To Boycott or Not to Boycott, That Is the Question

Editor’s Note: This anti-boycott editorial by Stanley Fish is posted below, in part to elicit further comments and responses to his article in The New York Times and in part to highlight the eloquent response of David Lloyd, a member of our Organizing Committee.

Stanley Fish| March 15, 2009, 10:00 pm | The New York Times

In response to last week”s column on neoliberalism and higher education, Sobriquet writes that neoliberalism, like neoconservatism, is “an opaque catchphrase coined by wannabe pundits” that doesn”t “refer to anything.” That judgment finds support in an essay soon to be published in Studies in Comparative International Development. The authors, Taylor Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse (political science researchers at UC Berkeley), report that while in recent years “neoliberalism has become an academic catchphrase,” its use “remains a puzzle” because it is “left undefined . . even by those who employ it as a key independent or dependent variable.”

This corresponds to what I found in my reading. It wasn”t that I had been unaware of the term; it was just that it never seemed to be doing much work; its force, as a Boas and Gans-Morse remark, is often more rhetorical (take that, you accursed neoliberal) than analytic. I didn”t feel I had to have a firm grasp on it in order to continue reading; that is, until I found the word being applied to me.

Boas”s and Gans-Morse”s other point is that neoliberalism is used in so “many different ways . . . that its appearance in any given article offers little clue as to what it actually means.” This is borne out by the commentators, many of whom vehemently disagree with me and at the same time disagree with one another. Neoliberalism is just another word for neoconservatism; no, they”re different; neoliberalism is 19th century laissez-faire capitalism; no, it isn”t; neoliberalism is what “new Democrats” Bill Clinton and Al Gore urge; neoliberalism is Adam Smith on steroids; neoliberalism is Marx”s dialectical materialism; neoliberalism is just capitalism; neoliberalism is J.S. Mill”s libertarianism; neoliberalism is plain old cost accounting; neoliberalism is Bushism; neoliberalism is classical liberalism; neoliberalism is what Ayn Rand promoted; neoliberalism is globalism; neoliberalism is avarice; neoliberalism is Law and Economics.

The variety of views about neoliberalism was matched by the variety of views about me, which ranged from gratitude (“I enjoy running into something so calmly, methodically, and complexly reasoned in the newspaper”) to admiration (“Well worth reading. The author does an admirable job”) to derision (“What a massive whiff of hot air”) to contemptuous dismissal (“The title of this column should be “Think Before Writing.”) One poster even made fun of a sports jacket he says I wore 40 years ago; he must have been waiting all those years for an opportunity to sneer, and he got it.

The praise and dispraise came along with opposing characterizations of my position. I am a neoliberal; no, I”m a critic of neoliberalism. I am for American higher education. I am against it. I am an apostle of free enterprise. I make fun of it. A.C. gets it right when he or she complains, “After reading this entry twice, I”m still not sure where professor Fish stands on this issue.”

Reading it 200 times wouldn”t help, for I don”t stand anywhere; that”s the (non) point of most of these columns, not to endorse or reject agendas, but to follow out the lines of argument that accompany them, to see how those arguments work or don”t work, to see where they lead.

In the last line of the column I say that the arguments of the academic critics of neoliberalism lead straight to support for and participation in the boycott of Israeli academics. (Which isn”t to say that all critics of the neoliberal university are necessarily pro- boycott, only that it is easier for them to arrive at that position because they are already halfway down the road.) Several posters wondered how I could get from here to there. Here”s how, in five easy steps:

(1) The academic critics of neoliberalism complain that one effect of the neoliberization of the university has been the retreat by faculty members from public engagement, with the result that intellectual work becomes hermetic and sealed off from political struggle. “We need,” says Henry Giroux, “to link knowing with action, and learning with social engagement, and this requires addressing the responsibilities that come with teaching . . . to fight for an inclusive and radical democracy by recognizing that education in the broadest sense is not just about understanding . . . but also about providing the conditions for assuming the responsibilities we have as citizens to expose human misery and to eliminate the conditions that produce it” (“Against the Terror of Neoliberalism,” 2008)

(2) In the eyes of many academics, a great deal of human misery is being produced by Israel”s policy toward Palestinians. Eliminating it is everybody”s business.

(3) This includes academics who cannot stop at just talking about injustice, but must do something about it, must act.

(4) The political resources of academics are limited, but one way academics can show political solidarity is to put pressure on colleagues who are silent in the face of injustice: “The boycott or the divestment campaign is the mode of political protest that is left after all other forms of struggle have been tried”; it is “the politics of last resort” (Grant Farred, “The Act of Politics Is to Divide,” Works and Days).

