Entry 5

Boycott Language

West Bank barrier wall, c. 2009; photo: Reuters

In a post on Jacket2, "Boycott Language" might mean the Poetry Wars of the 80s, when a boycott mentality around Language writing was manifest in certain quarters of the public sphere. My cover image says otherwise; it is evidence of the ongoing human rights horror in Israel and occupied Palestine that should be at the forefront of political discussion now. As a poet and critic attentive to "language," I want to contrbute to the current debate on the boycott of Israeli universities advocated by the BDS movement and the American Studies Association, along with the more narrow but also controversial resolution on the rights of Palestinian scholars to travel to the West Bank by the Modern Language Association. As with my last entry, the MLA has been the site of significant institutional work in poetics over the past two decades, but that is not simply a matter of ludic play. It also turns out that I was a member of ASA over the past year, but did not participate in the vote on its boycott resolution. 

To get to the point: I cannot support the ASA resolution on two counts. First is its confusion of two separate invocations of universal rights: the human rights of Palestinians and the academic freedom of scholars. These rights are not in conflict, and therefore not subject to any form of "means-end" rationale—as I see ASA's boycott language advocating. Let me explain as precisely as I can. On the one hand, the resolution cites the lack of academic freedom among Palestinian students and scholars as a result of "Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact [their] working conditions." The ASA's information page clarifies their position:

Under the current conditions of occupation, the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students is severely hampered, if not effectively denied. Palestinian universities have been bombed, schools have been closed, and scholars and students deported. The ordinary working conditions for Palestinian academics and students are severely constrained by restrictions on movement to and from work, on international travel, and by discriminatory permit systems. Israeli scholars critical of their country’s policies also face sanction since it is a civil offense for scholars in Israel to endorse the boycott.

I have no reason to doubt that these claims are well-founded, and they are profound violations of human rights. ASA then advocates "a boycott of Israeli academic institutions," meaning that scholars and institutions should not

enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others), or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.

While ASA believes that the scope of its boycott language is restricted only to institutional contacts, it is often difficult in practice (or in specific instances) to determine where individual and institutional contacts are precisely distinguished. Academic freedom is, without question, curtailed in relation to the aims of the boycott; ASA is asking scholars and institutions to give it up, willingly if provisionally, as a political act. But the resolution then goes on to return to a universal standard (true for everyone, everywhere) of academic freedom to discuss the boycott resolution:

It is also resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.

I assume that a similar right would apply to discussion of the resolution, as I am doing here, in critical terms—even as, unfortunately, the conduct of the debate, since the resolution, has been exceptionally polarized from both sides: you are either for it or against it. The Wall, in other words, is real. 

My first objection, then, is the simultaneous invocation and suspension of academic freedom in relation to a political goal whose ethical imperative should not be opposed to the right of scholars, or anyone, to freely discuss, learn, and act independently of political coercion. Even Judith Butler, who argues convincingly for the goals of the BDS movement, fudges the consequences of the resolution on this point. After carefully pointing out that the boycott would apply only to institutions, not individuals (via a labored parsing of cases that indicates the lack of rationale on this point), she concludes:

So given that no Israeli will be discriminated against on the basis of citizenship, and that increasing numbers of Palestinians might well enjoy academic freedom for the first time if the occupation is brought to an end, we can safely conclude that the principle of academic freedom will be more substantially realized through the support of BDS than by opposing it.

Academic freedom is being portrayed here as a kind of quantity—more of it under certain circumstances means that there can be less of it under others. Such a rationalization is precisely the means by which academic freedom is restricted under all kinds of conditions, not just the present one. If you say something the trustees don't like, the university will suffer: curtail your speech. If you say something that differs from a colleague, you may be seen as uncollegial: curtail your speech. If you write Language poetry, you might offend a workshop poet: curtail your speech. In fact, the general condition of academic life is to negotiate restrictions on what may be said, in order to continue to preserve the ideal (or the illusion?) of academic freedom and survive in institutional life. None of us, in fact, in any public circumstance that I am aware of, has genuine academic freedom—but this does not mean there should be less of it. Rather, it should be insisted on: academic freedom is impossible, but it must be preserved. What is left is to consider the consequences of specific compromises that are made, all the time, in order to continue to pursue the goals of scholarly and creative life. What are the downsides to this willing curtailment of a freedom that is never entirely realized, but that continues to be invoked as a standard? What are we doing when we give it up?

My second objection is a more general one: boycott mentality. As a symbolic, as much as practical, policy, the ASA resolution declares as "off limits" certain institutions and contacts. A Wall is being built, on the other side of which are those who continue to maintain contacts with Israel. The public reception of the resolution's perlocutionary force on this point has been quick, brutal, and may lead to much worse consequences than the ASA could have imagined; it may turn out to be a political disaster, in other words—but this is not my point. My point is simply the us-versus-them mentality that the boycott language creates, of boycott supporters versus everyone else, which maps onto not only 1) the actual us-versus-them state of affairs in Israel and Palestine but 2) every other form of us-versus-them in existence, from racism and class division to the Cold War and anti-Semitism. Here, the point that curtailing contact between peoples in intractable political situations—which would be either suspended or discouraged by the resolution—is a loss for precisely the goal of the resolution itself: greater public discussion of the situation in occupied Palestine, and the human rights issues involved. In terms of symbolic value and provoking debate, the resolution may indeed have a positive effect, even in its crudeness—but not in terms of the instrumental results it advocates, nor in terms of what it asks us to give up. Here, I will contrast the equally contentious resolution of the MLA, which points to the specific issue of the travel of scholars of Palestinian origin to the West Bank. It is specific, based on documented policy, and doable—and almost as symbolic, it turns out. There are, I will conclude, any number of ways—including divestment and sanctions, as with the campaign against Apartheid in South Africa—to pursue the goals of remediating Palestinian rights without an act of self-censorship or, worse, the creation of new boundaries.

Don't go there is a voiced or unvoiced introjection I have heard all my life: from my childhood in Taiwan, across the Straits from that monster, Red China: don't go there! To my student days in Berkeley, when fear of Oakland's police and racial tension were often voiced as don't go there; to my negotiations with the trauma of the Holocaust and the taboo of even setting foot in Germany: don't go there; to my teaching in Detroit, which is the object of national and suburban phobias: don't go there. In the next post, I will document what I learned when I did "go there"—to an academic conference at Tel Aviv University in November 1997—and how that experience informed my response to the boycott debate, and whether I would go there now.