Boycott!: The Academy and Justice for Palestine

Boycott!: The Academy and Justice for Palestine

by Sunaina Maira

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The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) has expanded rapidly though controversially in the United States in the last five years. The academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions is a key component of this movement. What is this boycott? Why does it make sense? And why is this an American Studies issue? In this short essential book, Sunaina Maira addresses these key questions. Boycott! situates the academic boycott in the broader history of boycotts in the United States as well as in Palestine and shows how it has evolved into a transnational social movement that has spurred profound intellectual and political shifts. It explores the movement’s implications for antiracist, feminist, queer, and academic labor organizing and examines the boycott in the context of debates about Palestine, Zionism, race, rights-based politics, academic freedom, decolonization, and neoliberal capitalism. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520967854
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/13/2017
Series: American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present , #4
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 184
File size: 979 KB

About the Author

Sunaina Maira is Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis.

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Boycott as Tactic

Here and There

The academic boycott continues a tradition that has occurred in a wide range of geographic locations and political contexts, something that is sometimes forgotten in the frenzy over the academic and cultural boycott of Israel and the depiction of the movement as somehow exceptional. In recent years in the United States, for example, there was a boycott of Arizona due to its passing of State Bill 1070 in 2010, which authorized state officials to enforce federal immigration laws and arrest undocumented immigrants on the basis of racial profiling; in addition to grassroots protests, boycott resolutions were passed in other states by the councils of cities such as Los Angeles, Denver, and Minneapolis. In 2016, there was a boycott of North Carolina due to House Bill 2, which nullified a Charlotte city ordinance for gender-neutral public bathrooms (and also local antidiscrimination and wage laws), a campaign that won support from national sports associations, corporations, and major artists. The economic costs and political damage in both cases exerted real pressure on the state legislatures, due largely to the loss of corporate as well as tourist dollars, which led to some rollback of the racist laws. In January 2017, after the election of Donald Trump, there was a call for a boycott and general strike on the day of the presidential inauguration by immigrant rights and antiracist activists, and subsequent calls for strikes and boycotts in solidarity with immigrants, workers, and women. These campaigns of economic and cultural boycott generally focused on domestic issues and pivoted on struggles over race, gender, sexuality, labor, and immigration.

Boycott campaigns in the United States often invoke the inspiring history of the Montgomery bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks during the civil rights movement, the United Farm Workers (UFW) boycott, and the global boycott of apartheid South Africa. The BDS movement today has in fact explicitly situated itself in this genealogy of boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns by oppressed groups and solidarity activists, invoking the South African antiapartheid movement as the primary model for the Palestinian campaign. Of course, the foundational history of the United States includes milestones such as the Boston Tea Party, basically the boycott of British tea by colonists in 1773, so the boycott is not always in the service of anticolonial or indigenous movements, or even progressive politics. In this chapter, I contextualize the academic boycott of Israel in the longer history of boycott as a tactic in social justice organizing that has been used in antiracist, civil rights, and worker struggles, and I gesture to the Montgomery bus boycott and UFW grape boycott, as well as to the role of the boycott in antiapartheid activism in the United States as an example of global solidarity. Given how much has already been written on these boycott movements by specialists in these areas, my focus here will not be a historical review or analysis of these campaigns per se but rather a reflection on what these cases illuminate about boycott as a political tactic: when it is effective, why it is deployed, and how the academic boycott draws on as well as departs from instances of consumer or transit boycott. I will also address the often ignored history of boycotts in Palestine over the years, highlighting the ways this strategy has long been used by Palestinians in their resistance to colonization and occupation. The academic (as well as consumer) boycott of Israel has been recreated in the twenty-first-century BDS movement and shaped by the experiences and lessons of boycott campaigns elsewhere. I will discuss how debates over the boycott speak to questions of reform and radicalism, violence and nonviolence, solidarity and self-determination.


