On Boycotts

Channeling blog pal Historiann, The Madwoman prepares to get off the fence and take a stand. With, you know, mixed feelings and lots of qualifiers.

Channeling blog pal Historiann, The Madwoman prepares to get off the fence and take a stand. With, you know, mixed feelings and lots of qualifiers.

I have, until now, avoided writing on the controversy that has raged within my academic professional networks since the American Studies Association voted in December in favor of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. I did so because I didn’t feel informed enough on the issue to stake out a position publicly and, truth be told, because I had no desire to insert myself into a debate that seems inevitably to devolve into name-calling and mutual accusations of bad faith. I may live to regret writing and publishing this post, but after attending both the ASA and Modern Language Association conventions, reading a lot, thinking a lot, and tuning in as carefully as I can to the vibe in the aforementioned networks, I feel ready to weigh in. (NB: The MLA’s Delegate Assembly has not endorsed the boycott. It debated and narrowly passed a resolution “urging the U.S. State Department to express concern over what the measure calls restrictions on scholars’ ability to travel to Israel and the West Bank to work at Palestinian universities.” The resolution still faces review by the MLA’s Executive Council and has to be ratified by the membership.)

As a member of both the ASA and the MLA, I have deep qualms about these moves for reasons that have nothing to do with how I feel about U.S. aid to Israel or Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. I have come to oppose organizational endorsements of the boycott because I think they are producing dangerous divisions within the memberships of the ASA and the MLA and distracting the organizations from their primary missions at a time when those missions urgently require attention and action. The debates and votes are also dominating media coverage and supplying ample fodder for those who dismiss politically engaged humanistic scholarship as propaganda. (They are also provoking lawmakers to propose stripping funding from institutions whose faculty participate in organizations that support boycotting Israel, but one has to imagine that such hysterical overreaching will not be taken seriously.) I note with chagrin that in the past couple of months both The New York Times and The Washington Post have extensively covered, and, in the case of WaPo, editorialized against, the boycott, while neither has said a word about, for example, adjunctification, the erosion of tenure, or the slow starvation of public higher education that has put our institutions and access to them at risk.

The press attention to the boycott has perhaps contributed modestly to breaking down the reluctance to criticize Israel and begin to hold it accountable for its occupation of the West Bank. That is a laudable achievement, but I can’t help worrying about the cost to the ASA and the MLA of having helped to bring it about. These are membership-based organizations that rely on the good will and support of scholars and teachers whose livelihoods are threatened by the new normal of diminishing support and dwindling opportunities. If members come to feel their professional associations are spending their limited political capital on quixotic missions tangentially related to the organizations’ main goals and functions, they may well abandon them, feeling, not without some justification, that the organizations have in a sense abandoned them. Poor attendance at a conference session on contingent and part-time faculty issues is by no means proof that the MLA and its members are not concerned about such issues. One cannot, as they say, prove a negative, and I went to three sessions at the MLA that featured Famous People Speaking on Big, Hot Topics to surprisingly small audiences. (Two out of the three were, like Lee Skallerup Bessette’s session, held in the 5:15-6:30 slot. I blame cocktail hour for the paltry crowds.) Nonetheless, I understand why some presenters might have felt marginal to the concerns of a convention in which “the talk of boycotts and resolutions . . . threaten[ed] to overshadow the rest of the proceedings,” as Jennifer Howard put it in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Judith Butler has commended the ASA for taking a “principled and courageous stand” and “assuming the public responsibility to defend equality, justice and freedom” by supporting the boycott. I have enormous respect for Butler, whose work constantly teaches, thrills, and challenges me. Her characteristically thoughtful comments on the boycott, however, are not sufficient to overcome my doubts about the wisdom of  the ASA (and perhaps, ultimately, the MLA) pursuing this particular course. How much courage, I can’t help but ask, have these organizations or their members — myself included — expended in the fight to improve working conditions for contingent academic laborers? Where is our bravery when it comes to demanding resources adequate to preserving quality, affordable higher education? What risks are we willing to take to protect tenure and the academic freedom it affords? If we are going to put ourselves and our organizations’ credibility on the line, I respectfully submit that it should be for causes such as these.

