Writing in The New Republic today, Michael Kazin issues a sharp attack on the BDS movement, particularly the recent vote of the American Studies Association (ASA) to boycott Israeli academic institutions. (That decision is now being voted upon by the wider membership of the ASA.)
Kazin levels two charges against the boycott movement. First, it is inconsistent: why single out Israel when there are other human rights violators like China and Russia that could just as easily be targeted for an academic boycott? Second, it is ineffective: the boycott movement is “quite unlikely to change anyone’s minds or, for that matter, Israeli policy.” It is a form of theater, professors playing politics.
Kazin contrasts the boycott movement of self-righteous, divisive, “flashy” poseurs with what he calls “a larger and more practical academic left.” That left is engaged in movements for economic justice on campuses across the country. It campaigns for a living wage for university workers and union rights for adjuncts; it works against sweatshop labor in Bangladesh and high student debt at home.
Beyond the justice of their cause, what attracts Kazin to this academic left is that it practices a version of what Michael Walzer calls connected criticism. “They ‘challenge the leaders, the conventions, the ritual practices of a particular society…in the name of values recognized and shared in the same society.’” While “one left talks about something it calls ‘American Studies’; the other actually practices it.”
Kazin’s first charge—inconsistency and double-standards—puzzles me. As a long-time activist, Kazin knows that campaigns against injustice inevitably single out one target, while ignoring others. The farm workers’ grape boycott of the 1960s and 1970s didn’t go after every workplace (or fruit) in the country; it shone a spotlight on one particular set of working conditions. The antiwar movement of Kazin’s youth didn’t go after all wars (or even all unjust wars) being fought around the globe; it targeted the war in Vietnam. The civil rights movement didn’t fix on every racial injustice on the planet; it went after American apartheid.
Nor do these movements necessarily target the worst injustices. Working conditions in the fields of California were awful, but God knows there were far worse elsewhere. American sexism wasn’t the most terrible on offer. South African apartheid wasn’t the most oppressive regime, and the death squads in El Salvador were hardly grislier than the killing fields of Cambodia. Yet the leaders of the domestic movements against California agribusiness, American patriarchy, South African apartheid, and the Salvadoran death squads chose their targets as they did, without burdening themselves with the charge of fighting even worse injustices elsewhere. Many people—including, I’m sure, Michael Kazin—supported them, and the world is better for that.
When Kazin invokes consistency, he reminds me of nothing so much as those rigid and abstract ideologues he so often denounces elsewhere. Indeed, what would Kazin say about a movement that, acting on some cockamamie notion of consistency, decided that it could only go after injustice somewhere if it simultaneously went after injustice everywhere? He’d call it foolish and dogmatic, and he’d be right. Those campus living wage movements he supports, after all, aren’t fighting for living wages everywhere, are they? And what would Kazin say to someone who refuses to support a living wage for workers—or a union for adjuncts—at Georgetown, where Kazin teaches, because workers in Guatemala have it so much worse? (If he hasn’t heard such criticisms, he should go to more meetings. Or read Matt Yglesias.) He’d think they were nuts—or insufficiently connected critics. (I’ll come back to that latter point in a second.)
It is in the very nature of a campaign for social justice that it be selective, focusing on targets that it can mobilize against and perhaps even defeat. And it is in the very nature of such targets that they can be mobilized against and defeated in part because they are not necessarily the most egregious, or oppressive, instances of their kinds. That’s what makes such movements practical, the very virtue Kazin espouses.
Which brings me to Kazin’s second point: he thinks the boycott movement is impractical. What in the world can a group of American Studies professors or campus activists do about the policies of the Israeli government?
According to the Israeli media, quite a bit. Unlike the detractors of the boycott movement in the US, voices in Israel seem genuinely alarmed about the growing power of the boycott movement. Not just in academia or in the US, but throughout the world.
Just yesterday, a piece in Haaretz opened with the following two grafs:
This has happened in recent days: The Dutch water company Vitens severed its ties with Israeli counterpart Mekorot; Canada’s largest Protestant church decided to boycott three Israeli companies; the Romanian government refused to send any more construction workers; and American Studies Association academics are voting on a measure to sever links with Israeli universities.