One of the most iconic instances of boycott actions as part of a social movement in the United States is the by-now legendary bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama — a milestone of the civil rights struggle. In December 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American woman and NAACP organizer, was arrested for sitting in the Whites-only section of a municipal bus and refusing to move to the back, sparking a boycott of local buses as part of an expanding protest against racial segregation on city buses. In 1956, approximately 90 percent of Montgomery's Blacks refused to use the buses, as part of a collective campaign led by civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and Bayard Rustin. For over a year, Blacks in Alabama refused to ride in the back of segregated buses, instead walking, carpooling, or taking taxis. This movement against "apartheid-style social relations" in the Jim Crow era spread to other cities in the deep South and became internationally famous, King becoming a symbol of antiracism for "millions of colored people across the world." In 1956, the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation on Montgomery buses, even as the boycott movement and direct actions were met with violent backlash by militant Whites and racist mobs, aided by state guards.

As Manning Marable documents, the bus boycott was not the first such action waged by African Americans protesting racism. As early as 1865, abolitionist Sojourner Truth led Blacks in Washington, DC, in a boycott of segregated public transportation facilities. In the 1940s, Adam Clayton Powell led a series of popular boycotts for Black jobs and greater social and welfare services. Boycotts to desegregate lunch counters and schools in midwestern and northern cities were organized by groups such as the Congress of Racial Equality, which focused on nonviolent direct action. The campaign to test desegregation laws on buses in the upper South in 1947, as part of the Journeys of Reconciliation, were forerunners of the historic Freedom Rides movements of the 1960s, as Marable notes. A few days after Parks's arrest in Montgomery, King gave a speech at the Holt Street Baptist Church in which he lauded Parks and proclaimed why the boycott and other nonviolent direct actions were necessary:

You know my friends there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time my friends when people get tired of being flung across the abyss of humiliation. ... There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life's July and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November. We are here, we are here this evening because we are tired now. ... The only weapon we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest.

King powerfully observes that resistance, including civil disobedience, emerges from the sheer necessity of needing to fight oppression, and the boycott, like other strategies, is the produce of years of fatigue, which leave people with no choice but to use this weapon. As King also eloquently suggests, boycotts are tools that ordinary people can use in their daily lives to protest a powerful status quo, by physically using their body as an instrument of antiracist protest, as Parks and others did in Montgomery or as students sitting at lunch counters did in Greensboro, North Carolina. King wrote in his famed "Letter from a Birmingham City Jail" after intentionally letting himself be arrested at a demonstration in April 1963: "we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the local and national community." The boycott need not always be physically embodied, for it can also be enacted through a rejection of participation in spaces or institutional structures that are complicit with or represent oppression, or a refusal to purchase consumer goods — as in the case of the boycott of products by companies doing business with apartheid South Africa or, in an earlier era, Gandhi's boycott of British goods in India in the independence struggle.

As a tactic, boycott is a powerful means of popular resistance, or what activists call people's power. As Clayborne Carson observes, the Montgomery bus boycott and sit-ins demonstrated that "people without resources and specialized skills could play decisive roles in achieving social change" and were part of a "mass movement that produced its own leaders and ideas." Significantly, the BDS movement, too, is a grassroots, decentralized movement that has enabled many groups and individuals without economic and political power, who lack resources, to engage in collective protests, regardless of political affiliation and without a hierarchical leadership structure. As Carson notes, the many acts of civil disobedience and protest for civil rights in the 1960s were not necessarily always directed by emblematic leaders such as King or Malcolm X; they were part of a mass movement that was propelled by hundreds of individuals who were inspired to act, and that spread like wildfire across the United States, drawing in White solidarity activists and students.

King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council framed their protests using Christian symbols and the language of Christian brotherhood, love, and nonviolence. While this contrasted with the radical political frameworks of Black Power groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party, the nonviolence of direct action tactics, including the boycott, gave participants in civil rights activism "a sense of moral superiority, an emotional release through militancy." This is applicable to the BDS movement, too, which is explicitly articulated through the language of nonviolent resistance to Israel's violent occupation and racial segregation policies; boycott activists can claim a moral edge over defenders of oppression in affirming principles of social justice and racial equality. Of course, what is different and complicated in this case is that BDS campaigns and Palestine solidarity activists are challenging a regime founded as a state for the Jewish people, and so are often branded as anti-Semitic by antiboycott and Zionist critics, despite the explicitly antiracist principles of the BDS movement. Proponents of BDS come from a variety of religious backgrounds, however, and include atheists and agnostics as well as Jewish advocates. It is also the case that various faith-based Palestine solidarity groups are involved in BDS campaigns, such as Sabeel, Jewish Voice for Peace, and American Muslims for Palestine, and there has been a powerful call for BDS by Palestinian Christians shaped by the tradition of liberation theology known as Kairos.