I am not, by the way, suggesting that the ASA or the MLA have been inattentive to the issues and causes noted above. The MLA in particular in recent years has been tireless in its efforts to document and respond to changes in the academic workforce. (See, for example, this collection of surveys and reports.) My point is simply that our efforts so far have been ineffective and the boycott is a distraction that impedes our ability to communicate and educate on matters vital to the professional futures of everyone who belongs to these organizations.

Further, the contentiousness of the Israel/Palestine issue undermines whatever solidarity there is among the diverse members of ASA and MLA, creating or exacerbating tensions and leading to flame wars and the kinds of gratuitous insults one sees in Cary Nelson’s “Playing Heedless Politics at the MLA.”  Nelson is strongly opposed to academic boycotts and even the MLA’s much milder resolution of concern. I have some sympathy for the substance of his arguments, but his post attacking the Delegate Assembly as “a circus with a surfeit of clowns, incompetently run by people who had mastered neither Robert’s Rules of Order nor the association’s own procedures” is a dispiriting example of how toxic and destructive these debates tend to become. I’m inclined to agree with a commenter on Nelson’s post, Jonathan, who attended the Delegate Assembly (which I did not) and felt that it “resembled every other Israel/Palestine event I’ve ever attended or participated in — ferocious differences leading to caricaturing of opponents’ positions, angry denunciations of motives, and all-around ill will manifesting itself at the earliest opportunity. So be it — the stakes are high, for both sides. But this very fact is why I think the MLA is ill-suited as a venue for this kind of discussion and potential action.” Amen.

Look, I know that civility is overrated and often used as a way to avoid or shut down conflict. I also appreciate that many people believe that a strong collective stance against the occupation is necessary to force Israel to change course and that the violations of Palestinian academic freedom under occupation are sufficient to justify organizations such as the ASA and the MLA getting involved in the struggle. I hear and respect those arguments, but I also cannot shake the concern that these actions are not without cost or consequence to the organizations taking them. Ill will may weaken them internally and engaging in what many will perceive as feel-good political gestures far afield of the organizations’ zones of expertise and responsibility will likely weaken them externally. Many friends and colleagues have clearly decided those risks are worth taking. For now, I cannot concur in that judgment. The world will always need saving. Right now, so does higher education. I would prefer that my academic professional organizations concentrate their energies on the latter rather than the former.

That’s my two — or twenty — cents. Have at ’em, Madpeople, but be nice. I’ve got that lasso in my hand for a reason. Peace out.


  1. David Shorter says:

    This post is quite good in terms of it’s simplicity and for how much thought it provokes. According to this blogger, we really only have a couple questions to answer. First, which do you value more, tactically working toward human rights or having your professional organization save higher education? (If you think this is an oversimplification, just read her last sentence of her last full paragraph. Seriously, it’s practically verbatim). The second issue is a logical analogy for the entire piece: Seems like this blogger is feeling worried that having the BDS conversation in our professional organizations will hurt our organizations. So, once again, another post about how the boycott hurts people with privilege and power. Maybe we should agree to make positive change in the world, but only if it doesn’t upset anyone or change any power relations. If fact, if you connect this issue to her argument that there are other fish to fry, then whalaa, you have the two primary arguments already hashed elsewhere: don’t boycott because it’s upsetting (to people with power) + don’t boycott Israel because we have to prioritize our energies (and saving the academy is more important than human rights). With the issues so clearly demarcated here, it’s really hard to see what’s missing. Oh wait, any mention of “Palestinians.” I’m not devolving into a conversation about bad faith here because I don’t think that calling out privilege is “devolving.” I’m simply pointing out what most of do every time we teach an introductory course in ethnic studies or native studies: we have to wrangle the conversation onto the actual group being discuss, rather than how the discussion might feel to those with privilege. As others have stated at length: Palestinian civil society has asked people to respect BDS tactics. Read Salaita’s piece in the last external link posted above). The bulldozers are still clearing way for new settlements.