(5) Therefore, it is appropriate and even obligatory to boycott Israeli academics and Israeli universities “that have turned a blind eye to the destruction and disruption of Palestinian Schools” (David Lloyd, Daily Trojan). “If, in the midst of oppression, these institutions do not function to analyze and explain the world in a way that promotes justice . . . but rather acquiesce in aggressive neocolonialist practices, then others may legitimately boycott them” (Mona Baker and Lawrence Davidson).

Nor will they be saved by the invocation of academic freedom, for rather than protecting Israeli academics, academic freedom, as the boycotters understand it, demands reprisals against them for having stood by while the freedom of Palestinians was being violated. “There is a whiff of hypocrisy,” says Steven Rose, when after failing to protest against the atrocities of their government “Israeli scientists complain that those of us . . . who refuse to collaborate with them . . . are attacking their academic freedom” (The Guardian, May 27, 2004).

David Lloyd drives the point home: “Israeli institutions are complicit in immense infringement on Palestinian academic freedom, so it”s really hard, it seems to me, for Israeli institutions to claim the rights of academic freedom that they are so systematically denying to their Palestinian counterparts.”

Lloyd”s last phrase – “their Palestinian counterparts” – raises a question that helps us to see what has happened to academic freedom in these statements. Counterparts in what respect? Not, obviously, as co-religionists or citizens of the same polity, but as academics – men and women trained to engage in research and to follow lines of intellectual inquiry wherever they might lead.

Whatever their political or religious or geographical situations, scholars throughout the world are linked by a set of concerns to which they have a responsibility that is distinct from (although not necessarily antithetical to) the responsibilities they may have in other respects. The strength of an academic discipline, Murray Hausknecht observes, “depends on maintaining relationships across national borders.” (Dissent)

Academics, Hausknecht explains, “can be likened to citizens of a nation,” and while they are also citizens in political units (particular nations and finally the world), if we conflate the two citizenships by making academic judgments (whether to accept a paper in a journal or invite a speaker to a conference) on political grounds, we do great damage to the scholarly community, the nature of which “is exemplified by academics who publish papers in foreign journals, attend international conferences, and collaborate with colleagues in research projects.”

But it is just such a conflation that the boycotters insist on, as Grant Farred makes clear when he declares that “academic freedom has to be conceived as a form of political solidarity.” Political solidarity, not academic solidarity. Farred denies to academic work any distinctive identity (he of course would receive this as a compliment, not an accusation), and insists that decisions about how to engage in it – where, in collaboration with whom – should be guided by political considerations, by a determination of whether this or that scholar is on the right side.

For the most part, opponents of the boycott do not engage on this point, but instead put forward arguments that are weak, either because they are counterproductive or merely strategic. In the counterproductive category is the charge that the boycotters are anti-Semitic. Rather than shaming or cowing those it is aimed at, this accusation only produces indignation, both on the part of those who favor a boycott and are Jewish (like its founders Steven and Hilary Rose) and those who declare that they have been fighting all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, for their entire lives.

The charge of anti-Semitism also provokes two responses of principle: first that one can and should distinguish between opposition to the policy of a state and prejudice against that state”s racial majority (Are you telling me I can”t criticize Israel without being a racist?); and second, that the invocation of anti-Semitism has the effect, if not the intention, of chilling speech (a First Amendment no-no). How can one “vigorously advocate the idea that the Israeli occupation is brutal and wrong . . . if the voicing of these views calls down the charge of ant-Semitism?” (Judith Butler, “No, It”s Not Anti-Semitic” London Review of Books, August 21, 2003).

A second line of anti-boycott reasoning invites counter-responses that merely continue the debate without in any way clarifying it. It asks, why single out Israel when European and North American academics regularly engage with researchers from countries (including, perhaps, the United States) with well-documented records of human-rights abuses? The trouble with this debating point in the guise of a question (you”re supposed to realize that you”d end up boycotting everyone) is that it implies that if Israel were the only state performing bad acts it would be O.K. to embargo its academics.

The real question is, should the policies (whatever they are) of a country an academic happens to live in ever be a reason for denying her the courtesies academics extend to each other in recognition of the collaborative nature of the work they do? (Yes, I would include academics from the Third Reich.) That question has the advantage of facing squarely the issue of what academic work is and isn”t, an issue that is obscured if you”re just toting up and rank-ordering atrocities as a preliminary to determining which scholars you will or won”t deal with.

Boycott opponents do no better when the focus is narrowed to just Israel and Palestine and they argue, as Anthony Julius and Alan Dershowitz do, that it is incorrect and a suspicious distortion to regard Israel “as the pure aggressor,” and the Palestinians “as pure victims” (“The Contemporary Fight Against Anti-Semitism”).

But again, the degree of culpability assigned to the two states (and of course that is a matter that will never be settled) should not yield a formula for treating its academics differently (you guys can come to our conference, but you lot can”t). Even if it were agreed that Julius and Dershowitz are right and there is blame all around, that agreement would say nothing about whether or not to boycott, unless you believe that the question is an empirical one that can be answered by history and analogy.

