At this year’s American Political Science Association (APSA) conference in Washington DC, the Foundations of Political Theory section held a members’ meeting to discuss a proposed resolution to endorse the academic boycott of Israel. We helped to bring this resolution to the Foundations board and pushed for its consideration by the membership. This is our account of the meeting, its origins, and its immediate aftermath. We offer it in the hope of furthering the conversation among those who were unable to attend, and to combat false claims that some of the resolution’s opponents spread online.
Many of us have been trying to foster discussion, within the APSA, of Palestine in general and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) in particular for many years (the Israel Academia Monitor helpfully provides a history of some of this work). More recently, in 2018, some of us organized a roundtable of political theorists to talk about BDS, political-theoretical arguments for BDS, and why political theorists should support BDS. We were interested doing two things: (1) enriching the theoretical articulation of the case for BDS, and especially for the most controversial aspect of BDS, academic boycott; and (2) broaching the question of political theorists’ professional responsibilities vis-à-vis the ongoing Israeli occupation and settlement of Palestinian territory, enforced Palestinian diaspora, inferior status of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the silencing and censorship of discussions of Palestine in the United States. The US Department of Education’s recent order for Duke and the University of North Carolina to remake their Middle East Center, made in the wake of a conference on Gaza, is evidence of the gravity of this threat to academic freedom.
That roundtable was well-attended and intellectually stimulating. It even gave rise to a “Critical Exchange” in Contemporary Political Theory, perhaps the first time a top political theory journal has engaged the question of Palestine in such an explicitly political way. But it still did not break the barrier dividing the already-persuaded from those too fearful to bring up the subject, much less engage in open discussion. Academics face a high social and professional cost for raising the question of Palestine, advocating on behalf of Palestinian liberation, or publicly endorsing and engaging in BDS. To speak of the Palestinian cause—and especially of BDS—in the US academy is not easy. At best, colleagues will greet you with awkward silence. Some will respond with anger and hurt. The most vocal will accuse you of antisemitism. You may lose grants, be denied promotion, lose your position, or be exposed to organized online harassment. In short, open conversation is very hard to come by.
We sought to overcome this taboo by directly proposing a BDS resolution to the Foundations of Political Theory section of APSA, the leading professional association for political theorists within the discipline. We approached Robyn Marasco, the head of the board of Foundations, and she was receptive. The section’s by-laws stipulate that that we would have to pass any resolution at the Foundations business meeting, but these are generally low-attendance events dedicated to honoring award recipients and announcements, not the ideal space for deliberating—much less voting—on a controversial measure. Therefore, Prof. Marasco decided to schedule an open forum to discuss the proposed resolution. More than fifty political theorists signed a letter in support of the resolution addressed to the Foundations membership.
From the outset, our hope was to begin, not to end, a conversation. We never intended to arrive at a clear decision on the resolution at this meeting. Rather, we wanted to get people talking. We wanted to use this discussion as an opportunity to present BDS to colleagues who had either never considered it before or who may have previously dismissed it out of hand due to the prevailing climate of taboo, discipline, and punishment surrounding any open discussion of Palestine in the academy. Moreover, and somewhat adjacent to our own interests, Prof. Marasco sought to make the Foundations Board into something more than simply a reception-planning committee. She saw an opportunity to do just that by taking on substantive discussion of an important political issue. She also thought it crucial to demonstrate that political theorists could discuss highly-charged issues without harming or destroying either one another or the section.
Immediately following Prof. Marasco’s announcement of the members’ meeting, there was a flood of emails to her inbox. These emails expressed everything from well-meaning concern and consternation, to disrespect and even outright abuse. Many repliers thought that any consideration of BDS was in itself evil, and reprimanded Prof. Marasco for scheduling the meeting at all. Some implied that she herself was guilty of or tainted by the evil of BDS by allowing the movement to be considered in a public venue. Many more doubted that we could discuss it as a section without going at one another’s throats, and blamed her preemptively for destroying the section. Some worried that this would be the end of our professional association and that we might never be able to speak to one another again. Meanwhile, Israeli state academic listservs and American Zionist organizations picked up on the story. These mailing lists and organizations quickly mobilized a semi-orchestrated campaign against the resolution that included letters of official opposition addressed to the highest officers of APSA. APSA leadership issued directives to Prof. Marasco that Foundations was not allowed to make any public declarations or resolutions that did not first go through the APSA Board.
