"Steven! Steven!" the man screamed, his East End cadence emphasizing the first syllable. "Why don't you boycott the United States?"
He repeated the refrain, approaching from behind until I could feel his breath on my neck. A small crowd came between us, stopping him as I walked into the misty London evening.
While many Americans enjoy being upbraided or insulted in a British accent, I don't count myself among them. And I don't like apologia for Israeli ethnic cleansing in any inflection.
I had just finished a talk at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and some in the audience were unhappy with my comments. My support for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) elicited particular ire. It often does. BDS greatly disturbs Israel's supporters, who have launched a multimillion dollar campaign to stop the movement.
Yet the movement continues to grow. It is especially intense on campus, where Zionist groups counter BDS by equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, suspending pro-Palestine student organisations, and slandering professors deemed inadequately obsequious to Israel.
Another important date looms next January, when the Modern Language Association (MLA), the colossus of scholarly organisations, will consider an academic boycott resolution, similar to those that have inspired so much praise and acrimony - most notably the American Studies Association in 2013.
Like my perturbed interlocutor in London, some of those opposed to the resolution will ask why we aren't boycotting the United States. The question is usually rhetorical, suggesting that focusing on Israel is hypocritical. It can also be literal, though, demanding an explanation for targeting Israel while presumably ignoring its more powerful benefactor. In any case, the question is worth consideration.
We can render any action hypocritical if our goal is to delegitimise it without confronting the probity of its existence. The notion of singling out Israel, then, is tacitly chauvinistic, granting Israel a special exemption no other state enjoys, and does nothing to answer the abuse of Palestinian human rights and the abrogation of their academic freedom.
Rather than centring Israel as the object of conversation, let's explore the question of boycott from the perspective of Palestinians in US academic life.
If we think of boycotts as a type of pressure intended to generate a particular material result, or even as a discourse that intervenes in debate, then it's not preposterous to argue that vocal Israel supporters have long practiced de facto boycotts. These boycotts haven't arisen from civil society or grassroots communities - hence my calling them de facto - but they have effectively marginalised a wide range of narratives around Palestine.
|Pressure from Israel supporters affects hiring decisions, curricula, awards selections, access to resources, and tenure and promotion reviews|
While BDS has a clear set of principles and an aversion to castigation enforced by state institutions, movements to punish Palestinian students and faculty take their cue from on high. Their actions are dishonest and punitive. They deploy the disingenuous language of civility and summon institutional authority to administer their aspirations.
Pressure from Israel supporters affects hiring decisions, curricula, awards selections, access to resources, and tenure and promotion reviews. Much of this activity happens behind the scenes, or through repetition of commonsensical values, and is thus unnoticed, but only a propagandist would argue that it isn't pervasive.
Palestine has long been subject to an embargo on American campuses. One of the goals of academic boycott is to expose and offset that embargo. Its sceptics read it as a punishment - when in reality it's a corrective to the punitive skullduggery of settler colonisation.
The evidence for Palestine’s toxicity in academic life is overwhelming. Pro-Israel groups are presently conducting a rampage against faculty governance and academic freedom. How many senior administrators have condemned Zionist attempts to outlaw criticism of a foreign state? Contrast this uniform silence with the administrative eagerness to condemn the ASA boycott resolution, which, more than two years later, hasn't a single violation of academic freedom to its name.
I was fired from a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign nearly two years ago for sending tweets critical of Israel. I haven't since been able to find another job in US academe. Disturbing the Zionist establishment earns the offender a lifetime punishment. Various colleagues have explored the possibility of hiring me, but the overtures always get stopped by management.
My story is personal, but it isn't unique. Recent history offers many examples of stalled or stunted careers at the hands of Israel supporters and the politicians they influence. Systematic efforts exist to purge the academy of unsavoury elements who vocalise the horrifying proposition that Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs ought to be treated equally. Those so affected never quite recover.
|There is no boycott of Israel; there are a series of interrelated boycotts against certain bodies|
BDS, in contrast, is not a blanket tactic. It devotes energy to institutions complicit in state violence and/or military occupation, and in spaces where pressure might effectively induce change. BDS doesn't extend to everything Israeli. It leaves the majority of Israeli society unscathed.
There is no boycott of Israel; there are a series of interrelated boycotts against certain bodies associated with the Israeli government - and against the government itself.
This distinction informs the viability of boycotting the United States. BDS does not target all elements of Israel, so it is not terribly different - in the limited sense of performing an action within a national geography - from the dozens of boycotts of American companies and institutions in effect at any given moment, for instance, those currently targeting Mississippi and North Carolina.
The United States hosts rich sites of action comparable to the work of BDS. Recent boycotts have implicated weapons manufacturers, companies practicing labour exploitation, fossil fuels, fast food restaurants, and, yes, universities. Boycott is a significant feature of American life.
Then there is the matter of barring Palestinian voices from various sectors of American life, including its places of higher education. It may not technically constitute a boycott, but its effect is the same, perhaps worse, because it has no moral encumbrance, only a rapacious urge to banish. It more closely resembles a blacklist.
I don't mean to equate this informal boycott with BDS, because the latter is uninterested in recrimination as a form of personal discipline. By making the boycott of Israeli universities explicit, by thinking about its obligations and assessing its relationship to academic freedom, its practitioners hold themselves accountable to professional ethics, which they understand to be dynamic and flexible.
One form of boycott names itself and makes its strategy explicit; it maintains a democratic organising apparatus and endeavours to ensure universal freedom. The other is illicit and authoritarian and sustains deep-seated structures of oppression.
One boycott is finite, existing only as long as colonisation continues. The other seeks to indefinitely maintain colonisation.
In boycotting Israel, we answer a specific call for solidarity issued from our colleagues in Palestine. No such call has been raised by the centralised institutions that seek to banish Palestine from educational consciousness. Indeed, I live and work in the Arab world because the academic managerial class in the US has exhibited remarkable discipline in maintaining an unacknowledged prohibition on all things Palestine.
So, why don't I boycott the United States? I don't need to boycott it; the United States is already boycotting me.
Steven Salaita is an American scholar, author and public speaker. His latest book is Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @stevesalaita
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.