Nick Riemer, Boycott Theory and the Struggle for Palestine. Universities, Intellectualism and Liberation (Rowman and Littlefield, 2023).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Nick Riemer (NR): Most importantly, the hope of contributing to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign—one of the most vital global justice movements there currently is—by advancing it in universities. Usually, writing books is not the best way to advance political causes. But the academic boycott is complex and intensely contested, and it seemed to me that there was a potential political benefit in laying out the arguments for it at length, and in analyzing the uptake and resistance to it in the context of the contemporary “neoliberal” university.

A secondary motivation was simply the very high intrinsic interest of the questions the book addresses about the way that intellectual and political progress might relate. What makes the academic boycott so interesting and important is that it is a case where political advances do not arise from the explicit pursuit of intellectual work, but from its outright suspension, at least in the university. When we implement the institutional academic boycott of Israel and refuse to participate in certain kinds of intellectual exchange, just like when we go on strike, we are saying that there is something more important than engaging in the kinds of organized thinking that universities sponsor. It seems to me there is an important lesson there more broadly—about the responsibility to do more than think and talk, and about the risks of what in the book I call “smartwashing,” in other words the mystifying use of intellectualism or complexity to suppress political action.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

NR: The book goes from the most particular issues relating to the academic boycott to the most general. It starts with a detailed description of the daily reality of university life in occupied Palestine. The effects of Israeli apartheid on Palestinian universities still are not very well known, which is a significant obstacle in the way of international academic solidarity with Palestine. My thought was that if readers can get a detailed account of what Israeli oppression means in a context they are familiar with—universities—then this would be a good way to understand the urgency of justice for Palestine in general. I also give a detailed account of Israeli universities’ responsibility for and involvement in state anti-Palestinianism, which is the justification for boycotting them in the first place.

I then go on in chapter two to address the central “academic freedom” argument against the boycott. My main idea is that, far from a violation of the ordinary norms of the academy, boycotting is actually a constitutive and deeply embedded feature of academic professionalism, albeit a strongly disavowed one. In the third chapter I draw out the ideological and material parallels between neoliberal universities as mechanisms for the enclosure of knowledge, and Israeli apartheid as a mechanism for the enclosure of Palestinians, and I suggest ways in which universities can be seen as “little Israels”—in other words fundamentally coercive regimes that put a veneer of liberalism over basically inegalitarian practices. This chapter particularly considers the humanities and social sciences, the areas in which BDS activities are most vigorous.

In chapter four, I change gear to look at one of the best known hallmarks of BDS activism internationally, the active disruption of Zionists invited to speak at universities. I try to give an account of speech, disruption, and silencing that is anchored in a materialist conception of language, predicated on the fact that disruptive protest has regularly been an instrument of social progress.

The last two chapters take up more general questions that the academic boycott raises about the politics of intellectual activity in universities and outside them. Chapter five looks at a couple of case studies of situations where academic work was not boycotted but should have been, and the last chapter, chapter six, explores the ways in which intellectual activity can be reactionary and therefore deserving of boycott.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NR: Boycott Theory is an outlier compared to most of my academic work, which is in (of all things) the history and philosophy of linguistics. But recently, as a result of my involvement with the BDS campaign, I have started to do scholarly work about the academic boycott too. The book expands on some of the ideas in my chapter in David Landy, Ronit Lentin, and Conor McCarthy’s collected volume Enforcing Silence (Zed Books, 2020), which is often referenced in Boycott Theory. One of the book’s chapters (chapter four) actually does draw on scholarship about language in linguistics and elsewhere, which it puts to work for an analysis of disruptive protest of the kind that Palestine activists often engage in. The book is also related to my teaching: I teach a seminar course called “Text, Action and Ideology” which covers many of the broader issues discussed in Boycott Theory. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

NR: The book is polemical as well as scholarly, and I hope it will be a useful resource for the Palestine solidarity movement and will showcase just how solid the arguments for the academic boycott are. Academic research and exchange are prima facie the kind of activities where a boycott is least justifiable, so if a boycott of them does in fact make sense—as it does—that means there is no form of boycott that can be ruled out. So in justifying the academic boycott, the book indirectly justifies the consumer and cultural boycott as well.