Considering the passions and vitriol unleashed by its mere announcement, the meeting itself was—for the most part—a fairly mundane affair. A hotel conference room set up for sixty was packed with at least twice as many people as it could comfortably contain. Folks filled all the chairs, then sat on the floor in the aisle all the way to the front of the room, filling in behind the podium and table where a panel of speakers would ordinarily sit. The mass of standing attendees spilled into the hallway. Apparently, interest among political theorists in talking about Palestine and BDS is high.
After a fairly substantial introduction outlining the origins of the resolution and the character of the 360+ emails she had received, Prof. Marasco turned the speaking over to a (nearly) balanced list of speakers arranged (mostly) in advance. The five of us spoke in favor of the resolution: Will Roberts (McGill), Libby Anker (George Washington), Anne Norton (Penn), Heike Schotten (UMass Boston), and Kevin Bruyneel (Babson). Six spoke in opposition: Jacob Levy (McGill), Andrew Sabl (Toronto), Steven Smith (Yale), Ron Hassner (UC Berkeley), Renée Marlin-Bennett (Johns Hopkins), and Michael Walzer (Princeton). After the speakers’ list was exhausted, at least another dozen people rose to address the meeting, including Clifford Orwin (Toronto), Andrew Rehfeld (Hebrew Union), Jeff Jacoby (Columbia), Jeanne Morefield (Birmingham), and Yves Winter (McGill).
A few irregularities were immediately apparent. The imbalance between pro and contra on the speakers’ list was due to the fact that Prof. Walzer, after having ignored speaking invitations from Prof. Marasco ahead of the meeting, showed up and simply asked to be added to the speakers’ list (such are the perks of a long career of passing off support for war-making and US empire as serious political theorizing, and disparagement of Palestinians, Arabs, and Islam as “progressive” Judaism and “left” politics). Furthermore, neither Prof. Hassner nor Prof. Marlin-Bennett, who spoke in opposition to the resolution, are political theorists—they are both International Relations (IR) scholars. Prof. Hassner joined Foundations in the run-up to the meeting; Prof. Marlin-Bennett did not even do this (members can check APSA Connect for this information). Neither tried to justify their participation in a conversation among political theorists about a proposal for the leading political theory section of APSA. Also noteworthy: both signed a 2004 declaration by APSA members endorsing a boycott of the 2012 meeting in New Orleans in protest of Louisiana’s passage of a DOMA-like amendment to the state constitution. They did not say in their remarks how they square their support of that boycott with their opposition to this one. Aaron Sibarium, a reporter from The American Interest, Francis Fukuyama’s foreign affairs magazine, also graced the meeting with his presence. We do not think he is a member of Foundations either. Oh, and there was also that guy nobody knew sporting the Israeli Defense Forces t-shirt.
These irregularities were especially striking because the outsiders wereby far the most aggressive of the speakers, and the only ones dealing in bad faith. While many speakers, on both sides, showed emotion, Prof. Hassner was alone in offering sarcastic mockery rather than serious remarks. His basic argument was that there are human rights abuses around the world, so why pick on Israel? For Prof. Hassner, this resolution was being proposed because its proponents are all either anti-Semites or the dupes of anti-Semites. Indeed, the overwhelming theme of the most acid of the opponents’ remarks was that we five were stupid, supporters of BDS are stupid, BDS is itself stupid, and anyone who might agree with us was definitely stupid. For example, Prof. Walzer, who is a practiced hand at smearing critics of Israel, accused BDS of being a “front group” (for whom was not entirely clear) and called the resolution’s backers “useful idiots” (he has since done us the favor of publishing his remarks online). We would simply note that he directed epithets at us which hardliners hurled for fifty years at civil rights activists, democrats, and liberals of anything less than the most single-minded anticommunist intensity. As far as Prof. Walzer is concerned, anti-anti-Zionism is the new anti-communism. Meanwhile, Prof. Marlin-Bennett testified to having a “national feeling” as a Jewish person, which she offered as evidence for the legitimacy of Zionism. She also suggested that, as an IR scholar, she knew more about Palestine than any of us theorists possibly could, and implied that we might do better if we just stuck to our own turf.
