No Start-up Nation Without Free World: On ASA Boycott

The young generation of Israeli right-wing politicians seems completely incapable of understanding the existential importance of Israel’s being a respected member of the civilized world.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Let me first make one point as clear as I possibly can. Singling out Israel for academic boycott as the American Studies Association (ASA) has done is intellectually indefensible and morally untenable. It borders on the ridiculous to boycott Israel which - with all its defaults - is a functioning liberal democracy that by and large honors human rights, while not boycotting regimes that hang gays, stone adulterous women to death and don’t have academic freedom or freedom of the press to begin with.

When asked why the ASA was singling out Israel, its president Curtis Merez answered “you got to start somewhere.” This answer is a blot of shame for the organization that allows Merez to speak in its name. I expect academics to be capable of more coherent intellectual and moral argument. Israel is so far not threatened, because so far U.S. academic mainstream institutions have rejected any form of academic boycott against Israel without hesitation. We can be fairly certain that the ASA boycott resolution will not become a widespread precedent in the U.S. Nevertheless many expect a heated discussion about a possible boycott in the Modern Language Association, a far more weighty organization than the ASA in its January convention.

I am afraid though that Israel’s right-wing politicians will use this preposterous academic boycott to return to their usual lament that all criticism of Israel’s policies is motivated by anti-Semitism and that we Jews should by no means ever listen to what the gentiles say. Such a reaction would be as intellectually stupid and morally preposterous as the academic boycott itself.

The EU has recently started a very differentiated approach to Israel’s occupation policy. It has published guidelines that say that no Israeli institution located in or cooperating with organizations or projects in the West Bank must receive any EU funding. In doing so the EU gives a very clear message: Israel inside the green line is a perfectly legitimate state that enjoys preferred status in the EU, and will continue to have close economic and academic relations with the EU.

As opposed to that the EU has a very clear position about the occupation. The West Bank is not Israel, but occupied territory, and Israel violates human rights by perpetuating the occupation, expropriating Palestinian land and settling Israelis there, which is forbidden according to the Geneva Convention. The EU therefore boycotts every institution that participates in the occupation.

It is very difficult to attack the EU’s position as unfair or as singling out Israel. The EU neither delegitimizes Israel’s existence or its status as a liberal democracy. It is just very clear-cut in opposing Israel’s infringements on international law and human rights, and it is also increasingly willing to apply its considerable leverage to apply pressure on Israel to cease the occupation. Israel has in fact not had any choice but to accept the EU’s position lately in order to allow Israel to be part of Horizon 2020, the EU’s largest research initiative of recent years that is vital for the future of Israel’s universities.

Israel’s closest friends and supporters in the U.S. who have always taken swift action against boycotting Israel academically or economically will find it close to impossible to find intellectual and fault with the EU’s strategy that simply refuses to support the occupation in any way.

Israel’s right-wingers might still argue that Israel’s occupation cannot be compared to atrocities like those committed by Syria, Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

That is correct, and Israel should, in fact, be happy that the civilized free world measures us by its own yardstick and not by those used to measure brutal dictatorships and failed states. We want to be part of the EU’s Horizon 2020, we are now part of CERN, and Israel will hopefully continue to be seen as a valuable member of the Free World.

Our problem is that the young generation of Israeli right-wing politicians seems completely incapable of understanding the existential importance of Israel’s being a respected member of the Free World. They think that Startup Nation Israel can exist without Israel being embedded in the Free World’s network of Research Universities, and they think that Israeli Medicine can continue to flourish without international collaboration. And they do not understand that being part of the Free World requires accepting its civilizational norms.

Israeli high-tech workers. Rare is the Ethiopian-Israeli among them.Credit: Alon Ron

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