Coming so shortly after the Israeli government effectively succumbed to a boycott of settlements in order to be eligible for the EU’s Horizon 2020 scientific cooperation agreement, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement is picking up speed. And the writing on the wall, if anyone missed it, only got clearer and sharper in the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela.
As Michelle Goldberg, no friend of the BDS movement, recently reported in the Nation:
Indeed, one of the strongest arguments in favor of BDS is the degree to which it seems to be shaking the Israeli establishment. As Haaretz editor in chief Aluf Benn wrote in June, “Netanyahu is worried about the growing international boycott against Israel….He hears warnings in the business community about the damage the diplomatic impasse is causing….If he thought it was harmless noise, he would ignore or minimize the problem. But Netanyahu apparently fears being remembered as the leader during whose time Israel was distanced from the family of nations.”
Many in Israel were shocked earlier this year when Stephen Hawking, acceding to the boycotters, pulled out of Israel’s prestigious President’s Conference. Discussing the reaction of Israel’s leadership, former Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner wrote, “Behind closed doors they’re laughing at Kerry’s peace mission; they’re not laughing at Stephen Hawking or BDS, are they?”
It’s not just Israel that’s worried about the boycott movement. So is the White House, as that Haaretz article I quoted above goes onto say:
In recent days, American statesmen seem to be more alarmed about the looming danger of delegitimization than Israelis are. In remarks to both the Saban Forum and the American Joint Distribution Committee this week, Secretary of State John Kerry described delegitimization as “an existential danger.” Vice President Joe Biden, speaking to the same JDC forum, went one step further: “The wholesale effort to delegitimize Israel is the most concentrated that I have seen in the 40 years I have served. It is the most serious threat in my view to Israel’s long-term security.
Whatever one thinks about the BDS movement, it’s clearly having an impact. Its opponents take it seriously, so much so that they have devoted considerable resources to fighting it. Kazin is no doubt right that the BDS movement has chosen a high wall to scale, but what’s most amazing about the movement is how quickly it has not only shifted the discourse but how shaken the most seemingly intransigent defenders of Israel have become. That’s not victory by any stretch—and a shaken Israel can easily respond by drifting even further to the right. But the BDS movement is still in its earliest years, and increasing intransigence in response to a social movement is hardly peculiar to the Israeli government. Indeed, it is a feature of virtually all regimes that come under attack, only to give way years later.
But it’s Kazin’s final point about the “flashy” politics of the BDS movement as against the connected criticism of economic justice movements that I find hardest to understand. For starters, most of the activists around BDS that I know are also involved in economic justice campaigns. Take the activist I know best: me. I first got involved in the left through my work with a TA union in the 1990s, and I’ve continued to be involved in various campus labor activities since then. I also support BDS. And I know lots of people like me. While I think Kazin is right that Israel-Palestine is a line of cleavage on the left, the larger distinction he draws between economic justice campaigns and BDS is not one I see in my everyday world.
And what about this connected critic business? Is there any other country on the planet that the United States is more connected to than the State of Israel? There’s the obvious fact that Israel is the highest recipient of US foreign aid. More than that, there is the deep ideological and cultural connection to the issue of Israel-Palestine felt by American Jews—as well as Christians, Muslims, and Arabs (not to mention other American citizens). While Israel is hardly the only country to be the object of intense interest from a diaspora community in the US, it has the distinctive feature of being the object of intense interest from multiple diasporic and non-diasporic communities in the US. Who happen to stand on opposite sides of the issue. What’s more, many of those individuals happen to be on American campuses.
When Kazin describes connected criticism by citing Walzer—challenging “the leaders, the conventions, the ritual practices of a particular society…in the name of values recognized and shared in the same society’”—I think he’s actually describing the BDS movement quite well. Most BDS activists I know speak on behalf of the most minimal norms of a liberal democracy, which are widely shared in the US: namely, that Israel should be the state of its citizens (and not some far-flung community of an ancient diaspora), and that it should govern itself according to the norms of one person/one vote, as opposed to the hard facts of ethnic privilege and military occupation. When I talk to BDS activists, that’s what they tell me.
