On Sunday, the American Studies Association, of which I am a member, voted to support the academic boycott of Israel called for by Palestinian civil society. Included in their announcement of the vote are the statements of 13 scholars in support of the vote, among which I am included. Here is my statement:
I am a Jew with a daughter and three grandchildren who are citizens of Israel. I am a scholar of American Indian and Indigenous studies, who has in published word and action opposed settler colonialism wherever it exists, including of course the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It is worth noting in this respect that just as the myth of American exceptionalism seeks to erase the genocide and ongoing settler colonialism of Indigenous peoples here in the United States, so the myth of Israeli exceptionalism seeks to erase Israeli colonialism in Palestine and claim original rights to Palestinian lands. It is from these personal and professional positions that I applaud the decision of the NC to support the Academic boycott of Israel, which I support, and urge ASA members to affirm that support with their votes.
I offer the personal information in this statement so that people will know that I have an immediate interest in a just outcome for the Palestinian people, which would also be a just outcome for the state of Israel. Simply put, I want my grandchildren to grow up in a democracy, not in a state that proclaims itself a democracy while denying human rights to a population under its control — a population that has the right to a sovereign state of its own on territory currently under the colonial domination of Israel. We should remember that Palestinians on the West Bank live under Israeli martial law. I also believe that in the long run Israel cannot survive caught in the vice of this political contradiction. And I want Israel to survive.
Professionally, I have my investments as well, to which the statement alludes. As a professor of Native American and Indigenous studies, I am acutely aware of how the agendas of settler colonialism — land grab being the primary one as it is in Palestine — actively decimated the Indigenous population of the United States from an initial estimate of four to five million in 1492 in what would become the lower 48 states to 250,000 by the end of the nineteenth century. While the Native population has been growing since then and since 1924 Native peoples are citizens of the U.S., nevertheless the lasting effects and ongoing forms of settler colonialism are instrumental in making Native peoples the poorest of the poor in the U.S.
American exceptionalism, of which Manifest Destiny is perhaps the best known form (the notion that the U.S. has a God-given democratizing mission in the world), has kept the U.S. and its people from facing its own genocidal history, a necessary step in beginning to move history in a progressive direction.
Israeli exceptionalism — the notion that the Jews are God’s chosen people, whether this is explicitly espoused as it is by certain settler groups on the West Bank, or implicitly followed as it appears to be by Israeli policy in relation to the Palestinians and their land — functions the same way as American exceptionalism, as an alibi for a history that tries to erase the facts on the ground.
There are of course both U.S. and Israeli scholars who acknowledge these facts in their scholarship and offer cogent critiques of the exceptionalist myths that try to erase them. Some of these scholars are no doubt supported by the very Israeli universities that are the object of the boycott, while the institutions themselves remain not only silent about Israeli oppression of the Palestinians but participate in it. But the boycott is not aimed at individual scholars, whatever their beliefs, and thus it does not impact academic freedom, which applies to the rights and responsibilities of individual scholars within institutions — not to institutions themselves.
I support the boycott, then, because these institutions need to be held accountable for their part in the ongoing colonization of Palestine. While diplomatic initiatives continue to fail, the boycott is one way of trying to move Israel toward a history of justice.
Eric Cheyfitz is the Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters at Cornell University.