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Bruce Robbins reviews Boycott!

Sunaina Maira. Boycott! The Academy and Justice for Palestine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018. 184 pp.

Review by Bruce Robbins

The news that Sunaina Maira brings is not just the growing strength of the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions—impressive as its successes have been, especially considering the sinister and abundantly funded forces unleashed against it by the pro-Israel lobby. She provides a useful account of that lobby’s recent, ugly doings—not for the morally squeamish—and ground-level details of steps taken by BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), whose formation has thus far been the most effective strategy. She also provides generous (maybe over-generous) testimonies to the positive feelings of some of the activist participants who have been inspired by the “process” even when the results left something to be desired.

The real news, however, is the unpredictable solidarities that the Palestinian cause has been gathering to it, solidarities that often (like Maira herself) come from ethnic studies programs that one might expect to have other things on their minds. The Asian American Studies Association, Black Lives Matter, Native Americans involved with Standing Rock—these and many more groups (Maira tries hard not to leave anyone out, even when her lists start to get a bit unwieldy) are often seen, and sometimes dismissed, as identitarian. As Maira shows, however, they have loudly announced to the world, apropos of Palestine, that what they are really all about is not particularism but rather solidarity and coalition. Add to them the longshoremen’s union that refused to unload Israeli freight and the graduate student worker unions that have passed pro-boycott resolutions, among other salient gestures, and you get a very different picture of politics than has been offered by those pretending that identity politics—the monstrous offspring of the 1960s—now prevails, precluding and disabling such universal concerns as global justice and economic equality. Palestine may not quite be “the center” of these other movements, as Maira claims in her understandable enthusiasm, but it is clearly now a universal cause. It is the Zionists who have come to look like tribalists, fighting desperately and irrationally to hold onto what they have, or have stolen.

Maira chooses ridicule of her opponents rather than sustained engagement with their arguments. I for one will not say she’s wrong to do so, even after we have all been reprimanded for the part that our overconfident rhetoric played in the November 2016 US election. In the long run, Zionists and Trump supporters—now more and more indistinguishable from each other—are more vulnerable to mockery than short-term polls and election results might seem to indicate. The major arguments the Zionists put forward, to the effect that boycotts conflict with academic freedom and that anti-Zionism is really anti-Semitism, have been refuted time and time again. Perhaps, while putting forward more and more BDS resolutions, we should let ridicule work.

Maira might have said more about her own use of the language of race and racism and how it is affected by the redeployment of that language by the Zionists—one of their more effective if disingenuous tactics. It’s one thing to notice that they are doing this, as Maira does, and another to draw conclusions from it about weaknesses in that language itself. If she had left herself more space for analysis, she might have chosen to investigate further the coalitions she lays out, including their fragilities and dependence on particular conjunctures (beautifully described by Robin Kelley). She might have said more about the limits of solidarity-generating metaphors like “abolitionism” (good for the prison system, but perhaps not for everything else) and “decolonization.” She also might have engaged a bit more frontally with the anxiety, often expressed and more often felt by opponents of boycott, to the effect that BDS would mean the destruction of Israel. It would not, of course, any more than putting an end to apartheid meant putting an end to South Africa. (Though looking at South Africa today, some of us might wish that is what the end of apartheid had meant.) The three planks of the BDS platform (an end to the 1967 Occupation, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and right of return for refugees) would seem to favor the so-called one-state solution, and Maira could admit as much when she discusses what she calls the “end game.” The time when support for a one-state solution seemed extreme has surely passed. But all BDS actually demands is that whatever state or states eventually occupy the territory of pre-1948 mandatory Palestine will have to offer equal rights to all its or their citizens, including refugees and their descendants. That is a demand that Americans who think of themselves as liberals ought to have no problem with.