The Foucauldian Game of Academic Boycotting

Recent months have seen a renewed interest among academics in the question of academic boycotting, particularly with regard to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) lead by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. The rationale that underpins these efforts seems to be that a worldwide isolation of the State of Israel would eventually lead to a change of its policies towards the Palestinian people, which are deemed by BDS activists as oppressive and discriminatory. Israeli academy, according to that view, is implicated in the continual oppression of the Palestinian people and occupation of its land, and is therefore a justified target of an academic boycott.

The topic of boycotting in general has received thus far little attention if at all in moral and political philosophy, a surprising fact that makes it somewhat more difficult to engage with the ethics of boycotting in a more fine-grained way. The ethics of academic boycotting seems to be even more under-theorised, which is pretty striking considering the recent widespread support among academics for boycotting UIUC in the wake of the Salaita affair. The issue is clearly a complex one, and I have no intention of providing here any kind of an exhaustive account of the various difficulties that it raises (e.g. compatibility with academic freedom, collateral damage, the causal chain). What I intend to do here, however, is to raise a point that seems to have attracted little consideration or awareness, which is the incredibly mercurial nature of academic boycotting.

What does academic boycotting mean, precisely, in practice? The answer seems surprisingly vague. During the height of the Salaita affair, for example, it became very clear that, institutionally-codified statements aside, different individuals have very different ideas of what academic boycotting actually means, and what kind of practices they choose to include in it. Some refused to serve as examiners of UIUC thesis, while others did not. Some refused to write letters of references for UIUC student and junior faculty, while some argued that this would constitute an unjust collateral damage. Some wondered aloud whether they should refuse to review manuscripts written by UIUC faculty, or collaborate with UIUC faculty. It therefore became very clear that taking part in the boycott effectively meant very different things to many individuals, bundled together under the general umbrella of ‘boycotting UIUC’. In other words, there suddenly was a new game in town, with little attention given to the fact that its rules were in fact incredibly vague and far from being transparent in any way.

In ‘The Lonely Politics of Michel Foucault’ (in The Company of Critics), Walzer mentions that Foucault ‘doesn’t play chess, or any other game whose rules the rest of us might know’ (p. 192). The mercurial nature of academic boycotting seems to follow a similar pattern, which forces boycotted academics – often through no fault of their own – to play a game whose rules they don’t know and often have no easy way of finding out. Since every boycotter is free to interpret the boycott as they see fit, the rules of the boycotting game as a whole are almost entirely individual-based. Some won’t review manuscripts or grant applications submitted by a boycotted individual; others won’t accept his or her students for graduate or postdoctoral work; some would refuse to collaborate with a boycotted person, consult his or her work, or host them as academic visitors. Boycotted individuals, in other words, became all of a sudden the target of a set of rules that seemed unclear if not downright arbitrary.

Although my point here is a general one, my interest in this particular debate has an obvious personal angle. As an Israeli with a degree from an Israeli university I have been on the receiving end of such individual-based mercurial interpretations a number of times, purely on the basis of my nationality and with little or no regard to my own moral views. In other words, I was given no choice whether to become a ‘stakeholder’, so to speak, in this debate or not, being coerced by others to play a game whose rules were never properly clarified at any stage. Here are some of my own experiences during the past couple of years:

Some boycotters would consider me a non-expiring target, due to my country of origin and educational background. In the eyes of others, I would be considered ‘legit’ as I am not presently affiliated with an Israeli institution. Some would consult my work, but refuse to collaborate. Others would agree to collaborate but reject me as a campus visitor. Others would be inclined to make special dispensation for projects co-led with non-Israeli nationals, so as not to penalise them. In each of these cases, the precise boycotting practice would mostly not be disclosed from the outset, requiring a careful and patient piecing together on my part of what each interlocutor would define as their own boycotting practices. In some cases it has been made clear that my boycotting interlocutors were seeing themselves as granting me some kind of an exceptional privilege by agreeing to interact with me at all, and some have indeed revoked it at a later point. To date, however, I still struggle to comprehend how exactly this sentiment is compatible with the most basic principles of academic freedom and collegiality.

To be clear, the purpose of this post is not to dismiss academic boycotts as such, although I personally struggle to come up with a sufficiently compelling moral and practical argument for those. Rather, my goal here is to point out that conceptually-vague boycotts force boycotted individuals to play a game that they did not choose to play, whose rules they do not know, and which they don’t always have a straightforward way of finding out. Forcing an effectively arbitrary set of rules on individuals seems to me to stand in complete opposition to moral philosophy as a profession and a vocation. One obvious way of remedying this situation would be for boycotters to be more - rather than less - outspoken, openly declaring not only their support but also what precisely does it amount to in practice. If anything, an open disclosure would better serve their cause by making it more visible and concrete. So, if there is indeed a compelling argument for academic boycotting, then making it less of a Foucauldian game seems like a better way to advance it.