The Case for Israel and Academic Freedom
Leading the fight to shut down an anti-Israel boycott.
(/sites/default/files/uploads/2014/06/William-A.gif)This Tuesday evening in Los Angeles, Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors is hosting Cornell law professor William A. Jacobson as he presents “The Case for Israel and Academic Freedom.” At the forefront of the fight against the American Studies Association (ASA) academic boycott of Israel, Jacobson will argue that the boycott is anti-educational, anti-peace, and based on misconceptions and omissions about the history and legality of the conflict.
Prof. Jacobson is the founder and publisher of two popular websites, Legal Insurrection and College Insurrection, which have covered the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement for years. He has been cited in major publications such as The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, Forbes, National Review, Commentary, and elsewhere. Through Legal Insurrection, Jacobson was instrumental in obtaining rejections of the academic boycott by over 250 University Presidents, and has filed a challenge to the ASA’s tax exempt status.
I asked him a few questions in advance of Tuesday’s event.
Mark Tapson: First, tell us briefly about Legal Insurrection and College Insurrection, and their purpose.
William Jacobson: Legal Insurrection went live on October 12, 2008, less than a month before the presidential election. There was no long-term plan to start it. Rather, it reflected my growing frustration with what I saw as blatant media bias in favor of Obama, and a general mania surrounding the Obama campaign. Since then, we have covered a wide range of political and legal issues, concentrating on those areas in which the two overlap. We have earned a name for ourselves by grabbing onto issues and candidates and doing the type of in-depth research and exhaustive follow-up that are hard to find these days.
As an example, our coverage of Elizabeth Warren drove many of the issues with which she struggled in her 2012 Senate campaign and was so extensive that we preserved the research in a separate website, ElizabethWarrenWiki.org.
College Insurrection was started in August 2012, as we found ourselves focusing more and more on the problems non-liberal students faced on campuses. Unlike Legal Insurrection, which focuses on creating original content, College Insurrection is more of an aggregator, pulling stories from college newspapers and other media.
MT: What is your objection to the American Studies Association boycott and to academic boycotts in general?
WJ: Systematic academic boycotts are anti-educational and destructive far beyond the individuals or entities boycotted. The ASA boycott, if it were to be adopted universally as its backers propose, would affect not just the academic freedom of Israelis, but also of all those who want to engage in the free exchange of ideas. Joint research would be cut off, as would student and faculty research exchanges. That takes the choice away from individuals, including students. By what right to faculty have the right to take educational opportunities away from students? It’s the height of faculty arrogance.
Moreover, where does it stop? The purported justifications for the academic boycott apply to dozens of countries, including the United States. Our universities are built on what once were Native American lands, we had slavery and segregation, “institutional racism” allegedly still exists at our universities, and our universities widely participate in Department of Defense related research. So why aren’t these American academic boycotters of Israel also boycotting their own universities? It’s beyond hypocrisy, it’s a singling out of the only Jewish nation in the world for treatment based on standards applied to no one else. Substitute “black” for “Jewish” and you’d call it racism; so it is, as former Harvard President Lawrence Sommers said, anti-Semitic in fact, if not in intent.
MT: The Cornell Daily Sun mentioned recently that you compared the boycott to your “personal experiences studying abroad in Moscow under Soviet rule and said the lack of an academic boycott against the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin could have contributed to its eventual downfall.” Can you elaborate on that?
WJ: The Daily Sun did not accurately paraphrase that part of my lecture. I discussed my experiences as an exchange student in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and how despite the horrors of the Soviet system under Stalin and others, we still wanted academic interaction. My point was that we felt, in the early 1980s, that our presence in Moscow and interaction with Soviets was important regardless of what the Soviet system represented, and no one was suggesting an academic boycott. These academic interactions in the 1980s may have contributed to the eventual downfall of the Soviet system as the more free flow of information enlightened Soviet citizens to ideas of liberty.
MT: What do you say to the ASA and to BDS activists who insist that Israel is an apartheid state?
WJ: They are either ignorant, or deliberate propagandists. Apartheid was a unique system of racial domination by a minority over a majority based on racial classification, above and beyond the types of discrimination that exist in every country. Much as the Holocaust was unique in that it systematized and industrialized genocide, so too Apartheid was unique which is why it is considered under international law to be a Crime Against Humanity.
The Rome Convention on the Crime of Apartheid is very specific that it requires systematized domination through acts which themselves are crimes, of one “racial group” over another. That is not what is happening in Israel. Israel is a majority ruled nation, not minority ruled. Israeli Jews are themselves mutli-racial, with approximately half being refugees from or the descendants of refugees from Arab lands. Israel also has gone to great effort to rescue non-white Jewish populations.
The divisions in Israel are religious or ethnic, not racial, which is common throughout the world. No one claims that majority Islamic domination in the Middle East and elsewhere is “Apartheid,” so why is that label applied to the only Jewish state? If religious domination constituted Apartheid, then every country which has adopted in whole or in part Islamic law would be an Apartheid state. But that’s not the way anyone uses the term, except as to Israel.
I could go on and on, but the short answer is that the term “Apartheid” has been so broadened by enemies of Israel that the terminology as applied to Israel has become a weapon divorced from legal and historical reality. That even John Kerry and some Israeli politicians use the term inaccurately is a testament to the success of the decades-long propaganda campaign against Israel.
MT: The New York Timesseemed to suggest months ago that the ASA is a rather insignificant organization and that the backlash against its boycott has been almost overkill. Do you think the Times was underestimating the boycott? Do you think the BDS movement in general is faltering or gaining ground?
WJ: We should take BDS seriously because it is a malignant ideology which seeks to dehumanize Israeli Jews. The best evidence of where BDS leads was the publication on multiple social media platforms of a Nazi-era anti-Semitic cartoon by Vassar Students for Justice in Palestine. It didn’t start at Vassar with Nazi-inspired demonization of Jews, but that’s where it inevitably led. So we should fight the BDS movement early, before it spreads like it has in Europe, where anti-Zionism and anti-Semitic violence go hand in hand. That said, we don’t need to panic. In the United States support for Israel is at historic highs, and there is no meaningful political movement espousing anti-Israeli platforms. Let’s keep it that way.
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