Calev Myers - So let them boycott

If you have read recent headlines, you may believe that Israel’s current situation is catastrophic. Something must be done. We cannot continue to settle the territories. If the State of Israel does not proceed to remove the settlements, and to recognize an independent Palestinian State, our very existence as a Jewish-Democratic state will be threatened.

But is this really the case?

In my opinion, the Israeli media coverage of the boycott by the American Studies Association of Israeli academic institutions is nothing less that hysterical. For those who have not yet heard, I will quote here the wording of the boycott: “the resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom, and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians”.

There is no question that it is desirable to enhance, to the extent that it depends on us, the academic freedom of Palestinian lecturers, researchers and students. Likewise, most of us would agree that we should press forward with the peace negotiations. Indeed, engaging in dialogue with our counterparts is essential.

A Small Number of Professors

Nevertheless, before we reach drastic conclusions regarding this new academic boycott, it is important to put all of the facts on the table. It is important to note that the American Studies Association is an organization with a membership of approximately 5,000 American professors. At first glance, these may appear to be impressive numbers, but it should be pointed out that there are some 1.8 million professors in the US. Hence, we are dealing with the decision of an organization which represents roughly 0.28% of American professors. If we further analyze this percentage, we see that 66% of the association’s members supported the boycott. In other words, only 0.185% of professors in America called this week for an academic boycott of Israel.

An imminent threat? A state of emergency? Not really. Actually, an opposition of 0.185% to any issue regarding Israeli policy, is not bad at all.

We can add to these statistics the fact that a much more significant organization, the American Association of University Professors, which consists of approximately 48,000 professors (2.67% of all American professors), is implicitly against the academic boycott of Israel. In the words of representatives of this organization, “an academic boycott of Israel violates the academic ideal of free exchange of ideas”.

The above findings can be summarized by stating that 0.185% of American professors support an academic boycott of Israel, whereas 2.67% of American professors reject such a notion. The clearest conclusion that can be reached by these numbers is that they present no clear conclusion, whatsoever. We still do not know what 97% of professors in the US think about an academic boycott of Israel.

As difficult as it is to admit, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict probably does not frequently cross the minds of the vast majority of academic lecturers in the US.

Another important fact, which evaded the newspaper headlines regarding the recent boycott, is that not one of the 4,495 institutions of higher education in the US has ever declared a boycott of Israel. The recent declaration of boycott came from a group of professors, who work in thousands of different institutions. Their views do not necessarily represent the presiding opinions of the institutions themselves. Hence, this is a very small group of professors expressing nothing more than their personal opinions.

Academic Debate is a Must

I am not claiming that Israeli public relations on campuses overseas are in a good situation or that we should be indifferent to the opinions of international academics. Most Israelis studying in academic institutions overseas have experienced embarrassing situations of toxic anti-Israeli sentiment. I believe that we need to act to change this reality, and I am personally committed to do so. However, if there is one thing that I have learned from years of Israeli advocacy around the world, it is that it is actually possible to change peoples’ opinions. The most useful tool that I know and have successfully employed to do so, is open, honest academic debate.

An example of academic debate, which effectively changed peoples’ opinions, I saw with my own eyes at Oxford University in England. Over a year ago, the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, an organization which I lead, started getting involved at Oxford, after a declaration was made boycotting Israeli professors there. In August 2012, we held a lecture series entitled “Answering Tough Questions”. Six months after the event, in February 2012, the Oxford Student Union voted with a crushing majority to reject the BDS campaign, which calls for boycotting, divesting and sanctioning Israel.

I learned that it is not only possible but imperative that we act to improve the image of Israel within international academic venues. Nevertheless, for the sake of intellectual integrity, let’s not exaggerate the importance of a decision of an insignificant and powerless organization. I think that if it were not for the Israeli media, no one in the world would be aware of the existence of the American Studies Association or its decisions; with the exception of its own membership.

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