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If you’re willing to support a boycott of US academic conferences over Trump’s ban, why not BDS?

February 5, 2017
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Over 6,000 academics across the world have announced that they will boycott any academic conference held in the US until Trump’s travel ban—on refugees, and on men and women from seven Muslim-majority countries—is lifted. This has drawn widespread and mostly positive attention in the media. Even the more critical responses have been self-questioning and exploratory rather than hostile and negative.

This is all to the good and as it should be.

It should also answer what I always found to be one of the stranger critique of BDS: namely, people ask me and other supporters of BDS, if you think Israel is so bad, why don’t you support a boycott of the US? As if proponents of BDS like myself would suddenly, in the face of an academic boycott of the US, get worked up into a self-righteous defensive lather on behalf of American academe.

But let me push the comparison a little further because I see that a lot of people who support this type of boycott of US academic conferences over the Trump refugee/Muslim ban drawing a line against the wider academic boycott of Israel. (Truth be told, most of these folks wouldn’t even support a more limited type of boycott, in the case of Israel, of the sort that Trump’s ban has provoked.)

What these folks on social media say is this: This type of boycott of US academic conferences is more contingent and small-scale. It’s not a boycott of US academia tout court or of the US as a whole. And the reason it’s more limited is that it recognizes that the action that provoked this limited boycott—Trump’s refugee/Muslim ban—is itself a contingent feature of the American polity, specific to one presidency. It is not a feature of the American whole. It acknowledges that the majority of the people voted against Trump and that the ban might one day, perhaps even soon, be overturned.

But doesn’t that argument provide the very reasons for why we should undertake a more comprehensive academic boycott of the State of Israel?

Since its founding, Israel has had a ban on the return of Palestinian refugees—initially, some six to seven hundred thousand; now, in the millions—to the State of Israel. The older among these refugees are not seeking admission to a new home; they are seeking a return to their original home. That is not a contingent feature of the State of Israel, peculiar to one bad hombre like Netanyahu, opposed by the great majority. That is a permanent feature of the State of Israel, constitutive of its founding and identity as a Jewish state, enforced by politicians and state officials across the political spectrum for nearly seven decades now.

Wouldn’t the simplest rules of proportionality suggest that if you support a boycott of conferences held in the US—or don’t think it’s a bad thing—because of the Trump travel ban that a far more comprehensive academic boycott of the State of Israel is warranted? Or at least should be considered a legitimate topic of rational debate?

February 5, 2017
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