In Defense of Academic Boycotts: A Response to Martha Nussbaum

In Defense of Academic Boycotts: A Response to Martha Nussbaum

In “Against Academic Boycotts” (Summer 2007), Martha Nussbaum develops an argument against academic boycotts in general and boycotts of Israeli academia in particular. The argument proceeds by first noting that boycotts are but one option open to those who wish to condemn and resist serious wrongdoing; second, that in a wide range of cases, boycotts were less effective and morally more troubling than the alternatives she presents. From there, on the basis of an analogy to the Israel-Palestine case, Nussbaum concludes that a boycott of Israeli academia is neither necessary nor likely to succeed and therefore unjustified. In what follows, I will point to two ways in which Nussbaum’s argument goes astray.

First, the analogy between Israel-Palestine and the cases Nussbaum discusses is weak. Although Nussbaum’s strategies may work well in other contexts, they are unlikely to have an impact on the situation in Israel-Palestine. Over the years, piecemeal mobilizations of the kind she favors have consistently failed to yield tangible results. Boycotts are likely to be more effective for two reasons. They are comparatively immune to government interference and their impact on the oppressive situation is more direct. I discuss these points in the course of presenting the case for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Second, I will show that boycotts are not “blunt instruments” that target institutions and all their members. Boycotts can be structured so as to censure and isolate institutions while preserving the academic freedom of individuals—whatever their political views. I sketch a model that shows how this can be done and explain why a boycott ought to be structured in this way. This shows that what Nussbaum argues against are not academic boycotts per se but a specific kind of boycott proposal, so that even if her argument works, little follows from its success.

The term “military occupation” conjures up images of soldiers maintaining law and order in a territory following an armed conflict. This image fails to convey the gravity of the harm done to Palestinian civilians living under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza, where Israel still controls Gaza’s borders, coastline, and airspace and can intervene militarily at will, thus effectively occupying it, the “disengagement” notwithstanding.

Since it assumed control of these areas forty years ago, Israel has made it difficult for the Palestinians to maintain a meaningful connection to their cultural traditions and intergenerational projects. It has done this by destroying important institutions and by systematically preventing civilians from gaining access to the goods these institutions afford. An example of the former is the constant assault on the Palestinian educational sector, of the latter the use of such polici...