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.

17 Responses to “Open letter to Claire Potter from David Hirsh”

  1. allan siegel Says:

    Dear David Hirsh,
    Every once in a while you come out with some argument against BDS that is riddled with such delusional liberal nonsense that it’s hard to let it pass as a serious position or one that resides in some notion of the real world. Where precisely are “the norms of academic freedom upheld”? How are Israeli, UK and American universities similar?

    “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.” Really? Could you please illustrate this rather wild claim? Academic freedom is defended by scholars, professors, teachers, and students and only secondarily university management. Scholars, professors, teachers, and students who openly engage in public debate and espouse political positions are the people who defend academic freedom from the corporatization of the university environment and neoliberal notions of academic freedom. In fact, although it is hard for you to accept, the BDS campaign is an example of academic freedom precisely because it makes transparent the political nature of the university and the public responsibilities of intellectuals.


    • Liberal delusion Says:

      ‘Academic freedom is defended by scholars, professors, teachers, and students and only secondarily university management.’
      Actually you have it the wrong way round. In the UK it was students many of whom are now scholars who sought to ban Jewish Societies in the 1980’s and, in many cases, the ones behind banning Israeli Jews now. It was only the ‘delusional liberal nonsense’ that protected British Jewish studens from such exclusion; just as now it is ‘delusional liberal nonsense’ that stands in the way of this latest episode of excluding Jews.
      The trouble with the type of ‘radicalism’ that you support is of course not new. In many instances, picking on Jews has appeared dangerous and radical and politically progressive. It is not. It never has been and never will be. It is a sham, an excuse for the reality of political impotence. Far from making ‘ transparent the political nature of the university and the public responsibilities of intellectuals’, this attack on Jews expresses precisely the state of Universities, including its faculty and students; its loss of principle and its loss of authority. After all it is no coincidence that academics, etc. have lost every single battle with their respective governments over funding, wages, quality, and corporization, but have won this alleged ‘struggle’ so easily.
      As a consequence, ‘academic’ etc. are reduced to the well worn tactic of attacking Jews and pretending that they are ‘really speaking truth to power’, when in reality they have picked on precisely the weakest segment of the national and global population; a weakness they invert into the myth of an omnipotent power that thwarts their every move, and in so doing inverts pretends they are involved in a real struggle and have gained a real victory.
      It is easy to boycott Jews. It has been going on for at least a century and a half. It happens when the left is debased, defeated, in disarray and is incapable of real meaningful action. It is the time when, for Jews (and others) the only thing they have to stay in the world are the very liberal ‘delusion’ that, and it is no coincidence, you decry as an expression of illegitimate authority, but which for Jews is the last thing they have left at their disposal.

      • Brian Goldfarb Says:

        In typical manner, as in his other visits here, Allan Siegel picks on a minor (if not, actually, irrelevant) aspect of the issue to explore (the question of defends academic freedom), rather than the main issue: the boycott and its implications.

        As I’ve noted numerous times before in these columns, an attack on academic freedom anywhere is an attack on it everywhere. The same is true of other human rights.

        If this were not so, there would have been no cross-bloc interaction between academics from the “West” and the “East”, as continued throughout the Cold War. Allan Siegel’s failure to pick up this element of the debate rather renders his particular point nugatory.

        • allan siegel Says:

          As usual Brian can’t make up his mind whether the question of academic freedom is a significant issue or not; I raised the issue because IT IS a significant issue and a major theme in David Hirsh’s response to Claire Potter. But neither you nor David want to define what they mean by academic freedom; David seems to suggest it has some relationship to McCarthyism which just confirms his lack of clarity on the issue and its relationship to BDS. McCarthyism was an orchestrated attack on individuals by an institution of the U.S. government. BDS is focused on institutions and their acquiescence in internationally recognized illegal policies maintained by the Israeli government.

        • CWC Says:

          McCarthyism centred their attacks on ‘Hollywood’ and other cultural institutions along with the US government and the military. It was this institutional context that the allegations against individuals were given meaning and weight. To say that McCarthy only targeted individuals and not institutions is a grave misrepresentation, just as it is a grave misrepresentation to say BDS only aims at institutions – as if institutions are distinct from those that comprise them.