However, not all opponents were of this sort. Jacob Levy worried that passing—or even considering—the resolution would open the door to a series of politically-charged motions that would transform Foundations from the one place where political theorists of all stripes can gather into an organization with a definite political line. Andrew Sabl lamented the lack of high-quality and non-partisan informational material on BDS (and even offered to host such material on his website). We are happy to work with good-faith critics of our proposed resolution for the sake of furthering the discussion.
Our own arguments were as follows:
Will Roberts contrasted the opposition to politicizing APSA as a professional association with APSA’s three public statements condemning the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold it. APSA objected to a policy that did not aim to affect academic freedom on the grounds that it would impair academic travel, damage research collaborations, and have a chilling effect on research. Israeli policy regarding Palestine clearly has all these same negative effects on the scholarly work of Palestinians, and APSA’s previous actions are therefore precedent for taking a public stand against Israeli policy. The question is: are Palestinians allowed to be political scientists in the eyes of the APSA?
Libby Anker explained how she, as a Jewish academic, changed from a skeptic to a supporter of BDS. Israel claims to act in the name of and for the benefit of Jews around the world, and Prof. Anker argued that she, therefore, has a special duty to refuse to participate in the Israeli project so long as it denies Palestinians fundamental freedoms. The unfortunate reality is that there are anti-Semites on both sides of the Israel-Palestine issue, so an unwillingness to side with anti-Semites cannot tell us what stance to take on BDS. Instead, political values of nonviolence, democracy, freedom, and equality can guide us to a stance for supporting the movement, as they did for her.
Anne Norton brought the focus back to the Palestinians. Palestinians under occupation face a systematic web of violence, including settlements, checkpoints, curfews, and military closures, that prevents them from traveling to university, much less studying or teaching there. Palestinian scholars are not free to teach what they choose, to research, or to do their work. Palestinians are not free to travel or speak freely abroad, nor are other scholars free to research or to teach in Palestine. In the United States, neither scholars nor our students are able to speak freely about Palestine. Prof. Norton recounted how she has seen university students verbally abuse Palestinian speakers—pro-Israel groups had trained these students in such tactics. Anti-BDS activists create academic blacklists, and orchestrate devastating campaigns of harassment and intimidation. She called on those in attendance—whatever their stance on BDS might be—to support Palestinians’ rights to study, travel, and teach.
Heike Schotten made the case for academic boycott by noting that Israeli universities—which are all state institutions—are complicit with the State of Israel’s three basic crimes: settler colonialism, illegal military occupation, and apartheid rule. Each of these is, in themselves, a violation of academic freedom; each also results in further violations of academic freedom. Anyone in favor of academic freedom then, or, more simply, opposed to settler colonialism, illegal military occupation, and apartheid, should not bat an eyelash at upholding the academic boycott of Israeli universities.
Kevin Bruyneel responded to the accusation—which The New York Times’ indefatigable Bari Weiss gave another airing to this past week—that BDS proponents unfairly single out Israel from among the world’s human rights abusers and academic freedom violators. Being active in Indigenous Studies, he pointed out that committed scholars in the field honor boycott calls by indigenous communities. Honoring this particular call for a boycott is thus a consistent political position. In standing in solidarity with Palestinians, one honors a call just as one would with any other indigenous people who issued such a call. Moreover, the pursuit of emancipation and justice is for many of us inseparable from our scholarly work in political theory. The political valence of our professional existence as political theorists does not have to be denied or swept under the rug.
