Boycott Me. Please.

Why the American Studies Association's boycott of Israeli academic institutions -- and my small liberal arts college -- is so utterly ridiculous.

I am now subject to a boycott by the American Studies Association (ASA), an organization of professors that includes roughly 5,000 members. The resolution, passed by the organization's rank-and-file on Dec. 15, supposedly doesn't apply to individuals, but it applies to me. The ASA explains:

"The American Studies Association understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the ASA in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others) ... until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law."

Since I am the president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, an accredited Israeli academic institution, I'm clearly subject to the ASA boycott. And while my fledgling liberal arts college doesn't have any "formal collaborations" with the ASA, it's the thought that counts.

So just what was the ASA thinking? I don't follow American studies -- my field is the Middle East -- and until this episode, I hadn't heard of the organization. What I know about such associations comes from the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), an organization of scholars who study the region. Needless to say, MESA has had plenty of boycott advocates among its leadership and rank-and-file. A few years back, they tried to pull MESA onto the boycott cart, but they failed.

Boycott advocates haven't tried since, and for good reason: There are just too many people in MESA who know something about the Middle East. And by those standards, it's not self-evident that Israel should be singled out and boycotted for its supposed transgressions. All you have to do is peruse the "intervention letters" sent by MESA's Committee on Academic Freedom. These letters-in-a-bottle to the likes of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan protesting dismissals and show trials of scholars and police violence on campuses are a pretty good indicator of where academic freedom in the Middle East is truly imperiled.

ASA president Curtis Marez acknowledged that some countries in the region have worse human rights records than Israel. However, he then justified the boycott with the unforgettable claim that "one has to start somewhere."

If you know nothing about the Middle East, and have made a studied effort not to know more, you might think that "somewhere" is Israel. That's because Israel and the Palestinians get outsized attention -- in America. The crimes of others are ignored: What Syrians do to Syrians, Egyptians do to Egyptians, and Iranians do to Iranians -- especially to professors -- just isn't compelling news, no matter how horrific. In that sense, the boycott resolution perfectly mirrors the U.S.-centric bias of the ASA: Everything over the horizon, beyond the continental scope of "American studies," is just a vague blur of media caricatures.

One of the ASA's central ideological prisms appears to be that the United States is an aggressive empire. Just scan the program of last year's annual conference, titled "Dimensions of Empire and Resistance," which was billed as a reflection "on indigeneity and dispossession," the "course of U.S. empire."

The United States has a range of allies and clients in the Middle East -- but only Israel is viewed positively by a large majority of Americans, while Israelis themselves are overwhelmingly pro-American. For the ASA, that appears to be the bill of indictment right there. The surly Saudis are deeply ambivalent about America, but they've spread hush money across the American academic landscape, so don't expect them to be boycotted. No, it will be Israel -- as punishment not for its offenses, which aren't the worst by any means, but for its "special relationship" with the United States.

I'm not exactly sure what I should do to get myself off the ASA's blacklist. The organization posed this very question in an explainer about its decision, and could only conclude: "This is a difficult question to answer. The boycott is designed to put real and symbolic pressure on universities to take an active role in ending the Israeli occupation and in extending equal rights to Palestinians."

Although this isn't an answer at all, it suggests that I should abandon what I believe under pressure -- acting not out of conviction, but out of fear for the fate of my institution. Instead of speaking truth, I am supposed to distort my truth. The boycott presumes that I am akin to a widget exporter, so focused on my bottom line that I can be turned into a lobby for just about any cause with the sufficient application of "pressure."

Here is the fatal flaw in the boycott's design: If I, as a scholar, were to change my tune under "pressure," my credibility would be rightly destroyed, and I would lose my power to convince anyone of anything.

Let's say that I'm on a first-name basis with a few Israeli cabinet ministers (I am). According to the boycott's strategy, I should request a meeting with each of them, and tell them it is time to "end the occupation and extend equal rights to Palestinians." "Why?" they would ask. What has changed since the last time we had a conversation?

In the past, I spoke out of conviction, in terms of what would best serve the interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. So why should they give a whit if, now, I tell them I speak out of fear for the standing of one institution, cherished though it may be? I would not only be unconvincing, I would become contemptible in the eyes of others and, above all, myself.

So I regret to inform the ASA that I will not knuckle under. I would sooner resign my presidency than alter, by one iota, my considered view of what is best for Israel. I may not be right (especially by the standards of the ASA resolution, which, if Peter Beinart's assessment is correct, implies that the best thing for Israel would be its total dissolution). But it is my truth, arrived at freely, and the suggestion that I might be pressured into distorting it presumes that I, and my fellow heads of Israeli universities, lack all intellectual integrity. To which my reply is: Boycott me. Please.

While we languish under boycott, Shalem College will continue to do our best to bring to Israel the benefits of an American-style education. Ours is the first institution in Israel to find inspiration in the American tradition of the small liberal arts college. Shalem Press, our scholarly imprint, has commissioned and published outstanding Hebrew translations of The Federalist Papers, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, and Alexis de Toqueville's Democracy in America. These works are now assigned in dozens of university courses throughout Israel. We will continue to bring the most important American ideas to Israeli readers in Hebrew. And we will continue to teach our Israeli undergraduates the fundamental ideals behind the world's greatest democracy, and their origins and resonance in the Jewish tradition. Boycott or not.



Jerusalem’s Itchy Trigger Finger

Forget sanctions. If there's one thing that should convince Tehran not to go nuclear, it's that Israel might use its own nukes -- first.

