The ethical demand
Op-ed: In 21st-century West, human rights are civil religion. As an advanced country, Israel is expected to behave 'appropriately'
Members of the American Studies Association (ASA) have voted in favor of an academic boycott
The decision was made, the association said in a statement, "in solidarity with (Palestinian) scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom."
The boycott will not apply to "individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange or collaboration on research and publication," but will be limited to "formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government."
In practice, therefore, this boycott does not carry much meaning. It expresses an ideological stance. This stance has evoked vigorous criticism: Beyond the fundamental objection to academic boycotts, which almost always serve to punish the wrong people, it has been argued that the American association is avoiding boycotting many countries in which the situation of the regime's opponents and ethnic minorities is worse than the situation of the Palestinians under Israel's rule. Boycotting Israel of all countries while ignoring other countries which deny their citizens' freedom, the resolution's critics asserted, is hypocritical.
There is quite a lot of justice in the criticism voiced against the ASA's resolution, but before we dismiss it as another trendy gesture devoid of meaning by a delusional and hypocritical group, we should ask ourselves for a minute what it really means.
First of all, it's important to remember that finding countries that are more deserving of condemnation than we are does not provide us with an ethical kosher certificate and does not immediately erase the ongoing violation of human rights in the occupied territories.
Secondly, Israel receives greater attention than third world countries because it is part of the bloc of advanced countries. Thanks to this affiliation, Israel enjoys many economic and diplomatic advantages. Israel is seeking the rights without the duties: It is asking to be exempt from the obligation for a certain perception of human and civil rights, which is usually the condition for being a member of this multi-advantage club.
It should be noted that we have so far enjoyed this exemption much more than we are willing to admit. For different reasons, Western governments have turned a blind eye to the Israeli violation of human rights, including what they define as blatant violation of the international law (for example, Israel's settlement policy). They usually settle for weak condemnations while expressing pious concern over the future of the "conflict."
This turning of a blind eye will likely be over soon. Western governments cannot ignore public opinion – or trends, if you like – for long. The public in the West doesn't have a clear stance over the ideal solution for the territorial problem in the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Where exactly will the line be drawn? That's our problem. This public is not anti-Semitic, and doesn't particularly "love Arabs" either (in fact, it may be quite the opposite). It does understand one thing: That in the Israeli occupation territories, the "norm" is systematically denying the population's civil and human rights. The people of the "advanced" countries read this in a thousand reports and articles and watch it on a daily basis in news reports in their countries. This is not propaganda; it's not a problem of information either; it's the reality. This reality, which we have gotten used to so much that we fail to see it anymore, bothers them.
In the 21st-century West, human rights are the civil religion. This can be seen as over-righteousness; it can't be ignored. The West expects more from us, because as an "advanced" country rather than a backward country – and I am aware of the racism in this Western division – we are expected to behave "properly."
An "advanced" country doesn't control another people, doesn’t leave an entire population under military occupation for nearly 50 years, and doesn’t discriminate in any way against its subjects who are deprived of rights. An advanced country doesn’t have subjects. This boycott, and those which will follow, means that the public in the bloc of advanced countries is demanding that we decide what kind of a society we are. It scares me to think that we've already decided.