Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why I oppose the academic boycott of Israel

The debate over calls for the academic boycott of Israel has arrived at Ithaca College. Eric Cheyfitz, one of the supporters of the boycott in the American Studies Association, has been invited to speak on February 25.

My position on the academic boycott of Israel is well-known to readers of this blog. I have written several posts about it over the years, particularly when the University and College Union in Britain voted several times to support the boycott.

When I saw the poster, I began to reflect how my academic work has been immensely enriched by my studies in Israel. When I was a graduate student at Harvard, I went to Israel for two years, 1987-89, to improve my Hebrew and take courses at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Studying there gave me the opportunity to learn from some of the most prominent scholars in several fields of Jewish Studies.  I took a course on early Jewish mysticism with Professor Rachel Elior, and found my dissertation topic. I took many other courses in Jewish Studies that were not, at that time, offered at Harvard, including a course on the Zohar, another one on the range of interpretations of Genesis 38 (the story of Judah and Tamar) with Yair Zakovitch (Bible) and Avigdor Shinan (Midrash), a course on the Septuagint with Emanuel Tov (one of the world experts on the study of the Septuagint), a reading course with Michael Stone on 3 Baruch, a course on Midrash with Avigdor Shinan (a world expert on Midrash), a course in Biblical Aramaic, etc. I had originally intended to spend only a year in Israel but I was so interested that I decided to spend a second year at the Hebrew University.

I returned to Israel for the 1992-93 academic year to do research for my dissertation. I consulted with Professor Elior frequently and audited another class of hers on the Hekhalot literature. If I had not been able to go to the Hebrew University and the National and University Library for research, I probably could not have finished my dissertation. The National Library houses the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, and it was there that I learned how to read medieval manuscripts, from others in the community of scholars who also used the library.

I went to Israel again for the 1998-1999 academic year, benefiting from a Lady Davis Fellowship given to me by the Hebrew University. While there, I worked on research topics that arose out of my dissertation and explored new areas. I took a course at the university with Joseph Naveh on ancient Jewish amulets - we learned how to read, translate, and interpret them. I also participated in a year long seminar at the Hartman Institute on messianism and mysticism in Judaism. I gave a presentation there on Metatron as a messianic figure in 3 Enoch. 

In the spring of 2012, when I was on sabbatical, I spent seven months in Jerusalem working on my second book, Angels' Tongues and Witches' Curses: Jewish Women and Ritual Power in Late Antiquity.

Since my first stay in Israel in 1987-89, I have visited almost every year to do research. Since the summer of 2006, I have gone every summer for up to two months. In terms of my research, Israel is really my academic home. I use the National Library and participate in the community of scholars and scholarship there. In the last couple of years I have met graduate students at the library who are working on their dissertations and I have been able to be helpful to a few of them in their research. Since I teach at a primarily undergraduate institution, I don't teach any graduate students, and I value the opportunity to be able to advise current students.

The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) has issued guidelines for how people should boycott Israeli academia. They include "refrain[ing] from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions." Participation includes "Academic events (such as conferences, symposia, workshops, book and museum exhibits) convened or co-sponsored by Israeli institutions." The events include events held both in Israel and abroad that are sponsored by Israeli institutions. They are also opposed to study abroad programs in Israel, under the reasoning that "These programs are usually housed at Israeli universities and are part of the Israeli propaganda effort, designed to give international students a “positive experience” of Israel." In addition, official representatives of Israeli academia who give talks at international venues should be boycotted, as well as special honors given to these recipients. They also oppose any Palestinian/Arab-Israeli collaborative research projects or events. The boycott campaign opposes any events and projects that bring Palestinians and/or Arabs and Israelis together, "unless based on unambiguous recognition of Palestinian rights and framed within the explicit context of opposition to occupation and other forms of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians." The boycott campaign also calls for not publishing or refereeing articles for academic journals based in Israeli universities.

While USACBI says that the boycott is aimed at Israeli academic institutions (on the pretext that they support the Israeli occupation), and not at individual Israeli scholars, it is difficult for me to see how this caveat really protects individuals. For example, my research at the Hebrew University in 1998-99 was financed by a Lady Davis grant. If I hadn't received the money, I wouldn't have been able to go for the year. In addition, Israeli scholars who go to international conferences are usually supported by travel grants from their institutions, as are academics in other countries. (It should be noted that the endorsement of the boycott by the American Studies Association states explicitly that "Routine university funding for individual collaborations or academic exchanges is permitted"). 

Every four years the World Congress of Jewish Studies is held at the Hebrew University. Scholars in Jewish Studies from Israel, Europe, the US, and other parts of the world give papers. Since USACBI maintains that events convened by Israeli institutions should be boycotted, this means that one of the primary conferences in the field of Jewish Studies would be able to function only for Israeli scholars. Again, boycotting this conference would have a direct effect upon individual scholars, both Israeli and from other countries. Despite the claim of the ASA that the boycott "does not seek to curtail dialogue between U.S. and Israeli scholars," it would actually have this effect, in that it would prohibit US scholars from going to conferences in Israel sponsored by any academic institution. 

If scholarly organizations and academic institutions in the US decided to support the academic boycott, it would have a seriously deleterious effect upon the field of Jewish Studies, since it would prohibit American scholars from going to any conferences in Israel (which are usually sponsored by Israeli universities). Israeli scholars who headed institutes at Israeli universities would not be permitted to speak at American universities. I suspect that the boycott would also prohibit foreign scholars from receiving grants or fellowships at Israeli universities. Since the boycott campaign opposes study abroad in Israel, foreign students, on the undergraduate or graduate levels, would not be able to study at Israeli universities, or do dissertation or other research in Israel, and would therefore be cut off from the knowledge and connections they could gain from collaboration with Israeli scholars. When I went to the Hebrew University as a visiting graduate student in 1987-89, I enrolled in the university through the Rothberg International School. The academic boycott would have prevented that, directly impacting my academic career.

In addition, USACBI states, 
While an individual’s academic freedom should be fully and consistently respected in this context, an individual academic, Israeli or not, cannot be exempt from being subject to boycotts that conscientious citizens around the world (beyond the scope of the PACBI boycott criteria) may call for in response to what is widely perceived as a particularly offensive act or statement by the academic in question (such as direct or indirect incitement to violence; justification — an indirect form of advocacy — of war crimes and other grave violations of international law; racial slurs; actual participation in human rights violations; etc.). 
This means that USACBI (in agreement with PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) supports boycotting individuals who, in its judgement, engage in incitement to violence, justification of war crimes, etc. How does USACBI define war crimes? What if a scholar wrote an article supporting retaliatory Israeli strikes against Hamas or Islamic Jihad terrorists who had just fired missiles into Israel (while at the same time cautioning against any strikes that could harm civilians)? Would that count as a "justification of war crimes"? If I wrote an essay for this blog maintaining that the separation wall had stopped many suicide bombers from entering Israel from the West Bank, would that count as justifying a "grave violation of international law," given that the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion in 2004 stating that the wall is illegal under international law? This part of the call to boycott could justify the boycotting of scholars in political science, international affairs, Middle Eastern politics, history, and other fields who write articles and books that justify any actions that USACBI consider to be war crimes, incitement to violence, etc., therefore also directly impacting individual scholars, Israeli or not.

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