It is not the underlying principles or ideals of the BDS movement that make it controversial; it is the application of those ideals to the State of Israel and its patrons in the United States that make it controversial. To that extent BDS activists look like no one so much as those connected critics whom Walzer celebrated in his book: Camus, Silone, Orwell, and the Hebrew prophets.
If Kazin were to hone in even closer, he’d see that many members of the BDS movement are, like myself, Jewish. And while they speak in a variety of registers, they often invoke Jewish norms and traditions against the State of Israel and its defenders. Indeed, just this week, Jewish students at Swarthmore made international headlines when they sought to retrieve the figure of Hillel from the campus institution that bears its name. While the Swarthmore Hillel did not come out against the State of Israel—all it wants is the right to work with non-Zionist and anti-Zionist groups and speakers, a right the international Hillel organization proscribes—it explicitly invoked a Jewish tradition in taking this stance (and I suspect many of the people in the Swarthmore Hillel who are pushing this line are themselves sympathetic to BDS):
…Rabbi Hillel valued Jewish debate and difference – it was at the core of his practice. We do the same. For us, that is what the name Hillel symbolizes.
Therefore, we choose to depart from the Israel guidelines of Hillel International. We believe these guidelines, and the actions that have stemmed from them, are antithetical to the Jewish values that the name “Hillel” should invoke. We seek to reclaim this name. We seek to turn Hillel – at Swarthmore, in the Greater Philadelphia region, nationally, and internationally – into a place that has a reputation for constructive discourse and free speech. We refuse to surrender the name of this Rabbi who encouraged dialogue to those who seek to limit it.
To that end, Swarthmore Hillel hereby declares itself to be an Open Hillel. All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist. We are an institution that seeks to foster spirited debate, constructive dialogue, and a safe space for all, in keeping with the Jewish tradition. We are an Open Hillel.
Again, connected critics.
Let me end on a more personal note. I know Michael Kazin. We’ve spoken at conferences together, I’ve written for his magazine, we email each other. I know him to be a good guy. A very good guy. He’s decent, and he’s a genuinely nice person (rare in academia and even rarer on the left).
But something about this issue—like certain other conflicts with the left—brings out a different Michael Kazin. A less measured, less grounded Michael Kazin. (The New Republic emailer accompanying his piece calls BDS “the worst cause in campus activism.” I’m sure Kazin didn’t write that, but it captures the tone of his piece. I guess the folks at TNR don’t know just how bad campus causes can get.) A contemptuous, teeth-on-edge Michael Kazin emerges. He starts to sound like a disconnected critic, someone who doesn’t recognize—because he cannot even see—his opponents. Even though they are, on virtually every other issue, his comrades.
I should know. I’m one of them.
Update (December 14, 11: 15 pm)
It occurs to me that there is one other problem with the selectivity argument—and the insinuation, which often accompanies that argument, that there is something anti-Semitic about that selectivity. It does too much work. It is an argument that applies not only to an academic boycott of Israel but also to any statement or action against the State of Israel.
Think about this way. If a bunch of students on campus decide to organize a rally to protest Israel’s bombing of Gaza—and don’t organize (or haven’t organized) rallies to protest every other instance of bombing—they are being selective. And thus—in the eyes of many of Israel’s defenders or critics of the BDS movement—anti-Semitic. Therefore, their rally is illegitimate and shouldn’t be supported. If Peter Beinart criticizes the bombing of Gaza, the same argument applies. If Congress passes a resolution—work with me—condemning the bombing, the same argument applies. If the UN passes a resolution, the same.
In the end, the real function of the selectivity argument, particularly when it’s paired with the claim of anti-Semitism (and, let’s be frank, that’s really the point that’s being made), is to make impossible any criticism of or action against the State of Israel.