One has to start somewhere, explained Curtis Marez, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego, and a member of the National Council of the American Studies Association (ASA), which had just announced an academic boycott of Israel. He was responding to a reporter’s sensible query about the justice of singling out Israel for punishment when many countries in this heartless world have human rights records that are significantly worse, and his chillingly casual words are a measure of the moral and intellectual vapidity of what the ASA proudly described as “an ethical stance.” In a supporting document called “Answering Questions About the ASA Boycott from Department Chairs, Deans, Administrators,” the ASA instructs its members that its mission is to “make a positive contribution to human understanding” and “support diversity and equity” and “contribute to solving world problems” (there is no mention of scholarship, of course: these people long ago obliterated the distinction between academia and activism), but in truth only one “world problem,” only one problem of “human understanding,” exercises it, and it is the problem of the Palestinians. They and they alone are the universal touchstone of decency. A few hours away from Palestine six million people are refugees in their own country, where they are being bombed by their government, and starving in the snow, and fighting polio; but never mind them, they are not Israel’s victims, and it is the turpitude of the Jewish state, not the actually existing misery in the region and the world, that offends the ASA. Compared with Aleppo, Ramallah is San Diego. But one has to start somewhere.
It is true that one cannot care equally about everything, that an ethical action is always concrete and therefore selective. But the ethical quality of one’s action must be measured by one’s standard for selection; and if that standard is not first and foremost determined by an impartial assessment of suffering and need, so that one selects as the beneficiaries of one’s ethical energies not those who are most wretched but those whose wretchedness confirms one’s prior ideological and political preferences, then the halo is a fake. Reading the ASA materials on its decision, I am immediately struck by the decidedly extra-ethical origins of its boycott. In another helpful document called “ASA Academic Boycott Resolution Frequently Asked Questions”—if the resolution is so clear in its reasons and its virtues, why is the ASA producing these agitprop crib sheets for its members?—I read that “Israeli academic institutions are part of the ideological and institutional scaffolding of the Zionist settler-colonial project.” That is not anti-occupation, it is anti-Zionist; it is the foul diction of delegitimation, the old vocabulary of anti-Israel propaganda. (It also ignores the fact that Israeli universities are where criticism of the occupation flourishes.) In the “Council Statement on the Academic Boycott of Israel,” I read that “in the last several decades, the ASA has welcomed scholarship that critically analyzes the U.S. state, its role domestically and abroad”: so this is not just the usual anti-Zionism, it is also the usual anti-Americanism. Of course Pakistan is also an ally of the United States whose military we support, and the Pakistani army is complicit in savagery beyond anything that any Palestinian is enduring—but terrorism (and certainly Muslim terrorism) does not interest such progressives. They are not empirically minded in their ethical commitments. They answer to higher promptings. I also read, in the National Council’s statement, that “the ASA also has a history of critical engagement with the field of Native American and indigenous studies that has increasingly come to shape and influence the field.” What on earth has this to do with Israel and Palestine? The answer is, everything.
There is a comic dimension to this travesty of academic freedom. Lauding the ASA boycott for targeting institutions and not individuals, the saintly Jewish philosopher Judith Butler pointed out in The Nation that “the only request that is being made is that no institutional funding from Israeli institutions be used” for the travel expenses of Israeli scholars. O patria, quanto mi costi! Just how important do these professors think they and their conferences are? But finally there is nothing funny about this. There are first principles at stake in this stunt. Butler instructed that an academic boycott “militates against the spirit of censorship and the practice of calumny that would cut off debate and engage in debased caricatures.” I suggest she put down her Levinas and pick up her Orwell. It is precisely the spirit of censorship, and of conformity of opinion, that animates a boycott of academic institutions. In a sterling letter to the ASA, a group of distinguished American scholars noted this, and protested that “scholars would be punished not because of what they believe—which would be bad enough—but simply because of who they are based on their nationality. ... This is discrimination pure and simple.”
For all the politicization of the ASA, it is indifferent to the politics of what it piously deplores. The occupation of the Palestinian territories is a political problem that requires a political solution. In the attempt to attain such a solution, the Palestinians are not inert victims or bystanders to their fate. They are historical actors; and their refusal to accept any of the plans for Palestinian statehood that have been proposed to them—the imperfection of the solution disturbs them more than the imperfection of the problem—is one of the reasons—one of the reasons—that they find themselves in a condition of such weakness. The Israeli settlement of the West Bank indeed must end; but even if it ends, Israel is a state by right with a perfectly understandable anxiety about its security. “We do not support the boycott of Israel,” Mahmoud Abbas, in South Africa for Mandela’s funeral, declared. He supports only a “boycott [of] the products of the settlements.” “We have relations with Israel,” he added, “we have mutual recognition of Israel.” But who is Abu Mazen to speak for the Palestinians, compared with an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego?
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.