Men of letters take aim at idiotic boycotts of Israel

Academic boycotts of Israel passed recently by national academic associations have alarmed at least one interested party: academics.

Russell Berman

Professors from Stanford University, U.C. Berkeley and San Francisco State University addressed the hot-button issue this week at a panel hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council. It was part of JCRC’s annual convocation, held Jan. 14 in San Francisco.

The three professors, all Jewish, agreed that boycotts of Israeli universities and academics are unacceptable, using terms such as “bigoted,” “hypocritical” and “incredibly idiotic” to describe them. However, they disagreed on how best to respond to them.

“[Boycotts] hamper the academic freedom of precisely the voices of those academics [who are the] most passionate about peace,” said Ron Hassner, professor of political science at U.C. Berkeley. “It’s a corrupt enterprise.”

He cited the boycott resolution adopted last month by the American Studies Association, repeating the now-infamous quote from ASA president Curtis Marez. When asked why Israel is being boycotted when other countries have worse human rights records, Marez replied, “One has to start somewhere.”

Hassner compared that to a hypothetical state trooper in Alabama who gives speeding tickets only to African American drivers because “you have to start somewhere.”

Marc Dollinger

Russell Berman, who teaches primarily German studies and has been a Stanford professor for 35 years, applauded the overwhelming pushback against the ASA boycott from more than 180 university presidents across the country.

He said he previously had not considered himself a Jewish community activist but the ASA move spurred him to speak out.

“The ASA was a shock,” he said. “Not because it determines the Middle East or transforms American education, but because it carries with it a chilling effect on aspects of higher education. You have a creeping bigotry.”

Along with the ASA vote, the Modern Language Association passed a stinging anti-Israel resolution earlier this month, following announcements by the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies that they had endorsed a boycott.

Though these boycott calls have sparked widespread concern across the Jewish and pro-Israel communities, panelist and SFSU Jewish studies professor Marc Dollinger said he was not terribly concerned.“Having a Ph.D. doesn’t necessarily make you smart,” he said to much laughter.

He pointed out two schools of thought on the purpose of the university. One, that it is a bastion of inquiry and free expression; the other, that it is an engine of social change. Those who subscribe to the latter vision lead the charge for boycotts, he said.

Ron Hassner

“They use their professorships to advance [that vision],” Dollinger noted. “Some bring anti-Israel [views] into unrelated classes. BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel] is growing from this post–new left idea that the university is supposed to change the world. Anti-Zionism is high on the list.”

Given the outrage the ASA move sparked among many in academia, Dollinger said, “It will take 50 years for the ASA to get over this incredibly idiotic move. It has marginalized itself.”

All three professors agreed that anti-Israel and anti-Zionist expression often overlaps with raw anti-Semitism.    Berman did not think the boycott movement should be ignored, stating that it could lead to an increasingly hostile impression of Israel and Jews, and possibly put Jewish students at risk.

But Hassner, more than either of his colleagues, urged the Jewish community to ignore the boycott hysteria.

“I find it humiliating that we have to waste an hour to ponder [the topic],” he said. “It is of no interest to the State of Israel. Zionists don’t kvetch or complain about things. They either ignore them or take action to eliminate them.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.