Thursday, December 3, 2009

Academic Boycott of Israel

People at my university (a.k.a. the best, most amazing academic institution in the world) have started joining the academic boycott of Israel. [If you don't know about this boycott, you can find a lot of relevant information here.] I have been asked to join the boycott as well, and for the past few days I have been researching the boycott and trying to formulate my attitude towards it. Since I am in Hispanic Studies, I don't have many (or, to be honest, any at all) opportunities to collaborate with Israeli scholars or attend any academic conferences held in Israel. My interest in the subject is, thus, purely a matter of principle.

One of the reasons that people give to oppose the boycott is that it isn't likely to effectuate any real change in the way Israel treats the Palestinian people. This line of reasoning is, in my view, completely specious. This should be a matter of ideology. We cannot avoid upholding our convictions just because they might not be practical or useful.

Having said that, I have to state that I am opposed to the boycott. As I said before, the way Israel is discussed in the liberal circles (and even among otherwise intelligent and well-informed academics) is extremely reductive and simplistic. I am absolutely convinced that both Israelis and Palestinians have a profound need for the conflict and the terrorism that they are experiencing at each other's hands. This is the way both these groups create their national identity. This is not the matter of a bad Israel versus good Palestinians, or evil Palestinians versus good, long-suffering Israelis. This is a game that both peoples are playing with utter abandon because they need it.

People who support the boycott often reference the academic boycott of South Africa. They fail to see that the case of South African apartheid was absolutely different from what is going on in Israel. The difference lies in the way nationalism works. Apartheid was a horrible system of racial marginalization and persecution and the desire of all progressive people to see apartheid come to an end had nothing to do with state-building and nationalism. Nationalism has its own long history and its own mechanisms that make it impossible to equate nationalistic struggles to other kinds of persecutions and injustices. Pontificating about Israel and Palestine without first obtaining the knowledge about the workings of national identity is not a smart thing to do. Israelis and Palestinians do not need more uninformed people getting on a soapbox and preaching about things they do not understand very well. Anybody who has any understanding of nationalism whatsoever will realize that boycotting Israel only helps Israeli nationalists.

If you are interested in how nationalism works, here are some basic readings that will help you understand its origins and mechanisms:

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