A Reply to Mohammed Abed

A Reply to Mohammed Abed

On Academic Boycotts

As before, I shall not debate the specific facts concerning Israel and Palestine; this must be left to those whose expertise lies in that area. As my article went to press, however, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) in Britain has voted to boycott Israeli universities and academics, and I shall discuss this case, because it illustrates several points in my argument.

I am very grateful to Mohammed Abed for the commitment to civil dialogue that he has shown throughout our exchange, which began last year at the American Philosophical Association. Let me begin by addressing his constructive proposal; I shall then turn to his counterarguments.

Abed’s proposal has two parts: first, that American and European academics might refuse to take part in academic activities inside Israel; second, and most centrally, that they should work together on creating dialogue by sponsoring events in Palestinian universities that “put Israeli, European, and American academics face-to-face with each other and with the appalling conditions in which Palestinians—academics included—are forced to live.” I find the latter proposal a wonderful idea, and I hope to join Abed in organizing such a conference, on issues of social and global justice. Obviously, however, the goal of increasing understanding will be reached only if Israeli academics are (as he proposes) included; so it would appear that Abed does not favor the ostracism of individual academics that the British boycott proposes.

Abed later confirms this reading, when he speaks of crafting any boycott so as to avoid “minor cases of injustice to individual academics.” I do not believe that refusing to publish people’s articles, refusing to referee their materials for tenure, refusing to write letters of recommendation, and refusing to invite them to conferences (all of which have been repeatedly proposed in Britain and elsewhere in Europe) are at all “minor,” particularly for younger academics. We can at least agree, however, that such measures would not contribute to the type of understanding that Abed rightly seeks, and I am very glad that he opposes them. I call on him to denounce the British resolution as an inappropriate measure.

So far as I can see, then, Abed’s proposal amounts to a boycott only in the sense that it asks foreign academics not to give lectures or hold conferences inside Israel. At the APA, he proposed that those invited to such conferences should ask that they be relocated to a Palestinian venue. I think that this is often a good idea, but not always. A conference on social justice could usefully be relocated, and all involved would be likely to profit from the experience of meeting in East Jerusalem or on the West Bank. By contrast, a lecture I plan to give at Hebrew University this December, in memory of a scholar who dedicated his career to rabbinical education, could not plausibly be relocated, ...