    And so, to engage you directly (assuming you have a blog for actual dialogue): do you see that at the same moment you think the organizations’ credibility has now been put on the line, for many of us their credibility has never felt more evidenced? How often have you seen the ASA or MLA in the news in the last ten years? And so when these organizations do have something to say about the issues you care about, perhaps soon and perhaps due to your and other people’s hard work, the organizations will already have shown that they can tackle difficult issues with integrity and strength. I join Judith Butler then in commending the organizations for taking some difficult stands, because I think doing so increases our strength and sense of values (a kind of strength that stands together in our differences).

    Thank you, then, for your post. Reading your thoughts helped me think through some of these matters. Particularly I do see the struggle in wanting to take stands on issues that matter, but wanting also to keep the goals of the organization in mind. Keeping South Africa’s apartheid and MLK day in mind, for me, it seems to reason that bringing injustice to light, calling out that injustice for what it is, saying you don’t want to partake in it, or at least limit your accordance with it, these are all quite important acts that fit alongside with fighting antisemitism and other bullying, supporting women’s rights, and minority rights, voting rights, etc. For me, this is not a “pick one” situation; we do not have to leave any issue off the table. And if some senator wants to come after us for this, or if some University wants to kick us off campus for this, then haven’t we just learned that the particular reason doesn’t matter? (If they can come after us for BDS stuff, they can then come after us for tenure, or labor unions next). Our reason and causes are not dependent upon them agreeing we get to have them. When they threaten us, either we’re going to say the conversation isn’t “that” important, or we’re going to realize that our silence is being bought. Perhaps both.


  2. Thanks for your compliment to the post’s simplicity. I strive for that.

    I would welcome actual dialogue, David, but I wonder if that’s what your comment is really aimed at producing, with its calling out of privilege and its attributing to me positions not taken in the post. (I never say that the possibility of upsetting the powerful is a reason not to support the boycott, though I do cite one prominent example of that having happened.) Perhaps I misjudge, but your comment comes across to me as an attempt to bait me into a non-productive tit for tat in which, for example, I counter your “What’s missing are the Palestinians” with “What’s missing are the adjuncts.” I don’t think it’s a “pick one” situation either, but there are organizations far more suited to the work of achieving justice for the Palestinians than the MLA and the ASA are. Who else, on the other hand, is fighting for adjuncts? And how effectively will these orgs be able to wage that fight if members are busy accusing one another of being anti-Semites or cowards or resigning in protest? It would be great if the boycott controversy and publicity ultimately prove that the ASA and the MLA “can tackle difficult issues with integrity and strength,” but that remains to be seen. What I see right now are people on all sides of the issue feeling bruised, intimidated, and afraid to speak, so I am not optimistic on that point.

    As Dr. King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” My silence can’t be bought, nor can it be forced on me by those who can brook no dissent from one side of an extremely complex issue. I’m not trashing the boycott or minimizing the struggles of the Palestinians. I’m raising questions about another oppressed group that supporters of the boycott, in my judgment, have not adequately addressed.


  3. I’m not a frequent commenter on this blog (or any other), but, since the only comment so far seems calculatedly to miss the point of your (in my view very reasonable) position, just wanted to let you know that some semi-regular readers are on your side. I’m very uneasy about academic organizations involving themselves in debates outside their areas of expertise, particularly when the outside areas are politically divisive. I don’t want my professional organization to speak for me on extra-disciplinary topics, and that’s true even in cases when I agree with the substance of what the organization is choosing to say. My vision of academic professional organizations is that they should be big tents: so long as you are trying to be a responsible participant in your field, welcome aboard–no matter what your views are on the death penalty, or global warming, or Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, or whatever. That isn’t to deny that the death penalty, global warming, and Israel’s treatment of Palestine are important questions; it’s just to say that they aren’t, in my view, questions that organizations like the MLA ought to take it upon themselves to answer on behalf of their membership.


