The Israel boycott is endorsed by the American Studies Association and Corey Robin

By a 2-1 margin, “An association of American professors with almost 5,000 members has voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israeli colleges and universities…”  My earlier criticism of the boycott was here.  A good Michael Kazin critique is here.  Corey Robin defends the proposed boycott here.  Robin’s argument is that change has to start somewhere, and we cannot boycott everything, so we might as well start with some boycotts that could work, even if that means singling out some targets unfairly.

I would start by applying a different standard.  I would focus on the demands of the boycotters, and ask what is the chance that meeting those demands would work out well.  The demands of the boycotters, in this case, include having Israel grant the “right of return” to Palestinians to the current state of Israel.

Now I understand the justice-based case for such a right, but what about the practicalities of such a change?  The most striking feature of Robin’s boycott defense is that he doesn’t bother to argue this point.

In my untutored view, the chances that granting such rights would lead to outright civil war is at least p = 0.1, possibly much more, and the chances that such a change leads to a better outcome, in the Benthamite sense, are below p = 0.5.  I readily grant these estimates may be wrong, but I don’t think they are absurdly wrong or implausible and in fact they represent a deliberate attempt on my part to eschew extreme predictions.  An educated person or even a specialist might arrive at similar estimates or even more pessimistic ones.  I would be curious to read Robin’s assessment.

By the way, you might think that the potential for bad outcomes is “the fault of the Israelis,” but that bears on the justice question, not on the Benthamite question.  Don’t use “emotional allocation of the blame” to distract your attention from the positive questions at hand.

Why don’t we look at the world of science, where academic collaboration is actually um…useful?:

In science, however, the boycott movement has so far made comparatively few inroads.

“For us, it’s meaningless,” said Yair Rotstein, the executive director of the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF), which was established in 1972 with an endowment funded by both countries. The boycott, he said, is something blown up in the media: for all practical purposes, “there really is no boycott.” Rotstein said that of about 7,000 requests to prospective external reviewers it sends each year, the foundation gets just one response on average from a scientist declining for political reasons.

Meanwhile, the BSF grants about $16 million in awards each year to American and Israeli scientists working on joint projects, having funded over the years, according to Rotstein, 42 Nobel Laureates. And since 2012, the BSF has partnered with the National Science Foundation to support collaborative research in biologychemistrycomputational neuroscience and computer science (The BSF gets an additional $3 million a year from the Israeli government to support these joint BSF-NSF projects.)

I still say this is not a boycott worth supporting.  If we are going to do boycotts, and if we need to do boycotts, let’s do boycotts whose terms have a clearly positive Benthamite value with a minimum of extreme downside risk.  There are plenty of those, and remember, we’ve been told that we need to be selective.

We’re back again to this whole thing being a lot of posturing.  Note that the Palestinian government does not itself support boycotts of Israel.  How about a small amount of solidarity with them?


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