Overall, Boycott Theory is probably intended for two main audiences: people—mainly but not just in universities—who are curious about the academic boycott and want to understand it better; and people already in the campaign who are looking for a repository of arguments and ideas about it. I also hope that Zionists will read it. Our side has all the good arguments, and they really need to let that sink in. I would also hope that the last two chapters, which are on the relation between thought and (in)action, might interest a further set of readers who might not otherwise ever open a book on Palestine solidarity.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NR: I am working on several projects in linguistics—a second edition of an introduction to the field of semantics that first came out over a decade ago, and a large project on the political history of ideas about Western theories of language from World War I onwards. I am also working with a colleague on an article for a forthcoming issue of Middle East Critique on the Zionist repression of Palestine solidarity work in Australian universities.

J: Tell us more about those last two chapters, where you broaden the focus out from the academic boycott.

NR: Chapter five examines two recent debates about the political stakes of intellectual work conducted by academics—a much-reported German scholarly edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf published in 2016, and a case of institutional collaboration between researchers and security forces responsible for torture. Both these cases raise parallel questions to those raised by the academic boycott about the political effects of research, and they allow us to see more clearly what is at stake in the boycott’s refusal of intellectual engagement. They are both also extremely interesting in their own right, and sharply raise the question of the conditions in which it can be politically regressive to undertake academic research—something we do not think enough about in universities.

In the last chapter, I look more generally at the connections between thinking and political inaction, and explore ways in which intellectual work can exert a conservatizing political impact. We like to think that the work we do as researchers, scholars, and thinkers is inherently progressive, but I think that—unfortunately!—that is clearly an illusion. What makes the academic boycott so interesting and also such an important example for the Left is that it is a case where political advances do not arise from the explicit pursuit of intellectual work, but from the outright suspension of it, or at least its outright suspension in the university. When we boycott certain kinds of intellectual exchange, just like when we go on strike, we are saying that there is something more important than engaging in the kinds of organized thinking that universities sponsor. It seems to me there is an important lesson there more broadly, about the risks of  “smartwashing” and about the responsibility to do more than think and talk. So the book ends with a defense of a certain kind of progressive anti-intellectualism.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 3, pp. 59-63) 

Denying Politics

Academics who encourage their colleagues to implement the institutional boycott of Israel violate one of higher education’s firmest commands: never politicize. In an academy often attacked as in thrall to dangerous “political correctness” – that is, politicized to the point of censorship – and riven by endless “political” disputes, including over Palestine, the claim that politics is regularly taboo will seem ludicrous. It is anything but. Just like any structured, professional activity, academia certainly has its own politics: academics seek power, strategize, form blocs, and make professional choices in ways that they believe further their values or interests, and that sometimes align with political choices they make outside the institution. This is not, however, the kind of politics that is relevant here: university workers are no more or less “political” in this – trivial – sense than are other comparable professionals. It is no more informative to conclude that universities are especially political places because they are the sites of academic or intellectual politics, than it would be to conclude that offices are especially political because they are the sites of office politics. But if academia well and truly has its own politics, that is where politics in universities is supposed to stop. In the imagination of most academics, universities should be undistorted by external political agendas: the objection that supposedly purely academic topics have been “politicized” is one of the right’s main complaints against the academic left.

That doesn’t mean that politics isn’t regularly discussed in universities. When prominent BDS-opponent Cary Nelson claims that “all teaching and research is fundamentally and deeply political,” especially in the humanities and social sciences, what he means, he tells us, is that it is in “dialogue with cultural values and norms that undergo continual change and that are sites of struggle, linked to assumptions about identity that are socially and politically constructed, engaged with social life and the public sphere and thus with the politics of culture, constrained and encouraged by discourses embedded in politics.” This claim of the distinctly political character of academic work amounts to the observation – an uncontroversial one – that universities abound in discussion of political topics: Nelson’s claim that the humanities and social sciences are “in dialogue” with politically important themes means that academics and students often relate their teaching and research to political issues.

The crucial point, however, is that talking about politics is not the same as participating in it. If we understand politics as the effort “to share power or … to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state,” then, contrary to Nelson and others’ belief, it plays almost no part in most academics’ professional (as opposed to personal) lives, even when its “political” character is trumpeted. “Academics look at the social world as something to be studied, to be researched, to be analyzed, even to be opined – but not to be acted on,” according to Daniel W. Drezner in his study of the “ideas industry.” This is not to say that academics never act politically: “there comes a time,” one US scholar is quoted as saying in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, “when you have to take your head out of your books and your computers” and “try to come out, as some people say, on the right side of history.” Most of the time, however, books and computers are where academics’ heads stay firmly planted: the distinguishing feature of many kinds of academic professionalism, especially in much of the humanities, is its aspiration to stand imperiously above, and therefore not immediately affect, worldly political matters. To deal with “the broadly defined ‘humanities’,” Said wrote in 1982, “is to deal with the non-political.”