Because anti-boycotters offer arguments that trade in comparisons and calculations of relative guilt, they are vulnerable to the boycotters” trump card: If you supported the boycott of South Africa and the disinvestment by universities from companies doing business in or with that country, you are obligated, by your own history, to support the boycott of Israeli academics. Hilary and Steven Rose reported in 2002 that they knew many academics “who thought that cooperating with Israeli institutions was like collaborating with the apartheid regime” (“The Choice Is to Do Nothing or Try to Bring About Change,”

In response, anti-boycotters say that (1) boycotting is a “blunt instrument” that harms individuals and institutions indiscriminately; (2) it wasn”t the boycotts that brought down the South African regime; (3) the boycott against South Africa was economic and was not aimed primarily at scholars, and (4) despite the loose use of the word by boycott promoters, Israel is not an apartheid state, for it accords its Arab citizens political rights that were denied to blacks in apartheid South Africa.

But the effort to detach Israel from South Africa by claiming that the sins of the latter were much greater than the sins of the former has not been successful, in part because those who make it are trying too hard. (You can almost see the sweat on their foreheads.) The American Association of University Professors ties itself up in knots explaining that while its own history includes “support for divestiture during the anti-apartheid campaigns in South Africa,” it nevertheless opposes this boycott. The rationale seems to be that South Africa was a special, one time case – “South Africa is the only instance in which the organization endorsed some form of boycott” – but that is hardly going to satisfy those who are prosecuting the “if-you-protested-injustice-then–you-should-protest-it-now” argument.

The better course would be for the AAUP and other boycott opponents to accept the equivalence of the two situations, and repudiate what they did in the past. Not “what we did then is different from what we decline to do now,” but “we won”t boycott now and we were wrong to boycott then.”

Whether or not divestiture and other actions taken by academics were decisive in, or even strongly contributory to, ending the apartheid regime is in dispute. What should not be in dispute is that those actions, however salutary and productive of good results, were and are antithetical to the academic enterprise, which while it may provide the tools (of argument, fact and historical research) that enable good and righteous deeds, should never presume to perform them.


David Lloyd’s response

In your treatment of these arguments, you”re not distinguishing between the somewhat subtle arguments made by some, and those made with a view towards large-scale persuasion. It”s a bit like parsing a trial lawyer”s impassioned plea to the jury for logical coherence; you may or may not find it, but that”s not the lawyer”s point anyway.

The difficulty with the charge of antisemitism is just that; it exists, it”s hiding in a great number of pro-boycott argumetns, you can find it if you in fact rigorously parse these arguments, and many bloggers and academics have done just that. But you”re not going to get Allen Dershovitz to do that on FoxNews, and even if he did that, no one would listen.

The argument “why Israel, not China?” is related: it”s a shortcut to revealing a rabid and unjustified infatuation with the conflict that so many boycotters seem to share. Is the gleefully used and bizarrely overdone comparison between Nazis and Israelis antisemitic? Not on the face of it, but one has to ask why is it so popular with the boycott crowd? No, “why Israel” is not a superior defense of Israel, but it does raise serious questions about the intentions about the motivations behind the boycott.

Finally, apartheid. The anti-boycotters are sweating to refute this. But you don”t seem to argue with the reduced points you present on behalf of the anti-boycott: Israeli arabs in the knesset, etc etc. These all provide good proof that whatever travesties are being committed, there seems to be no good reason for this comparison. Again, why Israel? Why not Georgia, or Russia, or any other state with national-ethnic conflicts? The answer lies not in how apartheid is defined, but what it symbolizes to us. Apartheid is closely linked in the American psyche to Jim Crow; it”s not just racist, ethno-centric, it is collectively conceived of as oppressions of blacks by whites.

This is what the boycotter”s conception of the Israeli conflict shares with Apartheid which, to the frustrated likes of Dershovitz, no solid evidence can explain away. This is why an analogy to the Ossetian conflict carries no weight but S Africa does. Israelis are imagined to be White Europeans who settled in the colonialist model in a land of non-White people. Despite being seen prior to WWII as non-Whites in Europe, and despite the fact that half the Jews that came to Israel are Arab Jews, and uncounted more today are Jews of mixed race, the model of Israel as colony sticks in the mind of the West because of the racist schematic which the vast majority in the West apply to Israel unquestioningly.

With this we can explain significant variation in the pro- and anti-Israel sentiment among subgroups in the US and among different European countries using relationship to racism and colonialism respectively.

The rhetorical power of the apartheid analogy is its ability to apply a racist schematic to the Middle East to promote an analogy which flies in the face of a great number of important differences. Thus while the questions “why Israel” and charges of antisemitism fall flat rhetorically, I see them as pointing to this subtle, dubious motivation behind the apartheid analogy and the boycott.

– David

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