Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Absurdity of the ASA Boycott of Israel

I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. Plato’s delivery - The Apology of Socrates.

In their boycott of Israeli academic institutions, the American Studies Association (ASA) has betrayed the ideal of learning.

Academics are supposed to be dedicated to the unencumbered advance of knowledge.

Because if ‘knowledge’ has one sustaining certainty, it’s that the pursuit has no limit. By boycotting Israel, the ASA has incorporated the opposite understanding. They’ve clarified that when it comes to Israel, they know that there’s nothing left to know.

Theirs is the undeniable inversion of the Socratic Method. Rather than trying to persuade Israel to enact policy changes, the ASA has joined a cabal of intellectual retrenchment. They’ve staked their place in a new understanding of ignorance – ignorance as knowledge. The ASA claims that their boycott won’t prevent Israeli academics from engaging with their US counterparts, but they're being disingenuous. Were the ASA’s ban ever implemented, Israeli professors would no longer be able to represent their institutions or their country.

Let’s cut the spin, this boycott is an academic apartheid.

But this isn’t just about philosophy. It’s also about political reality. 

Although the ASA obviously believes otherwise, their actions will do very little to facilitate the agenda they pursue. For a start, the Israelis don’t tend to appreciate attempts at blackmail. Even then, this boycott also flatly ignores the present Israeli political landscape. While fashionable opinion asserts that Netanyahu is a trademark hardliner, the reality is more complex. Consider that alongside his tough stance on Iran, Netanyahu has thrown his support behind the latest US drive on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He's doing so against the wishes of cabinet ministers who are deeply skeptical of that agenda. Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett provide two such examples. The ASA should have recognized this evident reality. Instead of coalescing with the cause of peace, the ASA has decided that it’s easier to be ignorant. And now, by showing their disregard for Netanyahu’s efforts, they'll only strengthen the hand of those Israelis who say his efforts are pointless.

There’s also a deep moral issue at stake here.

At a basic level, this boycott is extraordinarily hypocritical; it applies to only one state.

Regarding Israel, the ASA is perfectly happy to bracket independent academic institutions with the Israeli government. Yet, the ASA doesn't apply those same standards to Gaza. They apparently care little that Gaza is run by an organization that revels in blowing up Israeli children. Of course, it's not just Gaza. Iran? No problem. Syria? Absolutely. Venezuela? You bet. 

See the sick dichotomy? While democratic Israel is public enemy number one, totalitarian regimes are de-facto partners. When the New York Times asked the ASA’s President to explain this impossible incongruity, he offered a pathetic response: ‘’One has to start somewhere’’. 

Maybe it’s just me, but this solitary blacklisting carries some unpleasant echoes.

            Unfortunately, it’s not just the ASA. It’s clear that the academic boycott of Israel is growing in strength. In equal vein, the support of a few big names is lending a deeper pretense of legitimacy. We must remember it’s a veneer. The ultimate truth is unambiguous.

The frontiers of knowledge have no geographic boundary; to claim otherwise is to deny the known and unknown bounty of human creativity.

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