  4. Marilee, You express beautifully, and simply, what many at the convention shared with me in person: There are too many other issues that are more relevant to the Modern Languages Association: “The world will always need saving. Right now, so does higher education. I would prefer that my academic professional organizations concentrate their energies on the latter rather than the former.”


  5. This is a fabulous and well reasoned post, Marilee. Thank you for reminding us of where our concerns should lie and where we might best put our energies.


  6. While more or less disclaiming a desire to get into the politics of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it’s exactly what the author does. Her hand wringing over this issue strikes me as utterly disingenuous veneer on a propaganda piece. She writes, “I also appreciate that many people believe that a strong collective stance against the occupation is necessary to force Israel to change course and that the violations of Palestinian academic freedom under occupation are sufficient to justify organizations such as the ASA and the MLA getting involved in the struggle.” Wow! It’s the 500 million Arabs surrounding six million Jews and calling for Israel’s destruction (pretty sporting, eh?) who ought to be “forced to change course.” “Occupation” she writes. Israel was Judea for two thousand years before the Muslim faith was even founded. The Prophet Muhammed never set foot iin Jerusalem. It’s to Mecca, not Israel Muslims turn to for daily prayer. The UN in 1947 partitioned the land then claimed by Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and it’s the Arab refusal to acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy as the Jewish Homeland which has led to the use of words such as “occupation.” It’s from these “occupied lands that thousands of missles provided by the Iranians have been fired. It’s the Palestinians as victims soap opera which academics suck up like candy, subject as they are to 24/7 propaganda from the likes of thems that gave us the Beslan, Russia school massacre.


  7. Makes sense to me. As a longtime supporter of Palestinian rights, I’m a bit puzzled about how an academic boycott has become the preferred strategy for pressing the issue in some circles just at a point when, from my long-view perspective, it’s actually possible to begin a discussion of the subject in the U.S. without immediately being labeled an anti-Semite (though that still can happen), and there’s considerable active debate and discussion in Israel as well. I get the desire to take a strong, visible stand, but an approach that potentially shuts down a conversation that, too my mind, has only recently become active and potentially fruitful, strikes me as counterproductive (economic boycotts make more sense to me; and re-thinking of U.S. military aid to Israel even more so).

    I also agree that U.S. higher ed needs to look to the log in its own eye before spending too much time and energy on the speck (or even the log) in others’ eyes. While I don’t think that any individual urging (or condemning) the boycott is necessarily engaging in displacement activity/distraction, there is a very real, very human tendency to turn our attention to trying to fix others’ problems/faults when our own seem overwhelming and intractable, and groups as well as individuals are probably vulnerable to that tendency. Of course, the “we can’t talk about that; this other thing is far more urgent/important” approach can be taken too far (many Protestant denominations in the U.S. spent the early-to-mid 19th century silencing any denomination-wide discussion of slavery lest doing so cause schism or otherwise impede the cause of spreading the good news, by word if not by example), but both individuals and organizations have to set priorities, and the MLA and ASA have quite specific, fairly narrow central purposes which include trying to maintain the longterm wellbeing of the academic profession. Individual members are, of course, free to join other organizations with other purposes, to engage in advocacy on their own, and/or to allow their views on a variety of subjects to inform the direction of their scholarship, but that’s different from taking an organizational stance on an important but tangential issue.


  8. Anyone who starts a paragraph with “to engage you directly (assuming you have a blog for actual dialogue)” is not seeking actual dialogue.


  9. jsdolan57 says:

    Thanks, Marilee, for the best piece I’ve read about the boycott issue yet. I’m on your side with this. Given the basic disparagement of the arts and humanities across the public sphere, why aren’t we throwing our collective weight behind an effort to explain why what we do is so important? I’m all for changing the world. But I think we do that through our work–in the classroom and in our scholarship and in the myriad local efforts many of us make daily. I agree that this symbolic boycott is only dividing us, where other issues might work to pull us together and make us a stronger social force around the issues at which we all toil regularly. Thanks for your sober, thoughtful, beautiful assessment of what I personally find a very painful moment for the field.