The meeting closed with Prof. Marasco reading a prepared statement in which she said that the resolution we submitted could not move forward in Foundations, both because of the substantial opposition she received in her inbox and because the leadership of APSA itself had foreclosed any public statement by Foundations. Unfortunately, both Foundations and APSA failed to distinguish between the APSA/Foundations members’ feedback and the feedback supplied by a much broader set of well-funded, non-member Zionist organizations, the latter of whom are well-versed in mounting anti-BDS campaigns to threaten, pressure, and intimidate academics (indeed, in the case of the Academic Engagement Network, that is their raison d’etre). That these forces mobilized so quickly and forcefully against the prospect of a mere discussion of academic boycott shows how deeply any serious consideration of questions of justice threatens them when it comes to Israel. More importantly, however, Foundations’ officers should not mistake the “feedback” of these forces for the views of its own (Foundations’) members, much less with the views of political theorists more generally. Those political theorists who signed their names in support of the boycott resolution ought to weigh more heavily in any assessment of the opinion of the profession than outside pressure does—whether that outside pressure comes from anonymous young men in IDF T-shirts or famous names on the fancy letterhead of the Academic Engagement Network (AEN). Nevertheless, Prof. Marasco made it quite clear that she welcomed further discussions and new proposals, and promised to schedule more members’ meetings to continue the conversation.
In the wake of the meeting, opponents of the resolution—including AEN Executive Director Miriam Elman and Prof. Walzer—immediately declared victory, gleefully dubbing the meeting a #BDSFail. This rests on at least two confusions:
First, outside groups imagined that the meeting was a decision-making forum, and so imagined that a plan to pass a BDS resolution was thwarted. This is false. We knew in advance that procedures would not permit passage of a resolution. We wanted to have an open conversation, and this was achieved.
Opponents also latched onto Prof. Marasco’s closing statement, concluding that the issue is dead in Foundations. This is also false. Those of us who pushed for this conversation will push for further conversations as well. This was only the first step in a process that will last for many years.
This conversation and this process will last many years because we are committed to this struggle not simply because we recognize that our freedom is interconnected with the freedom of all other people(s), Palestinians included. It will last for many years because we think our field needs to have some serious conversations about to whom we and our knowledge production are accountable. Is our work accountable to those who cannot be in the room with us because the Israeli occupation prevents them from traveling, going to school, studying, or freeing themselves? Is our job as political theorists to abstract away from the realities of oppression in order to advance arguments and careers that disavow those realities? Is the goal of the Foundations section a collegiality that comes at the expense of justice? For whom is Foundations a safe space and for whom is it unapproachable, exclusionary, or unsafe precisely because it disavows (ironically enough) any politicization of our work as thinkers of the political?
We are supporters of justice and liberation, and we will work on, welcome, and support all efforts to secure the rights and freedoms of oppressed peoples, which necessarily includes Palestinians. This is by no means foreign to the principles and actions of APSA. Last week, APSA signed onto a statement released by the Middle East Studies Association of North America protesting “the limitations imposed on international faculty at Palestinian universities in the West Bank and Gaza.” If the freedom, academic or otherwise, of “international”—i.e., American and Canadian—academics matters, then so too should the freedom, both academic and otherwise, of Palestinians.
Upholding the academic boycott of Israel is one small acknowledgment of a very basic political proposition that would be uncontroversial if we made it about any other people on the planet: we think that Palestinian students and scholars of politics should have the same rights and freedoms as any other students and scholars of politics. The fact that there was a packed room, and that serious people were able to have a serious discussion about a serious issue, is evidence that we need more of these conversations in the future. It’s time to acknowledge the aggressive censorship of speech in support of Palestinians and the BDS movement in the United States, and the discrimination it licenses against our students and colleagues. It’s time for APSA, and Foundations, to make clear its commitment to the freedom of Palestinians to study and teach politics and political theory. If a BDS resolution is the means to that end, then we will continue to push it within all the relevant venues, Foundations included.