Monday, March 7, 2016

BDS and the ISA

There is a proposal to discuss the Boycott/Divest/Sanction effort against Israel at the International Studies Association meeting.  I am not thrilled.  Why?  Despite being critical of how Israel has handled the Palestinians and despite being very critical of its current political leadership, I am opposed to this effort because who is supposed to do the targeting, of who it targets, the questionable effort at the moment, and my desire not to be embroiled in an endless contentious meeting.  I think one can be a critic of Israel without being anti-semitic, by the way, although one can be both or neither.

To be clear, the proposal is here, and the key text is:

Working backwards, the Governing Council of the ISA meets for about 6 hours the day before the conference really kicks off to discuss a variety of matters including examining the finances, approving the next slate of committee representations, considering how the organization is organized, approving of new sections and caucuses (I am on the GC this year since my proposal for a new Online Media Caucus survived the approval process last year, unlike two other would-be sections), and on and on.

This long meeting has been moderately contentious each year I have been on or near it (the last two years) because of representation problems--two years ago, it was about the apparent segregation of men and women in the more respected, more visible committee spots and the less respected, less visible. Last year, it was about the new Sapphire series that seemed mighty white and male.  I was guessing that this year the representation fight would be over the slate of officers that were nominated--mighty white.  These representation issues are always taken seriously because the organization does not want to be either deliberately or accidentally excluding people.  Well, BDS is aimed at exclusion, and has already started creating much tension and contention, so I can only guess that a BDS discussion at the ISA GC would be pretty damned contentious.  And I would rather not have this long meeting be longer still due to the competing sides arguing about how best to exclude Israeli academics.

The effort is questionable, in my mind, since the item that is being pushed on the agenda is simply to discuss BDS.  Uh huh.  Sure, the proponent just wants us to talk about it because we academics like to talk about stuff.  No, it is clearly trying to get a proposal to have the ISA boycott/sanction (pretty sure ISA does not have much in the way of stocks invested in Israeli companies) Israel.  Under the guise of just wanting to foster discussion, the proponent wants to have ISA BDS Israel.  I would say that is not kosher, but well anyway.  This is not the only deceptive tactic used here as the proposal also says this stuff is being considered by the American Political Science Association, which it is not, if one means the official organization.  Oh, and, just because other organizations do something, does not make it good or right in general or good/right for the ISA.
  • If the concern is about academic freedom for those who advocate BDS, the organization already supports academic freedom so this proposal is unnecessary.
  • If the concern is that people want to discuss BDS during meetings of the ISA, such as having panels or roundtables on the topic, there is no policy or prohibition stopping people from organizing such stuff.
  • But the key is the line "foster careful consideration of an appropriate position for ISA to assume."  This is what these folks desire and they have a deadline--a year long discussion where I guess they want a referendum of some kind at the end.  Interesting tactic, but why a year?  Why not two years?  How about we talk about it until we figure it out, no matter how long it takes? 

Who would it ultimately target?  Well, since the ISA is an academic institution, this BDS effort would be aimed at Israeli universities and those who work there (the BDS movement has evolved from directly targeting individuals but clearly individuals would be affected.  To say otherwise is, alas, problematic).  Are the professors at these institutions universally supportive of the government and its policies towards the Palestinians?  Probably not.  More importantly, these folks are not the government of Israel or businesses propping up the government.  One could argue that they are part of the military-industrial-academic complex, but that is a stretch.  If people want to boycott Israeli businesses or not play in the equivalent of Sun City, that is on them.  But blocking academic interchange with Israel's academics?  No, I cannot support that.  While I am not a fan of slippery slope arguments, it is not clear why Israel is targeted and not heaps of other places where there is significant repression: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, Trump's America, etc.

Finally, the ISA is an association aimed at facilitating exchanges of ideas among those who study international stuff.  It is not primarily a business nor is it a lobbying group (the APSA is a lobby for the interests of political scientists in the US).  Unless we want to start picking and choosing who can participate, which is pretty much antithetical to the essence of the organization, BDS is really not something that the ISA should be doing.

Obviously, people disagree quite a bit on this, but this is my take, and this is why I don't want to see the item placed on the agenda.  It does not belong on the ISA's agenda.  There are plenty of organizations out there to push for the Palestinian cause(s). ISA is not one of them. 

One last note: as a scholar, the more I learn about the BDS movement, the more I learn about how activists evolve and organize.  Impressive stuff.  This is not just one person's idea to talk about stuff, but part of a larger effort to create either a real broad based movement or the appearance of one. 


Erin Jenne said...

So what do you make of other academic association's endorsement of similar resolutions?

Steve Saideman said...

A) APSA is not considering it--the BDS proposal at ISA lied about that.
B) Just because another association jumps off a bridges does not mean we have to.

Seriously. The BDS people want to create a sense of momentum, which is fine for them as activists. Not sure why we should feel bound by the decisions of others. Our association is about academic exchange about international studies--discriminating against Israeli scholars (yes, it would affect individuals, not just institutions) seems like a bad idea to me. And it sets an awful precedent--who gets discriminated against next?

The big reveal at the ISA was when advocates of BDS were fighting hard against getting non-discrimination language added to ISA documents. Not a good look.

If people want to boycott/divest/sanction Israel, go ahead. But for academic associations to boycott Israeli academics? No.