Recently, the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) voted to boycott two Israeli institutions, namely, Haifa University and Bar Ilan University. The statement from the AUT executive is here
A number of people whose judgment I respect have joined a petition opposing the boycott. The petition formally endorses the AAUP's condemnation of the boycott, asking other scholarly organizations to join in that condemnation. Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has posted informative briefs against the boycott, although J. David Velleman's at Left2Right seems to me to blur important distinctions.
All this by way of introduction for some thoughts on this boycott.
First, the boycott is targeted specifically at two universities, not at Israeli universities generally. It targets them for their associations with colleges on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Velleman, for one, mistakenly blurs this distinction. Nonetheless, it does bear mention that a college in the West Bank could have either of three relevant characters: it could be a Jewish or Israeli college in a Jewish settlement; it could be a Palestinian college such as Bir Zeit; or it could be one of the colleges set up by religious/missionary organizations such as the LDS church, which has a branch of BYU in East Jerusalem. The first question, then, is why association only with the first kind of college is problematic. It could be because the very settlement in which the college exists is illegal even by Israeli law, in which case the AUT would be in the rather odd position of boycotting colleges for failing to uphold Israeli law. But if the very settlement is legal by Israeli law and illegal only in the sense and to the extent that all Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal (and this is subject to much debate that I leave aside right now), then we may ask why the AUT has singled out only Israeli/Jewish colleges rather than also include institutions such as BYU-Jerusalem Center. The question is not whether Israeli institutions rather than, say, American or Chinese ones should be boycotted (more on that below); it's why associating only with one kind of West Bank college should be considered intolerable behavior.
A second question is how the AUT understands its decision. Here the executive statement is pretty revealing. The first paragraph refers specifically to two universities to be boycotted; the second paragraph tables a proposal to boycott a third university (my mother's alma mater, Hebrew University of Jerusalem); the third paragraph reads as follows:
Council delegates also agreed to circulate to all local associations a statement from Palestinian organisations calling for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.
Now the question is, why would this third paragraph be relevant? The point is not that it would be wrong to boycott all Israeli universities (more below), but that it is striking to see the two distinct issues juxtaposed without any appearance that the AUT realizes that they are different issues. This gives cause to worry that the boycott as passed is a form of synecdoche, and hence, that the reason for the particular boycott was just a convenient thing to grab onto.
Let's distinguish 3 questions: 1. Are boycotts ever permissible; 2. Is it ever okay to boycott academics/intellectuals; and 3. Is this boycott in particular permissible.
1. It seems obvious to me that boycotts are permissible. I, for one, engage in them all the time. I participated in the boycott of Taco Bell when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers called for it; I participated in the boycott of the conference hotel at the 2005 Pacific APA.
2. But what about when boycotts target academics or intellectuals? A number of commentators have suggested that this is the real problem with the AUT boycott: the AAUP's statement in particular singles out the academic freedom issue.
This seems to me to be a red herring. A boycott or other activity may impede academic freedom, but that is not sufficient for wrongness. Boycotts of Apartheid South Africa, for instance, extended to artists and academics, and this seems to me to have been the right decision. First, academics are typically among the privileged in their society; it would be perverse and perhaps elitist to exempt the privileged from boycott, simply on grounds that what they produce is knowledge rather than widgets. Second, in the case of apartheid, any action that normalizes the state--including easy congress with members of its state-funded institutions of higher learning--is intolerable. To boycott Apartheid South Africa was to say that the ruling cadre there was not so much a government as a gang of thugs. So for these two reasons I think boycotts that extend to cover academics are not necessarily wrong. Third, academics are sometimes in a protected position to dissent from the intolerable behavior being boycotted. Putting pressure on them to do so is not obviously wrong.
Of course, this last point has been singled out by the AAUP, Velleman, and others because the AUT has apparently placed a political litmus test on exemption from the boycott. But this seems wrong to me. Consider the CIW boycott of Taco Bell. Imagine a single franchisee had declared support for the CIW and decided to get all his tomato products from local independent farms or from unionized farms. Would it be wrong to exempt this franchisee from the boycott? Surely not. If anything, the action of such a franchisee puts him at greater risk than an academic who merely opposes Israeli policy. The better exemption test would have been for academics who circulate petitions opposing association with the specific West Bank college in question. But Velleman and the AAUP are not criticizing the AUT's exemption on grounds that political opposition is insufficient!
For me, the kicker on this issue seems to be this: as with the third paragraph of the AUT statement mentioned above, Israeli policy generally is simply not the relevant issue. The boycott is not explicitly about that at all; it's about association with a particular college in the West Bank. Why would opposition to the Occupation be an exempting condition for that? An academic could oppose the Occupation and still engage in the putatively intolerable behavior, and thus be exempted from boycott by the AUT. So my objection to the exemption criterion is not that it's a political litmus test, but that first such a litmus test sets the bar too low, and second, such a litmus test is irrelevant to what the boycott is about. Here is a further reason to worry that the boycott is not really about what it claims to be about.
3. We've seen that boycotts in general are at least sometimes permissible, and that boycotts targeting academics are not always wrong. So let's consider this boycott in particular.