  10. Thanks, everybody, for weighing in. I’m not surprised that I managed to annoy those who strongly support either the boycott or Israel. I am pleased that the post seems to have resonated with those who care deeply about academic professional organizations and the vital professional work they have to do. I want to reiterate TSS’s well-stated point: “My vision of academic professional organizations is that they should be big tents: so long as you are trying to be a responsible participant in your field, welcome aboard–no matter what your views are on the death penalty, or global warming, or Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, or whatever. That isn’t to deny that the death penalty, global warming, and Israel’s treatment of Palestine are important questions; it’s just to say that they aren’t, in my view, questions that organizations like the MLA ought to take it upon themselves to answer on behalf of their membership.” I am sometimes suspicious of “big-tent” rhetoric, which I associate with political parties cynically aiming to get voters to overlook the pesky details of their policies and positions and just support them already. In this case, though, the rhetoric seems apt and the point well worth considering.

    Thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment. I do sincerely appreciate actual dialogue!


  11. Wow, that is one dang smart cowgirl! Though my comment is not directly related to the Mad Woman’s post, her post is a nice prelude to my proposal. While I too “know that civility is overrated and often used as a way to avoid or shut down conflict”, I also know that the prolonged absence thereof can shut down otherwise brilliant minds. So, cover me Mad People, I’m about to propose to the Madwoman. Giddy up!
    Enough of the vitriol and childish name calling between pro-life and pro-choice proponents. It’s so worn me down, that I question my ability to complete the journey of civil discourse I’m about to propose. Yet, propose it I must, having considered it for many years. For your see, though staunchly pro-life since 1976, I sincerely want to understand the perspective of those who aren’t. I particularly want to get inside the brilliant minds of those who spot me an embarrassing number of IQ points whilst possessing a command of the King’s English that leaves me uncharacteristically speechless. Thus, my journey starts at the keyboard of the MadWoman with a Laptop…the choicest amongst the brilliant pro-choice minds I know.
    So, here’s my proposal to you, MadWoman. I propose that we engage in civil written discourse wherein we each set forth our reasons for assuming the positions we have regarding the rights of the unborn and their mothers. Note it is to be a discourse, not a debate. Both parties will win in the end because they will have been enlightened as to the opposing view. Further note that no judgmental or accusatory statements will be allowed. In response to one party’s statement, the other party may ask a clarifying question or restate it in an attempt to better understand it.
    Beyond that, the rules of discourse are very simple. Each party is allowed to make only one statement at a time. Each statement is limited to one reasonable length sentence. The discourse cannot continue until the other party responds with a clarifying question or restatement. Such clarifying discourse can go back and forth until both parties agree that it’s time to move on to the next “primary” statement. Responsibility for making primary statements alternates between the two parties. No party is allowed to make two primary statements in a row.
    As to the venue for this discourse, I yield to the MadWoman’s right to choose. She may choose to conduct our discourse publicly in real-time via her renown blog. Or, she may prefer to take this journey privately. Either way, to ensure that both parties feel complete freedom to express their true perspectives without fear of repercussion or unintended consequences, I personally pledge that I will not place any of the discourse in the public domain without the MadWoman’s prior approval.
    So, what say ye’ O Mad and Brilliant One? Will you join me in this journey of civil discourse on what I personally believe to be THE defining issue of our generation?


  12. Dana Carluccio says:

    A bit late on this, Marilee… I don’t have a general problem w/ academic orgs taking positions on the way international issues affect academia, and I actually did vote for the ASA resolution. But your point that there are more fundamental issues affecting these orgs’ primary missions is one of the more compelling arguments I’ve heard against such a vote. Just acknowledging that here.



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