The comment captures an important truth: while academics often debate or invoke politics, sometimes heatedly, academic work rarely engages it: even if academics’ choice of problems to teach or research is informed by political considerations, and academics intend their teaching and research to contribute to advocacy for particular political positions, including Palestine justice, these goals are typically understood as derivative of their more essential academic features. Academic work can serve secondary political purposes only if it is, first and foremost, academic: the expression of political positions cannot, in conventional understandings, be allowed to escalate so far as to jeopardize scholarly objectivity, which is what guarantees universities’ imagined status as independent, non-partisan institutions.

It’s therefore no surprise that the assertion of the political nature of academic work, especially in the humanities and social sciences, is rarely meant to suggest that it could bear any strong relevance, let alone constitute any real challenge, to specific political actors. Politics as a concrete practice – and, even more so, the politics of Palestine justice – is for the most part taboo in universities. Cary Nelson concludes as a result of four decades’ observation that “the overwhelming majority of faculty members are reluctant to reveal their political views to their students”; “[d]uring my last six-year stint in the political science department at DePaul University in Chicago,” Norman Finkelstein tells us, “the country passed through two presidential elections, September 11, and two major wars, yet I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of political conversations with my colleagues.” So while academics do from time to time use their professional personas to take a stand on questions of immediate political moment, they do so mostly in heavily qualified ways, and almost always with the reminder that their students or readers must decide for themselves where they stand. Cushioned in that very typical proviso, the divorce between scholarship and politics is consummated. Politics is constitutively insulated from academic authority. It is the domain of opinion, where participants must ultimately be free to make their own choices: scholarship, safely confined within the seminar room or academic article, is politically inert. Speech in universities simply does not usually aim to mobilize opinion in favor of a concrete political outcome.

Given their general professional aversion to explicit politics, academics’ reluctance to embrace BDS is wholly expected, but it becomes even less surprising when seen in light of the profession’s general unwillingness to seriously defend its own professional milieus from the decades of higher education “reform” that have degraded it in many parts of the west. All around the English-speaking world, and in many places beyond it, neoliberalism in universities has largely won a crushing victory at students’ and academics’ expense. In that light, insistent claims of disciplines’ “political” character stand out in bathetic relief against their inability to accomplish what should be, surely, among their most elementary “political” aims – safeguarding the institutional security of their own practitioners. In relation to an important mechanism of the neoliberalization of higher education, the rise of academic managers, one attentive observer even feels that “the colonization of higher education by management has never been openly discussed.” Another – a London politics academic – says he found his five-year experience as an official of the University and College Union “exhausting and demoralizing, because so few academics seemed willing to participate” in defense of pay, pensions and reforms of higher education governance.

Any number of aspects of the professional culture of higher education support western academics’ unwillingness to acknowledge or confront their own political agency, whether over BDS or over their more immediate self-interest. In The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno identified the tendency of educational systems “to discourage anything supposedly ‘speculative,’ or which cannot be corroborated by surface findings, and stated in terms of ‘facts and figures’.” The analysis is still germane after more than seventy years. As the very agents of the positivistic educational culture Adorno identified, and institutionally immersed in a highly quantified world of enrolment figures, citation counts, grant income, funding formulas and ranking positions, there is nothing surprising in academics’ apparent inability to engage in “speculative” politics by grasping their own potential to act. The investment which academics typically bring to questions of disciplinary, intellectual politics – Which field will a new position be created in? What subjects are to be compulsory for final-year students? – contrasts starkly with their frequent disengagement from the broader issues which set the parameters of their professional life, whether over the Israel boycott or many other macro-questions of institutional politics. There is no lack of precedent for political activity by academics. But it is understood as exceptional, and often viewed with a certain degree of hesitation or embarrassment, even by its participants.

Palestinians cannot expect strong support from a profession that often cannot bring itself to defend its own members: resistance to the boycott is one especially obvious consequence of academics’ general disengagement from politics. The effect of scholarly political quietism is, of course, wholly political in its reinforcement of the status quo.