The academic boycott springs from a history of civil disobedience, as well as of Third World and anticolonial politics. The BDS movement appeals to people of conscience of diverse racial, religious, and national backgrounds to engage in international solidarity, and in this it resonates across time and space with the internationalism of civil rights activists who situated their freedom struggle in the global context of decolonization movements in Africa and the Third World. This Third Worldism was particularly evident in the politics of Malcolm X and Black Power nationalists who demanded a radical transformation of the U.S. state, which they viewed as a racist, imperial nation-state, and who did not view legal desegregation and nonviolence as the means to achieve true racial equality and democracy, unlike the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed by King. For Marable, in fact, the boycott and other nonviolent actions in the civil rights struggle achieved limited racial equality but did not represent a real challenge to U.S. imperial racism and capitalism, as articulated by radical activists in SNCC and the Black Panther Party, even though their members also engaged in acts of civil disobedience. Here I will not delve into the ideological divide between reform and radicalism, which has already been extensively discussed; I want to address a different if related point, that nonviolent direct actions in the civil rights movement posed a threat to the social order and were targeted for backlash by racist defenders of the status quo, as in the case of the Israel boycott. Desegregation campaigns in the United States were brutally repressed, including with the aid of state governments, and civil rights activists and leaders had to contend with harassment, intimidation, physical assaults, bombings, and even assassination.

In fact, nonviolent civil disobedience was portrayed as being too radical by White liberals, as King reflected in the famed letter from the Birmingham jail:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negroes' great stumbling block in the stride toward greater freedom is not the "White Citizens' 'Counciler'" or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than justice: ... who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action": who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season."

King's pointed rebuke here of White "moderates" and liberals who profess solidarity with African Americans yet denounce their tactics as untimely, claiming to know better than the oppressed what strategies they should use for their liberation, has a painful echo in the contemporary pronouncements of Jewish liberals, and even leftists, who have condemned BDS, and the academic boycott in particular, as an inappropriate strategy for Palestinians in their struggle for freedom. Well-respected Jewish American leftists, such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, who support Palestinian rights (and have themselves been attacked for doing so) have publicly criticized the boycott and BDS movement as it has gained momentum in the United States. This has been damaging to the BDS movement as it confuses people on the left, especially, given that these prominent progressive intellectuals, who have wide followings, have asserted their authority to discredit the tactic of boycott called for by Palestinians, and it implies that the Palestinian people are incapable of deciding what is an appropriate form of resistance.

Over and over again, advocates of the academic boycott — including myself — have been told by progressives, both Jewish and non-Jewish, that while they support an end to the occupation and oppose Israel's wars and discriminatory policies, they cannot endorse the boycott, because it is not effective, is misguided in its target, and because now is simply not the right time. So when exactly is the right time for rejecting complicity with an oppressive state? What does it mean to suggest that an occupied and oppressed people do not have the right to determine the best form of resistance and solidarity in their own struggle for freedom? For Finkelstein and Chomsky, however, it is apparent that one of the main sources of their unwillingness to come out in support of a Palestinian-led call for international civil society to engage in BDS is an anxiety about what this means for the future of Israel; underlying this is a denial that there are South African-style apartheid policies inflicted on Palestinians, cloaked in accusations that Palestinians (according to Finkelstein) are blindly following a BDS "cult."

There are also detractors among Palestinians and Arabs who are critical of BDS, for different reasons, such as that it is not radical enough and is based on a liberal paradigm of human rights. However, the racial politics of location and privilege cannot be overlooked in the debates about BDS, as in King's eloquent criticism of the paternalistic White moderate. I will elaborate more on the critique of the academic boycott of Israel, from the left and the right, in Chapter 3, and reflect on the implications of the challenge the boycott poses to academic liberalism and the dominant notions of academic freedom it upholds. Here I want to tease out the racial fissures that historically inform the boycott movement and politics of Palestine solidarity in the United States, and that can partly be traced back to the civil rights era and the boycott of apartheid South Africa.


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Table of Contents


1. Boycott as Tactic
Here and There
2. The Academic Boycott Movement
3. Backlash
The Boycott and the Culture/Race Wars
4. Academic Abolitionism
Boycott as Decolonization

Selected Bibliography

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