Boycott If You Wish, But Don’t Force Others

In addition to “Don’t Be ‘Useful Idiots’ for BDS” by Michael Walzer, this post is a further followup to “Summer of Defeats for Academic BDS.”  It is by Steven B. Smith, the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University.  Both Professors Walzer and Smith spoke against a proposal considered and defeated by the Foundations of Political Theory section of the American Political Science Association to boycott Israel’s academic institutions.  

I am opposed to BDS in principle.  As someone who supports Israel but opposes the Likud government, I do not believe that a boycott achieves any demonstrable good for either Israelis or Palestinians.  In fact, there is some evidence that it achieves the opposite result.  The Israeli boycott bolsters the sense of Israel as a nation under siege that only benefits the political right.

Steven B. Smith

Beyond this, I find BDS morally selective.  It singles out Israel as if it were alone uniquely responsible for human rights abuses.  Israel is scarcely the only and by no means the worst abuser of human rights or academic freedom around the globe.  Does anyone need a list?  To single out Israel – the only Jewish state in the world – alone for censure borders on and sometimes spills over into anti-Semitism. This seems absolutely clear to me.

Third, for anyone conversant with the facts on the ground, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply complex.  There are no simple good guys and bad guys.  Israel is not blameless but neither are the Palestinians nor the surrounding states.  There is more than enough moral blame to go around to all parties that a boycott of any sort will be unable to solve.

I would only add that Israel, alone among the countries in the region, remains a vibrant democracy.  It is a country with liberal abortion policies, stringent gun control regulations, wide LBGTQ rights also in the Armed Forces (including IDF paying for gender assignment surgery), a universal single-payer health care that would be the envy of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and a competitive multi-party democracy that includes Palestinian representatives in the Knesset.

My main point is not, however, to convince you to share my point of view on Israel.  If you are in favor of BDS, be that thing.  I am not here to try to stop you. You are perfectly free to boycott Israeli speakers at your home institutions, not to travel to Israel, or buy Israeli goods.

My point is that you have no right to impose your views on others by seeking to have your moral views ratified through the Foundations group. FPT is a scholarly organization that includes members from many, many points of view.  To use this group as a forum to foist a highly-controversial point of view on everyone runs counter to everything I believe a group like this should be.

I note that several of the signatories to the BDS proposal have done so anonymously, fearing some kind of reprisal.  I note that I have already spoken to one person opposed to BDS who did not wish to speak because of similar fears.  Do we need to create some kind of moral purity test that will then be used in making decisions over hiring and tenure, as it inevitably will be?    

The boycott would only generate a counter- boycott. It will force people either to resign from the group because they do not want to be associated with BDS or to implicitly endorse BDS through their continual involvement with it.  Neither of these is desirable.  Both are coercive.  Why should we force people to take sides on an issue that, frankly, I suspect relatively few people know a great deal about.  There is again the issue of moral selectivity.  There are many global issues facing us that many of us care deeply about and yet no one wants to put them on the docket. Why Israel?  I ask you to consider this.

I am very much against using academic forums like this that should be broad-gauged and open to people of many theoretical and political views – I am a pluralist at heart – to try to advance highly controversial agendas like BDS.  It needlessly imposes a political litmus test and then forces people to take sides.  This may provide a momentary moral high for the people who support these boycott efforts, but I hope that as an academic association representing the full diversity of opinion among political theorists, we as a section will put politics aside and resist this plan.