In this piece published recently in the Los Angeles Review of Books, three distinguished academics take apart a comprehensive attack on BDS from one of their colleagues. It is long but well worth reading. Apologies for the delay in posting it here.
AMONG THE FOUR ESSAYS recently published in the Los Angeles Review of Books opposing the academic boycott of Israel (“Academic Activism, Israelis, Palestinians, and the Ethics of Boycott”), one stands out for both its length and its comprehensiveness: Russell Berman’s “The Goal of the Boycott.” Berman’s essay aspires to explain the “real” goals of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the “real” motives of those who support it while providing a history lesson. We argue that “The Goal of the Boycott” is based on bad history, bad conceptualization, and bad argumentation.
The three of us — Joel Beinin, a historian of the modern Middle East and former elected president of the Middle East Studies Association; Hilton Obenzinger, a longstanding Jewish critic of Israeli policies, author, academic, and member of the American Studies Association; and David Palumbo-Liu, literary and cultural critic, a member of the American Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies, the academic organization that first endorsed the academic boycott of Israel — are Berman’s colleagues at Stanford. This makes the task of rebutting his claims at once more difficult and more necessary. We feel it especially necessary to respond precisely because of the stature Berman enjoys (and in most respects, deserves) at Stanford and in the American academy, and because the views he puts forward will likely appear highly attractive and worth repeating exactly because they seem so comprehensive and thorough. Yet careful scrutiny reveals a dismaying level of misstatement, historical inaccuracy, wild hypothesizing, and overblown rhetoric — not the best example of argumentative writing for our students.
We critique Berman’s faulty historical narrative, his imprecise and inflammatory terminology, and his false contextualization of BDS, especially the academic boycott — presenting first Berman’s key statements and then our response. Unsupported by the historical record, much of the critical and conceptual argument of Berman’s essay falls apart. Moreover, he reveals a disappointing ignorance of the entire scholarly field of settler colonial studies, indeed of the meaning of the term. Finally Berman mischaracterizes BDS — what it is, what it calls for, and how an academic boycott works.
THE ARGUMENT CONTINUES HERE.