        • Brian Goldfarb Says:

          As usual (and like so many other enemies of academic freedom), Allan Siegel ignores the important point, which is that, as I said, “an attack on academic freedom anywhere is an attack on it everywhere”. What part of that does he not understand? Other than all of it.

          As to what it is, Mr Siegel pretends that neither David Hirsh, nor I, nor numerous others, both here and elsewhere, have made it abundantly clear whatever this apparently amorphous beast, academic freedom, is. It clearly is not boycotting academics anywhere, neither those who work for Israeli universities, nor those in Saudi Arabia, nor in Zimbabwe, nor China…Need I go on, or is his imagination so lacking that it really does need spelling out?

          So stop playing the naif, Allan, and respond to the direct point instead of obfuscating. You have a history of missing the point on this site and also ignoring them as well. And, yes, I do have examples kept from past encounters.

  2. Daniel Kumermann Says:

    Isn’t the whole debate essentially and simply just nonsense? Anybody with some brains left knows that Palestinians are not the most suffering people in the world. And Israel is not the worst perpetrator where human rights are concerned (the way BDS depicts it).
    So the only real question remaining is why Israel out of all the countries of the world was chosen for special (mis)treatment.
    From this point of view there is no way the boycott can be whitewashed. It is simply an intellectual crime and if you wish to participate, your choice.

    • Alan S Says:

      I hope that phrase “special (mis)treatment” was chosen deliberately. It very aptly reminds us of when, and by whom, and how, Jews were last “specially treated”.

      • Liberal delusion Says:

        That is an interesting point. BDS place the boycott in the context of SA (and so have to inflate Israeli human rights contraventions as ‘apartheid’). However, the majority of Jews place the idea of a boycott against Jews in a very different history; a history in which Jews have been singled out for allegedly unique crimes and unique wrongs despite the fact that they were no worse than many, if not all others and/or were total fabrications, and, as a consequence of these claims suffered ‘boycott’ – see e.g. the 1904 Limerick boycott where Jews were accused of price manipulation.
        The problem is that when Jews raise these concerns, especially through the question – why Israel? – no sensible answer is given – the ASA’s comment, that ‘we have to start somewhere’ begs the question. (Despite the above response, the BDS movement is not supported by the PA or Hamas, and was, far from emanating from Palestine, devised by two members of the SWP here in London – and even if it did emanate from Palestinian civil society, that does not involve an immediate and unmediated response – what is right in Palestine, may not appear so right in a different context, and for very good reasons).
        Rather than recognising this history and this sensitivity in its critical dealings with Israel, many BDSers simply claim that Jews are abusing this history of antisemitism (and anti-Jewish boycotts), of using ‘real’ antisemitism (and the Shoah) as a margin talisman to ward off ‘criticism’ (which is conflated by the BDS movement with exclusion) and of acting in bad faith.
        In so doing, the BDS movement show that along with their support for Palestinians is an attempt to antagonise and confront non-Israeli Jews who, for those who disagree with their boycotting (what Claire Potter confused with scrutiny) are transformed into ‘supporters of Israel’ and for whom no quarter must be given.
        If those in the US and Europe were serious about antisemitism and its history as well as being serious about Palestinian solidarity, they would actually realise what boycotts mean to Jews (and progressive forces in general). They would need to think of a new strategy, one that is not hostile to Jews, but which at the same time allows them (and many Jews) to move forward to achieving a just and equitable peace in the Middle East; a move forward that does not rely up, replicate and bring into the present the antisemtism of the (not so distant) past.

  3. Blogging Across the Water: A Response to David Hirsh - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education Says:

    […] you for your civil and knowledgeable open letter of December 17, and the links you have shared. I hope you like the stamp I chose for my response: […]

  4. “Blogging Across the Water” | The Future of American Studies Says:

    […] her most recent blog post Potter responds in a thoughtful manner to David Hirsh’s open letter about her decision (after much careful thought) to support the ASA boycott […]

  5. Hi Says:

    The BDS movement doesn’t promote an end to Israel’s occupation, an end to Hamas and Palestinian terrorism, peace for Israel, and a peaceful Palestinian state next to Israel.

    The BDS movement promotes the destruction/erasing of Israel, the removal of the world’s only Jewish-majority state from the planet, the end of the only Jewish homeland on the planet ,and another Arab/Muslim state with Jews as a hated minority.

