Some Lessons in Effective Scapegoating
In the matter of the American Studies Association's just-ratified boycott of Israeli academic institutions, one must be thankful that the organization's president, Curtis Marez, is something of a dolt. What did Marez -- an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at San Diego -- do to earn this designation? He failed to challenge the allegation that he was leading an effort to scapegoat Jews. Savvier scapegoaters know how indispensably important it is to deny singling out the world's one Jewish country for discriminatory treatment simply because it is Jewish. When asked "Why Israel?" they are ready with an answer: "Because Israel is a uniquely evil country."
Marez, an earnest but unskilled propagandist, failed this very basic test. When New York Times reporter Richard Perez-Pena asked him why Israel, alone among the countries of the world, was chosen for excoriation and isolation -- the ASA has heretofore boycotted no other country -- Marez "did not dispute that many nations, including many of Israel's neighbors, are generally judged to have human rights records that are worse than Israel's, or comparable." Marez then compounded his error by telling Perez-Pena, in his organization's defense, that "one has to start somewhere."
"One has to start somewhere." Let's stay with this statement for a moment. It is true that, if an academic organization believes that boycotting academic institutions is a way to change the behavior of repressive governments (I don't know many people who think this way, but let's cede the point), then "one has to start somewhere." It seems, though, that one might want to start with China, where a prominent economist, Professor Xia Yeliang, was recently dismissed from Peking University; one state-run paper charged him with arguing for "freedom and democracy."
Another approach of the American Studies Association would be to study the reporting of such organizations as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as make lists of the countries that violate human rights on a regular basis (100 or so come to mind with minimum effort) and boycott them. Still another direction would be to boycott institutions in the U.S., which is occupying Afghanistan and conducting assassination campaigns in five or six countries around the world. Many members of the American Studies Association teach at institutions that receive research funding from the Pentagon. The most appropriate response by these academics might be to ban themselves from the conferences they organize and cease to read their own papers.
I doubt, though, that any of these things will happen. A campaign that starts with Israel, I fear, will end with Israel. One starts with Israel because one can.
Is it a coincidence that these academics are singling out the world's only Jewish-majority country for boycott? Only to those who know nothing of the history of anti-Semitic scapegoating. This is not to say that Professor Marez and his colleagues are personally anti-Semitic. Larry Summers, a past president of Harvard University, told Charlie Rose that he considersboycotts of Israel "anti-Semitic in their effect if not necessarily in their intent."
Summers went on: "If there was an academic boycott against a whole set of countries that stunted their populations in some way, I would oppose that because I think academic boycotts are abhorrent, but the choice of only Israel at a moment when Israel faces this kind of existential threat, I think, takes how wrong this is to a different level."
The American Studies Association is an unimportant American group; larger academic organizations have come out, as Summers did, against the idea of academic boycotts. The ASA is also facing an unlikely opponent in its anti-Israel campaign: Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, supports the boycott of settlement-made goods, but he has come out against broad anti-Israel boycotts. The ASA is more Palestinian, in other words, than the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Still, this vote by the ASA marks something of a turning point -- this is the second time this year that a U.S. academic organization has called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. I assume the ASA won't be the last group to do so. And I believe that we will one day see groups such as the ASA call for the boycott of American institutions and individuals who support Israel. Such a campaign would represent a logical extension of the boycott ratified this weekend. Yes, a boycott of businesses owned by pro-Israel American Jews would have a special odor about it, but really, doesn't the ASA boycott have something of the same smell?
Corrects number of boycotts in ninth paragraph.
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Jeffrey Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org