Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Normative Implications of Academic Boycotts

I haven’t said much about the ASA boycott of Israeli academic institutions, though I do oppose it. There are plenty of arguments out there both for and against; most of them are tendentious and clearly designed to further an ideological or political agenda. At +972 Dahlia Scheindlin takes stock of the main ones on both sides, and her post is well worth reading.

One of the arguments put forward by pro-boycotters, though, strikes me as a bit naïve or disingenuous, or perhaps just very tactical: that the boycott isn’t against Israeli individuals, but rather only against academic institutions. Thus, one can target institutions of the state (since the state is complicit in and an active promoter of, for instance, the settlement enterprise) without targeting individuals. In this way, accusations of anti-Semitism or of attacking individuals on the basis of their national identity can be avoided.

Dahlia concludes that this is a fair point. I’m not so sure. Boycotts have normative effects. They impose on members of a group, who might otherwise not share their community’s official support for a boycott, pressure to conform. They establish expectations, attitudes, and unfriendly atmospheres.

Individual ASA professors, departments with ASA professors, and student organizations with ties to ASA professors are more likely to think about the boycott—it’s a good thing to think about the issues that led to the boycott—but they are also more likely to be concerned about backlashes from peers, their departments and programs, and so on. How, for example, will leaders of an American student group react when they tell their professor they want to bring an Israeli scholar in for a public lecture and that professor warns the students she supports a boycott of Israeli academic institutions?

In addition, we should think about how Israeli academics will react. Will they feel uncomfortable attending workshops run by ASA professors? Will they self-censure when thinking about which journals to send papers to or which conferences to send proposals to? 

We don’t have enough evidence to indicate either outcome is likely to follow from the ASA boycott. But we do have several anecdotes that suggest such an outcome is at least plausible in some cases. It’s enough, I think, that the issue shouldn’t be ignored. Actions have consequences.

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