BOSTON — Two healthy Christmas trees dominated the lobby of the Copley Marriott Hotel. Snowflakes adorned the glass wall of the revolving door. Eleven oversize dreidels rested atop the doorway apparatus along with a menorah reading "Happy Chanukah."
The décor in a major tourist hotel was representative of the now-compulsory and trivial nod to Judaism in America's secular and commercial culture. Inside the hotel, the Middle East Studies Association of North America hosted a panel on the rectitude of a boycott against academic institutions within the Jewish state as part of its annual meeting. The panel, formally titled "Academic Freedom and Academic Boycotts: A Symposium," offered two proponents of such a boycott, Lawrence Davidson of West Chester University and Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian researcher, and two opponents, Joan Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study and Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch.
The discussion regarding academic boycotts of Israel recalls Napoleon's famous plea to the Jews he offered to emancipate: "to Jews as human beings — everything; to Jews as a people nothing." The juxtaposition of the near-mandatory inclusion of Chanukah decorations this time of year with a formal debate on a ban of Israeli academics in polite circles suggests an update of Napoleon's adage is in order, at least in America: "to Jews as consumers — everything; to Jews as supporters of Israel nothing."
The debate provided by MESA, which came out against the boycott of Israeli academics in May 2005, was narrowly drawn. It pitted a pair of academics who urged an immediate ban on doing business with Israeli counterparts against another pair of Israel's critics who argued academic freedom ought to be preserved. At times abstruse, the vocal argumentation evoked the heated discussions among the various shades of leftist at the CCNY Alcoves in the 1930s.
"Israel's research institutions have granted legitimacy on those that recognize … apartheid, ethnic cleansing," Mr. Davidson, who is pro-boycott, said. "The Zionist near-monopoly has allowed Israelis to build support for the racist stereotype of Arab." Mr. Barghouti charged that the acceptance of Israeli academics brings legitimacy to the nation as a whole. "Israel's academy plays a major role in sustaining the apartheid system and colonialism … academic institutions are more important to Israel than academic institutions in the U.S."
While both Ms. Scott and Mr. Stork vocally opposed the boycott on a number of philosophical and tactical grounds — among them, the idea that the best response to a disliked idea is more speech, an unwillingness to hurt those Israeli academics who might oppose the policies of Israel's government, a desire to maintain the principle of academic freedom — neither offered words of defense of Israel overall. Ms. Scott, for example, reminded the more than 100 audience members of the importance the idea of academic freedom held in debates with David Horowitz, a conservative activist who has targeted leftist extremism in academia.
"I'm willing to risk a certain amount of academic freedom in order to raise the costs," Mr. Davidson retorted.
The debate seemed to find common ground on the subject of the power of Israel's supporters in America. Unlike China and Russia — both of which have occupations of their own — "Israel's reach goes way beyond its own area of dominion and begins to corrupt my politicians," Mr. Davidson said. His erstwhile opponent, Ms. Scott, added that "the big question is the control the Israel lobby has over the language of anti-Semitism … the control they have over the notion that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism. That's what's holding the senators and the Congress in place."
Mr. Barghouti outlined a theory as to why critics of Israel often find themselves described as anti-Semites. "It's prevalent because of Zionist influence in the media," he said.
Mr. Barghouti took an approach of optimism both at being able escape eventually charges of anti-Semitism and implement an academic boycott of Israel. "We know this is being overused. They're spreading themselves too thin," he said of the charge of anti-Semitism.
On the prospect of seeing an academic boycott of Israel being broadly accepted, he was sanguine given the 30 years it took for the concept of an academic boycott of South Africa to go from concept to reality. "It took until the 1980s for the world to listen," he said. "The consequences will not come soon. Just the fact that this panel is happening is a good sign."