The American Studies Association has voted to initiate an academic boycott of Israel ostensibly to protest its denial of civil rights to Palestinians in the occupied territories. Forgetting for a moment Israel's unique security concerns (what would the US do if Mexico routinely lobbed rockets and artillery shells into US border towns), the implication is that the Palestinians in Israels have it worse than any other group in the world, since this is the first and only such boycott the ASA has ever entered into. Is it really worse to be a Palestinian in Israel than, say, a woman anywhere in the Arab world** or about anyone in North Korea? Do academics in Cuba have more ability to write honestly than they do in Israel? I doubt it.
The only statement the ASA makes on the subject that I can find is in their FAQ on the boycott
7) Does the boycott resolution unfairly single out Israel? After all there are many unjust states in the world.
The boycott resolution responds to a request from the Palestinian people, including Palestinian academics and students, to act in solidarity. Because the U.S. contributes materially to the Israeli occupation, through significant financial and military aid - and, as such, is an important ally of the Israeli state - and because the occupation daily confiscates Palestinian land and devastates Palestinian lives, it is urgent to act now.
A couple of thoughts. First, I am not sure why US material aid is relevant to choosing a boycott target. I suppose the implication is that this boycott is aimed more at the US than at Israel itself. But the question still stands as to why countries like Saudi Arabia, which receives a lot of US material aid as well, get a pass. Second, the fact that Palestinian academics can seek international help tends to disprove that their situation is really the worst in the world. I don't think the fact that the ASA is not hearing cries for help from liberal-minded academics in North Korea means that there is less of a problem in North Korea. It means there is more of a problem.
I am not a student of anti-semitism, so I can't comment on how much it may explain this decision. However, I think it is perfectly possible to explain the ASA's actions without resorting to anti-semitism as an explanation. As background, remember that it is important for their social standing and prestige for liberal academics to take public positions to help the downtrodden in other countries. This is fine -- not a bad incentive system to feel social pressure to speak out against injustice. But the problem is that most sources of injustice are all either a) Leftish regimes the Left hesitates to criticize for ideological reasons or b) Islamic countries that the left hesitates to criticize because they have invested so much in calling conservatives Islamophobic.
So these leftish academics have a need to criticize, but feel constrained to only strongly criticizing center-right or right regimes. The problem is that most of these are gone. Allende, the Shah, Franco, South Africa -- all gone or changed. All that's left is Israel (which is odd because it is actually fairly socialist but for some reason never treated as such by the Left). So if we consider the universe of appropriate targets -- countries with civil rights and minority rights issues that are not leftish or socialist governments and not Islamic, then the ASA has been perfectly consistent, targeting every single country in that universe.
** To this day I am amazed how little heat the gender apartheid in the Arab world generates in the West in comparison to race apartheid in South Africa. I am not an expert on either, but from what I have read I believe it is a true statement to say that blacks in apartheid South Africa had more freedom than women have today in Saudi Arabia. Thoughts?
Update: I twice emailed the ASA for a list of other countries or groups they have boycotted and twice got a blurb justifying why Israel was selected but with no direct answer to my question. I guess I will take that as confirmation this is the first and only country they have ever targeted. They did want to emphasize that the reason Israel was selected (I presume vs. other countries but they did not word it thus) had a lot to do with he fact that Israel was the number one recipient of US aid money (mostly military) and that it was this American connection given they represent American studies professors that made the difference. Why Pakistan or Afghanistan, who treat their women far worse than Israel treats Palestinians, and which receive a lot of US aid, were not selected or considered or mentioned is not explained. Basically, I would explain it thus: "all the cool kids are doing it, and we determined that to remain among the cool kids we needed to do it too". This is a prestige and signalling exercise, and it makes a lot more sense in that context, because then one can ask about the preferences of those to whom they are signalling, rather than try to figure out why Israel is somehow the worst human rights offender in the world.
By the way, by the ASA logic, it should be perfectly reasonable, even necessary, for European academic institutions to boycott US academic institutions because the US government gives aid to such a bad country like Israel. This seems like it would be unfair to US academics who may even disagree with US policy, but no more unfair than to Israeli academics who are being punished for their government's policies. I wonder how US academics would feel about being boycotted from European events and scholarship over US government policy?