If We’re Not Yet Scared of Israel Boycotts, We Should Be

The ASA boycott of Israel is no once-off event to wave off as ‘anti-Semitic.’ The BDS movement will be here to stay, unless we get out and fight it.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer
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Rabbi Joel Seltzer

In April 2013, the general membership of the Association for Asian American Studies voted unanimously to institute an academic boycott of Israeli universities, their scholars and professors. Their reason for singling out Israel’s academic institutions is that they perceive them as “deeply complicit in Israel's violations of international law and human rights and in its denial of the right to education and academic freedom to Palestinians, in addition to their basic rights as guaranteed by international law."

Barely anyone stopped to notice.

But when in December 2013 the American Studies Association voted - though far from unanimously - to approve a nearly identical academic boycott, people stood up and noticed. Why?

Perhaps it was the sense of sheer magnitude: The nation’s largest interdisciplinary organization, representing 5,000 American Studies professors, was now officially lending its voice to the previously taboo tactics of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Or perhaps it was the fact that the source of this boycott was none other than the ivory tower of academia in America, an auspicious collection of some of the greatest scholars in the world, and therefore their voices could not simply be swatted away as the pattering of some sophomoric anti-Israel co-eds.

Or perhaps it was the vociferous response to the boycott, not just from the usual suspects of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, but from a growing list of American Universities, their presidents, and their professors who have spoken out against this boycott, which caused people to stand up and take notice this time. (As is the often the case: a lack of protest often leads to a lack of news coverage.) Indeed, the boycott even made it to YouTube through the clever reggae stylings of Ari Lesser in his satirical music video “Boycott Israel.”

And of course, the source of the protest most certainly could have come from the utter and blatant hypocrisy of such a boycott. How could a group that protested the lack of academic freedoms afforded to Palestinian scholars call for a boycott which, by definition, attacks the rights to academic freedom of Israeli professors? Similarly how could this group, or any other, single out Israel as the sole focus of the boycott while turning a blind eye toward injustice (academic or otherwise) in countries like China, Saudi Arabia or Syria?

But there might be another reason why this time, the calls for boycott were so viscerally noticed in our Jewish world; a more ominous reason: Because this time - it is only the beginning.

This time, we get the feeling that others will join the voices of the growing ranks that favor using the harshest (even if the most intellectually dishonest) tactics in calling for the end of the quagmire that is the Israeli-Palestinian geo-political relationship. Who is next? Which will be the next academic organization in America to seek to irrationally single out Israel? Which will be the first university to bar Israeli scholars altogether? Which will be the first campus to ban Israel advocacy, signaling the death knell of free speech in our colleges and universities?

This time we are deeply fearful – and if we are not, then we should be.

Without spending even a molecule of ink on how one goes about creating a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, without even a moment of time spent on the existential threats of the Gaza Strip to the south of Israel, Hezbollah to the north, and a nuclear Iran to the east, let me state the following: The status quo will only serve to bolster those calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. The status quo will also amplify the alienation of Israel from the world arena (with disclosure that the “world arena” was never - and may never - be a hospitable place for Jewish or Israeli players), and perhaps even alienate Israel from her strongest ally in the West, the United States of America. Simply put, the status quo is just that: “the status which is,” meaning it will not improve, it will not simply evaporate or ameliorate through the power of mere wishing. It is what it is.

But, as I like to say, I am not a man of problems, I am a man of solutions. And so I have been spending a lot of time thinking (which is to say worrying) about our new reality. Given the assumption that the BDS movement will likely grow in its popularity as a stratagem among academics around the world, we are left with two choices:

Option 1: Educate, inspire, inculcate, and instill a deep love for the State of Israel, as both a Jewish and a Democratic state, in every single teenager in America so that the next generation of college campuses and the future generation of American academics understand that in politics, as in intellectuality, we do not live in a world of black and white – but rather in a place of frustrating shades of gray, scarce to be counted. And therefore to understand Israel and its place in the world, is to understand it fully; for all its complexities, its successes and its shortcomings. And above all else, to understand that there can be no such thing as delegitimizing a sovereign people’s right to govern its own affairs of state, no matter how gloriously or poorly they choose to do so.

Option 2: We can close our eyes, wave off this movement as the last-grasp tactics of raging anti-Semites and Israel haters, and go back to our lives as normal, secretly and fervently wishing for the situation to improve.

I choose Option 1.

Because in a world of frustrating shades of gray – our biggest enemy is not the voice of dissent, it is the prevailing wind of apathy.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the Director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish Summer Camp experience under the educational auspices of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Women hold a Palestinian flag (illustration.)Credit: Reuters / Haaretz Archive

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