  6. Noga Says:

    ” I’m going to take a leap of faith and say ok,”

    I don’t know. I’m not a scholar myself but I do try to emulate the meticulous ethical thinking of scholarly role models, like Norman Geras. What I learned from him is that in making ethical decisions, there is no room for the self-indulgence implied in the option of “leap of faith”. Ethical thinking has to be based solidly and demonstrably upon first principles of fairness, clarity, justice.

    So Claire Potter might as well have admitted that she did not change her mind but did change her decision due to her blind faith in the good faith of her colleagues. Fully aware of the weaknesses of her own decision to make this decision, in fact forcefully thwarting her own intuition and better judgement, she tries to find refuge in “cute” arguments like having succumbed to a “leap of faith”. This is hardly the kind of formulations and thinking one expects from an academic.

    The concept of “singularity” exists in Mathematics to designate in general a point at which a given mathematical object fails to be well-behaved in some particular way. Being mathematically “well-behaved” is “not violating any assumptions needed to successfully apply whatever analysis is being discussed”.

    Potter’s decision is ethically incomprehensible in the same way that singularity is mathematically not “well-behaved”. It is based on a “leap of faith” that is not really given any ethical structural support, and seems to be excused as a personal whim and self-confessed naivete. In the context of her entire apologia, what she claims is that in her vote “yes” she had to boycott and divest from her own conscience. Why? Because she really did not want to be perceived as one of those “odious persons”.

    “Jimmy Porter: Nigel and Alison, they’re what they sound like, sycophantic, phlegmatic and pusillanimous.
    Cliff Lewis: Big words
    Jimmy Porter: Shall I tell you what they mean?
    Cliff Lewis: No not interested, don’t want to know.
    Jimmy Porter: Soapy, stodgy and dim.”

  7. Uncle Sam Says:

    ‘So I think the United States has a special moral obligation to Palestinians living under the appalling conditions of the occupation here. Opposition to the human rights violations occurring in Israel does not make Israel “a special case” at all, but rather one in a long series of police states, making a claim to democracy, that the Left in the United States has continuously opposed. The United States government not only has a long history of suppressing democracy and social equality at home, but a somewhat shorter history (a century, give or take) of human rights violations abroad and the support of police states abroad. All of this has gone on, and continues to go on, in the name of promoting democracy around the globe. Not only does the United States torture, and render individuals for torture and imprisonment around the globe, but it also maintains a University of Torture. Otherwise known as The School of the Americas, this institution has historically taught a range of counter-insurgency, surveillance, psy-ops and interrogation techniques that are deployed to violate human rights around the globe.’

    So the US renders, tortures, represses democracy and has a “University of Torture’ that has a negative global impact. Israel is but one in a ‘long series of police states’ that the US supports and so is not unique. So why the ‘special obligation’ to Palestinians, and not, say, to the resistance in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, and do on)
    So, why boycott Israel and not Saudi or Bahrain (all recipients of billions of US money)? Why wait to be ‘asked’ from all the other states effected in this way, since the root cause of the US. Indeed, since they are themselves Americans and Americans are complicit in all these things and all these oppressions and are directly implicated in this reign of terror (their own tax dollars, contracts with the universities in which they work, r and d, etc.) do they not call for a boycott of the US itself?Or do they know that, like so many others in the imperial heartland that despite everything they are not doing too bad out of it thank you very much and to act otherwise would make their comfortable lives difficult (a difficulty they are only too happy to pass on to others).

    • Daniel Kumermann Says:

      When I read something like this my blood boils to see how brainless educated people can get.
      I visited West Bank quite a few times and I can assure you that many places in US cities look worse and more poverty stricken than WB. So boycott yourself first.
      If you talk about police state where in Israel did you see it?? If you talk about West Bank maybe it did not come to you that technically speaking Israel and Palestinians are in state of conflict – so police activities are completely natural result of that.
      And of course there are so many real police states in the world which somehow you forgot to boycott. So why Israel? The answer is obvious and you will not like it.

  8. A reply to Claire Potter: in a fight to boycott Israelis, remain vigilant to the danger of antisemitism | Engage Says:

    […] you for your reply to my email.  In this short correspondence we have already touched upon a number of key issues.  We have […]

  9. Boycotts of Israel in US Academe: David Hirsh and Claire Potter | Engage Says:

    […] from David Hirsh:  “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…” […]

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