that boycotts that single out Israel are “anti-Semitic in their effect, if not necessarily in their intent.” Prejudice is as prejudice does.
It doesn’t really matter whether anti-Semites see themselves as hating Jews; it’s how they manifest their prejudice and how others react that ultimately counts. To their credit, many members of ASA have dissented from the boycott, along with academic institutions, including the American Association of University Professors, and at least eight past presidents of the ASA, cutting across political persuasions.
Brandeis University and Penn State have dropped their ASA memberships. Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, urges his colleagues to reject this “phony progressivism” as dishonest and morally obtuse. Many professors worry that the prejudice inherent in the boycott will “stain” the reputation of scholars in American studies, an argument hard to refute. Henry Kissinger famously observed that “academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” The professors who voted to boycott academic contact with Israel expose their own vicious small-mindedness, which hurts them most of all.
Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.