The American Studies Association landslide vote in favor of boycotting Israeli institutions is a milestone, a landmark event. As one commenter put it, succinctly, “history is being made before our eyes.” The vote put the BDS movement, growing in Europe and heretofore well known only to Americans who follow Israel and Palestine closely, on the American political map. The New York Times, which has long ignored the campaign, put the ASA vote on its front page.
A few discrete points:
Yes, the American Studies Association is not broadly representative of America. College professors are generally liberal, and ASA members are probably more liberal than most. Much of American Studies analyses, contextualizes, explores, deconstructs American ethnic relations, which is in great part the story of how America’s white founders and their descendants oppressed, marginalized, etc. immigrants and people of color. At many times in my life, I’ve found this discourse irritating, tiresome, latently oppressive. But it is also, in the main, true. And it is something that America can be proud of that it has (in real world comparative terms) traveled astonishingly far in fulfilling its founding ideals, which were not (explicitly) racist. I’m not an Angela Davis fan (the black former communist candidate for president is an ASA stalwart) but I’m glad that someone like her can have a prominent and influential career, rather than be denied it as she would have been in the America of my grandparents.
The vote won’t have any immediate and practical impact on Israel and the occupation. It was often argued about the boycott of South Africa that such activities “hurt the people they were supposed to help.” Perhaps in the short run this was true, but Israeli decision-makers are becoming increasingly conscious that they can’t forever occupy the West Bank and benefit from Western diplomatic support and all the economic and cultural benefits that entails. Israelis have voted increasingly for right-wing governments, supported the expansion of settlements, and are generally blithely indifferent to the occupation, whether it be the checkpoints, the destruction of Palestinian homes, the refusal to allow Palestinians to build new homes, the unrelenting bureaucratic restrictions on Palestinian travel, freedom of movement, and life. Growing international isolation will be Israel’s price for this policy. The ASA vote is the tip of the iceberg of an international campaign to sanction Israel for its refusal to allow Palestinian self-determination on even a small segment of the Palestinan Mandate territory. In Europe, major companies have pulled out of Israeli contracts, and Israelis have been provisionally denied access to EU funds and institutions which they have long been accustomed to accessing. The movement will grow slowly, but it will grow and Israel will change because of it. Just as South Africa did.
One talking point put forth by almost all opponents of BDS is to ask why Israel, of all the human rights violators in the world, is being “singled out.” This is typically a not so veiled accusation of anti-Semitism. Jeffrey Goldberg, using a favorite Israel lobby trope, claimed the ASA vote had the same “smell” as an anti-Semitic boycott of American Jewish businesses.
There are several powerful retorts to the charge that there is something unsavory about singling Israel out. Corey Robin notes that activism invariably focuses on selected and symbolic targets. Opponents of the Vietnam war didn’t protest against all wars; opponents of American segregation didn’t focus on all racial injustice everywhere.
A corollary to this point is that America, because of its “special relationship” with Israel, has a particular obligation to stand up against the injustices Israel is responsible for. I’m sure it’s possible to catalogue the human rights violations carried out by Moscow or Beijing and argue they exceed those carried out by Tel Aviv. But it is relevant that Benjamin Netanyahu received something like 29 standing ovations last time he was invited to speak before a special session of the U.S. Congress, as major AIPAC donors filled the spectators gallery. President Obama, in trying to find the political space to negotiate with Iran, has felt the need for he and his top officials to schedule scores of meetings with top Israelis, and with leading members of the Israel lobby. There seems no end to it. If, somehow, Israel were unimportant to American foreign policy, I can see that protesting against it would seem beside the point, and perhaps even anti-Semitic. If some Latin American caudillo were fawned over by Congress, while his fans played a hugely disproportionate role in American campaign finance, I would welcome a boycott of his country. But if one wants to change the policy which brought us the Iraq war, perhaps the most costly blunder in the history of American foreign policy, may bring us war with Iran, and was at least related to 9/11, one has to start with Israel.