We need a further distinction: a) whether one should endorse the boycott as such, and b) whether the AUT somehow acted wrongfully in enacting the boycott. The questions differ in that one could disagree with or refuse to participate in the boycott but understand why it was imposed, and see the reasons for doing so.
On the narrowest reading, one could answer 3a by endorsing this boycott. One could agree that the Judea & Samaria College should be boycotted, and that other universities (Israeli or otherwise), insofar as and because they associate themselves with that College, should be sanctioned or boycotted. And on this narrowest reading, I think, the answer to 3b is clearly no: even if you support the Occupation and indeed are the president of Judea & Samaria College, you could still recognize that there's nothing wrongful about enacting the boycott. That is, you could recognize such a boycott as a reasonable response to a moral judgment with which you disagree.
In other words, there is an Ideal Boycott that, I think, it would be reasonable to endorse and unreasonable to condemn, even if you disagreed.
But the AUT boycott is not the Ideal Boycott. Broadening the reading a bit, one would still wonder what made that particular West Bank college intolerable, in contrast with, say, BYU Jerusalem Center. Further, one might wonder about the blurred lines between opposition to the Occupation in general, and opposition to this particular college, that seem to creep into the boycott statement as well as the exemption policy. And from this broader perspective, I think the answer to 3a is mixed: you might endorse the boycott with some reservations, because after all there does seem to be something worse about Judea and Samaria College than about BYU-Jerusalem Center, and you might regard the former as a particular affront to the peace process, etc. But even if you endorse the boycott from this perspective, I think the answer to 3b is that the AUT has indeed done something wrongful, and that is, not the boycott itself, but the reasoning. The AUT has needlessly conflated issues in a way that would foreseeably alienate a lot of people (including many AUT members) and make it difficult for sympathetic people to want to endorse the boycott. So in other words, it would be not unreasonable for members of the AUT to both participate in the boycott and condemn the AUT for botching it altogether.
Now let's take the broadest perspective. It might be thought that singling out Israel is a particular instance of badness, and that one should more quickly be condemning other universities that engage in intolerable activities, such as, say, MIT, which does a lot of military research, or Berkeley, which runs nuclear weapons labs. Or maybe more to the point, why not Arizona State University, which is on land stolen from Mexico. Or any Chinese university that has any programs in Tibet.
The answer to this is complex. It is not wrong to be selective in boycotts or punishment. If persons A, B, C, and D all commit act X, and I boycott only A, I have not obviously done something wrong. In the first place I might not have any relevant leverage over the others. Or I may not be able to get enough people to join the boycott against any but A. Or A may be a particularly big fish. For instance, the CIW boycotted Taco Bell because Taco Bell was the biggest single purchaser of Immokalee tomoatoes, and Yum!, the parent company, is the biggest fast-food conglomerate. So being selective is not itself a problem. The problem is, on what grounds is the selection accomplished. And here, I'm less confident. I suspect the reason for not boycotting MIT, Berkeley, and ASU is that they're US universities, and the US is very powerful.
There's a general problem here from the philosophy of punishment. Last I heard, only some 2% of murderers get sentenced to death in the US. Whether this is wrong depends on why the other 98% are exempt. If the reason for the exemption is that they have mitigating circumstances and the 2% have aggravating circumstances, then the selectivity is not wrong in itself. But what if the exemption is based on the fact that the other murderers have Mafia connections, and the DA wants to avoid starting a war with the mob. Then we have mob rule. And I fear (back to the AUT case now) that the reason that American universities are exempt from boycott is that the AUT wants to avoid antagonizing their powerful and rich American colleagues. In which case we have academic mob rule.
Now back to the questions. Again, depending on one's reasons, it would be conceivable, at this point, to (3a) endorse the boycott with the qualifications and hemming and hawing that are appropriate in light of the fact that (3b) the AUT has acted in a way that seems to me to be wrongful. In particular, I suspect that both the real reason for the boycott and the real reason for singling out those particular universities are unmentioned and unmentionable because disgraceful. This is particularly true in the case of academics, not because academics should never be subject to boycott, but because one of the worse things an academic can do qua academic is to justify decisions on the basis of false or deceitful reasons.
So to conclude:
I. It would be wrong to endorse the boycott without comment or qualification.
II. It would not necessarily be wrong to endorse the boycott, subject to qualifications, hemming, and hawing; this seems to depend on one's own politics and the extent to which one thinks the boycott is likely to put pressure on the Sharon government to prevent expanding or entrenching settlements, etc. My guess is, not much. But to each her own.
III. It would, conversely, not necessarily be wrong to oppose the boycott, but at the same time I think a number of the reasons given by Bertram, Velleman, and the AAUP seem to need unpacking or rethinking.
IV. Whether or not you endorse the boycott, it seems to me that the AUT has made an awful mess of it. Worst of all is the consistent blurring of lines between the specific institutions and the general policies/country as the object of rebuke; this seems to me to constitute a misrepresentation of the reasons for the boycott that may be either careless or deceitful. Either way, it smells.