In the wake of the failed attempt at passing a boycott resolution (of Israeli academic institutions) at the recent MLA conference, here are some thoughts. (Readers of the Duck might be aware that last year’s ISA conference saw a modest attempt at bringing a discussion on BDS forward. That proposal was also voted down.)

Let’s talk (past each other)!

The debate over the academic boycott is often frustratingly unproductive.

On one hand, some anti-boycotters accuse boycott proponents of being antisemitic. While some boycotters may be antisemitic (just as some anti-boycotters may be antisemitic!), the accusation is ill-conceived and distracting. One claim I often hear — that since roughly half the world’s Jews live in Israel, then BDS must be antisemitic — simply doesn’t hold up. BDS is a tool to coerce Israel to comply with international law and adhere to human rights imperatives, not a boycott of Judaism or Jews.

On the other side, some boycott proponents accuse boycott opponents of being chained to other allegiances. “The bad conscience of liberal Zionism,” David Lloyd, English professor at UC-Riverside, wrote in Mondoweiss in describing the deliberations at the MLA, “forced to defend the indefensible, was on full display.” This too, is a bad-faith response. While some boycott opponents may be motivated by fealty to the State of Israel or to Zionism, there are enough good arguments against academic boycotts as a tactic to demand a fair consideration of the ethics writ large. More on this, below.

About the MLA deliberations, Lital Levy, a comparative literature professor at Princeton who followed the proceedings and later the responses from colleagues on both sides, says she “felt caught in the middle.” Rather than “digging in our heels,” Levy says, we should “actually talk to each other (and not just at these emotionally laden public hearings at MLA), but throughout the year, directly.” (Levy has more to say about the fraught nature of dialogue, though, below.) Continue reading

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