Open letter to Claire Potter from David Hirsh

UPDATE:  Claire Potter has responded here.

Dear Claire,

I am a sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London.  I read that you were an opponent of the campaign to boycott Israeli academic institutions and I read that you decided, nevertheless, to support the BDS motion in the recent ASA debate.  I would like to respond to a few of the arguments which you were reported as having made to explain your apparent change of position.  It appears that you are fairly new to this debate.  We in the UK, have been engulfed by it for ten years now, specifically within our trade union, the University and College Union, and I would like to share with you some of what we have learned.

In a piece in The Nation, Michelle Goldberg adds a few paragraphs at the bottom which explain your thinking on the motion:

Update, December 7, 2013, 5:30pm: After I posted this piece, I learned that Claire Potter had changed her position on the ASA resolution and voted yes. Reached by phone, she explained how the shift in her thinking came out. When she first expressed qualms about the academic boycott, she says, “The response was overwhelming. There were massive numbers of people, including a lot of people I know, just writing these nasty things on my blog about what a horrible person I was.”

As the debate about BDS and academic freedom has moved forward, she looked for a way to engage in it constructively, but increasingly felt like she couldn’t do so from outside. “The problem, when you hold to a position so rigidly, you yourself become part of the polarization,” she says. “I all of the sudden became a cause célèbre for all kinds of other people, when that is really not what I intended at all. I would like to have a conversation about academic freedom within this strategy.”

 One of your key points is that you were horrified by the sudden polarization of the debate about the boycott motion.  You seem to be committed to the politics of consensus, academic freedom and engaged listening; it is how people involved in radical politics relate to each other, influence each other and decide what to do.  Within our movements, the labour movement, the feminist movement, radical politics, we debate respectfully; outside of it we campaign, we make arguments, we try to change the weather and are sometimes treated with a marked hostility and lack of respect.  So when you made clear your opposition to academic BDS, perhaps you were surprised and shocked to find yourself outside of the sphere of respect and consensus; you were treated as though you were outside of the universe of radical, counter-hegemonic and committed activism.  A natural first instinct would be to step back inside the tent where you belonged.  If good people, people you usually agree with, your friends and comrades, thought you had taken a position which is only held by ‘horrible people’, then perhaps you’d made a mistake.

It is uncomfortable to find yourself on the wrong side of a binary opposition between the radical campaign to ‘do something’ about Israeli human rights abuses on the one hand, and the angry, apparently conservative, often ‘Zionist’ opponents on the other.  You say you wanted to find a middle ground, you wanted to find consensus.  You had suddenly become a symbolic figure in other people’s polemics and you wanted to reclaim your own actual voice.  I suspect you wanted to remain on the radical, pro-Palestinian side, but also to think through the obvious problems which are associated with boycotting Israel.

Academic freedom is, for you, a key principle, and rightly so.  Boycotting Israeli universities seems to violate this principle.  But the boycott campaign assured you that they were also in favour of academic freedom.  First they say that academic freedom in Palestine is violated daily by the fact of occupation, and in this they’re right.  Second, they say that boycott does not violate academic freedom.  

As it happens, the guarantees offered by the boycott campaign relating to academic freedom are not coherent.

First, the claim that a boycott of institutions does not prevent any actual individuals from speaking or from being heard is not right.  Academic institutions themselves, in Israel as anywhere else, are fundamentally communities of scholars; they protect us, they make it possible for us to be academics, and they defend our academic freedom.  I don’t mean to idealise our institutions.  Many of us experience our own institutions also as dull bureaucratic and thought-deadening machines; both aspects are probably true.  Israeli universities are like British and American ones in these senses.  But, academic work is done by academics; we write papers, we give lectures, we organise conferences; a boycott of Israeli academia would inevitably become a boycott of our Israeli academic colleagues.  Some time ago Jon Pike wrote a piece explaining why the institutional boycott is a myth, please do read it.

Before coming to the strategy of ínstitutional boycott’, the BDS campaign toyed with a political test.  Israeli academics who were critical of their government, and of the positions held by some of their Israeli colleagues, would be exempted from the boycott.  Of course,in reality this could only be implemented in a McCarthyite way; please read Steve Cohen’s piece about how a demand to Israelis to demonstrate their political cleanliness would feel.  So the BDS campaign abandoned the idea of the political test.  But the institutional boycott is actually a political test in a new form.  Instead of asking Israeli scholars to pass a political test, the institutional test would ask them to disavow their own institutions and to speak only as individuals.  Some will be unwilling, for a number of reasons, others will be unable for contractual or other considerations.  The institutional boycott is the political test in a new form.

Your first instincts were right.  The campaign to exclude Israeli academics, and only Israeli academics, from the global academic community, could only become a violation of the norms of academic freedom.  There is no consensus here, there is no compromise; boycotting academics necessarily violates academic freedom.  Some in the BDS campaign admit this, but say that it is a necessary evil to have effective solidarity with the Palestinians.  But I think that academic freedom is a mode of solidarity, not something which should be sacrificed in favour of solidarity.

A couple of things convinced her that that was possible. First, the ASA National Council adapted the boycott resolution to make its commitment to academic freedom clearer. And then, rather than simply passing the resolution itself, it took the unusual step of putting it to a vote of the ASA membership, which struck her as an effort at compromise. “If there had been concessions on both sides and they had been able to come to a consensus around this vision, I felt like I should support them, because compromise is hard work.”

Debate is not always democratic.  For example, we would not welcome an open debate about whether the right place for a woman is in the kitchen.  In this case, debate itself would benefit the anti-woman bigots by allowing them to portray themselves as one legitimate side in a nuanced discussion.  It is my belief that a debate about whether to exclude Israelis, and only Israelis, from the global community of academics, artists and scientists is a debate which has similarities to this.  I think you voted for the resolution partly because you thought the debate itself was healthy, even if  in the end, you didn’t support the BDS position.  You may want consensus but I think the key problem here is that no consensus is possible on boycott, which is a stark and binary position.

There should be a consensus position of solidarity with Palestinians, particularly, from scholars, solidarity with Palestinian scholars. There is a consensus against the occupation, against anti-Arab racism and antisemitism, for the politics of peace and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.  Indeed, much of the important communication between Palestinians and Israelis has been conducted via academic engagement.  We should help facilitate communication, not exclusion; we should listen, not close down voices.  Consensus is possible, but the boycott campaign splits this consensus down the middle, constructing pro-boycotters as friends of Palestine and anti-boycotters as enemies of Palestine.

Essentially, she decided to give her colleagues the benefit of the doubt. “It has become clear to me that there is a shift in political concerns, that maybe I need to see how it works,” she says. “Everybody in BDS says this is not a restriction of academic freedom, that individuals will not be targeted. I’m going to take a leap of faith and say ok, lets see if this does in fact work out the way you say its going to work out.”

The assurance that individuals will not be targeted is an odd one, given that you yourself explained quite straightforwardly how you were personally targeted for appearing to be on the wrong side of this discussion.

Our experience is that individuals do get targeted.  Israelis get targeted.  But also people who oppose the boycott campaign here, in Britain, or here in America, get targeted.  One of the key impacts of this ‘debate’ is the damage it does here, in our own movements and universities.

My colleagues and I have been involved in opposing the boycott campaign for a while now.  Here is a web page with links to lots of the things which we have written on the boycott campaign.

Best wishes

David Hirsh

UPDATE:  Claire Potter has responded here.