Of all the dangers associated with a nuclear-armed Iran -- from the onset of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and an Iranian extension of "a nuclear umbrella" to regional proxies, from a nuclear bomb falling into terrorist hands to an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel or even on the United States -- the one we should take most seriously goes virtually unmentioned: a miscalculated nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran. It's a risk that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei should consider carefully; when push comes to shove, having a bomb might only make a conflict between the two countries more likely. In fact, when considering how this chain of events might unfold, the basic strategic calculus would suggest that it is Israel -- rather than Iran -- that would be more liable to make the calamitous mistake of initiating a nuclear conflagration.

This assessment is not invoked lightly, let alone accusingly. Since Israel first obtained nuclear military capabilities in the late 1960s, it has proven itself to be an extremely responsible nuclear power. In fact, given the level of threat the country has faced -- including the perceived threat to its very existence during the 1973 Yom Kippur War -- Israel might well be deemed the most responsible nuclear power in the world.

The case of the Yom Kippur War is particularly enlightening. Fearing it might be overrun by the combined Syrian and Egyptian armies on its northern and southern fronts, Israel came close to making use of its nuclear arsenal -- though not as close as many believe. In the most illuminating testimony to have come out in recent years about the deliberations that took place among Israel's top political and military echelons during the first days of the war, a former Israeli official who was an eye-witness to the exchange recounted how Defense Minister Moshe Dayan asked Prime Minister Golda Meir "to authorize him to start making the necessary preparations so that if we have to make a decision to activate [the nuclear option], we could do it in a few minutes, rather than wandering around for half a day in order to prepare everything." According to this official, Meir rebuffed Dayan out of hand.

In other words, even at the fateful moment when Israel's defense minister assessed that the country was in imminent danger of collapse -- so imminent, as he explained to his prime minister, that "half a day" might not be enough lead time to activate the ultimate deterrence -- Israel's top leader opted for restraint.

However reassuring Israel's record is to date, it is hard to extrapolate from it about the future, especially one in which Iran possesses military nuclear capabilities. After all, the prospect of invasion by enemy armies pales in comparison to that of nuclear annihilation. And that is a threat that neither Israel -- nor any other nation -- has ever really faced before. (While the specter of a nuclear exchange was raised during both the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, none of the various powers involved feared complete nuclear annihilation.)

How would Israel conduct itself when faced with a nuclear foe -- and one, moreover, that continued to spew exterminationist rhetoric against it? While restraint may well rule the day, the danger of a catastrophic mishap cannot be discounted. And although this may hold true for other nuclear rivals -- such as India and Pakistan -- the case of Iran and Israel is particularly acute, with Israel being the more liable actor to make the calamitous error.

The reasons are multiple and mutually reinforcing. And they have little to do with safeguards. First, Tehran's explicit hatred for Israel -- the latest display of which was offered by Khamenei last month when he declared that "the Israeli regime is doomed to failure and annihilation" -- is extreme even among the bitterest of adversaries. (By comparison, the most prevalent context in which the term "annihilation" crops up in the context of Indian-Pakistani relations is cricket.) Backed up by new military nuclear capabilities, such threats could, under certain circumstances, push an Israeli leader to take desperate action.

In addition, Israel is uniquely vulnerable to nuclear annihilation on account of its small size -- a size that has earned it the horrific epithet "a one-bomb country." With no margins for error, Israel may sooner choose to act than risk having to react.

In the face of a nuclear scare, the asymmetry in second-strike capabilities would give Israel an added incentive to go ahead and initiate an attack on Iran rather than the other way around. After all, if the aim is to successfully eliminate the nuclear arsenal of the other, Israel could hope to destroy the handful of weapons Iran could make, leaving it unable to retaliate with nukes of its own. Iran, though, could not hope to eliminate Israel's entire arsenal.

Israel's military history also suggests a penchant for preemptive action. The heroic example of the 1967 Six-Day War stands in stark contrast to the dire lesson of 1973 and informs a military ethos that prioritizes proactive measures.

Finally, in the absence of a hotline between the Iranian and Israeli leaderships -- the kind of quick and secure communication link that was set up following the Cuban Missile Crisis between Washington and Moscow, and which exists today between such foes as Delhi and Islamabad and even Seoul and Pyongyang -- any accident or misunderstanding would be difficult to address speedily and effectively before triggering a potentially nuclear action.

None of this is to shift the focus from the need to roll back Iran's nuclear program; on the contrary, such a sobering perspective on the real risks at stake should only firm up international resolve to reach a permanent agreement with Iran in the next 6-12 months.

Nor should world powers turn their attention to Israel's nuclear status, either in parallel to negotiations with Iran or immediately following an agreement. Assuming Iran's nuclear program is successfully constrained, Israel can be counted on to remain a highly reliable nuclear player. On other hand, pressing Israel toward greater nuclear transparency -- such as by joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty -- is certain to be met by stiff Israeli resistance. Worse, it may set off a dynamic that risks only undermining the overarching goal of preventing the nuclearization of the Middle East. After all, whether or not one buys into the argument that Israel's policy of nuclear opacity has indeed served to stave off a nuclear arms race in the region, the counter argument that Israeli transparency will serve better the cause is even more fanciful.

What the world needs to realize -- and especially Iran and the Western powers trying to forge more constructive dialogue with Tehran -- is that the risk of a nuclear Iran is not so much Iran itself as it is the co-presence of two nuclear-armed enemies in the region. At the very least, such honesty might begin to address -- even if not defuse -- Iran's longstanding claims of a Western double standard toward its nuclear program. And it might just convince Iran that, with a foe like Israel, the danger of acquiring military nuclear capabilities far outweighs the benefits.

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