While the word “boycott” has origins in the nineteenth-century Irish Land League movement (Hassan), the tactic is inscribed in a noteworthy U.S. activist legacy extending “from the Montgomery bus boycott to the UFW grape boycott to the boycotts against South Africa’s apartheid regime” (“Anti-Boycott”). The academic boycott of Israel movement claims affiliation with these anti-colonial and anti-racist movements.

In connection with comparative literature specifically, however, academic boycott is associated with political trends aimed at “renewing the field” that date to the 1980s. The 1993 ACLA Bernheimer Report notes that challenges to “a restrictive Eurocentrism” mark new developments in comparative literature programs. Bernheimer’s conclusion emphasizes “progressive tendencies in literary studies, toward a multicultural, global, and interdisciplinary curriculum.”

Since 1993 “progressive tendencies” in the discipline have harnessed comparative methodologies to textual analysis of human rights documents, interpretations of geopolitical systems, and critiques of foreign policy. As comparative literature has become increasingly engaged in world affairs, boycott politics, from the anti-apartheid movement to Palestine solidarity activism, has drawn on comparative critical approaches. A line can be traced from Rob Nixon’s 1992 “Apartheid on the Run: The South African Sports Boycott” to Robin Kelley’s 2014 advocacy of the academic boycott in “Another Freedom Summer.”

Boycott is, furthermore, the subject of a growing body of writing across genres: activist calls to action, journalistic refutations, statements of opposition, pro-boycott petitions, endorsement resolutions, and anti-boycott legislation. Boycott politics has mobilized writers, including Berger, Pinter, Soueif, Roy, and Galeano, and provoked theorists, such as Nussbaum, Rancière, Butler, and Žižek. The controversy has catalyzed new thinking about the very notion of boycott, engendering comparative analyses of pro- and anti-boycott discourses as well as comparisons of boycott contexts. 

Among the most contestatory and contested ideas on university campuses today, academic boycott is a pressing concern for literary scholars. The issue has generated prolific and polarizing public debates, at the center of which is a general question about the place of pro-Palestinian activism in the academy (Jaschik). The Los Angeles Review of Books, for example, published a series under the title “Academic Activism: Israelis, Palestinians and the Ethics of Boycott,” which included essays by “some of the most important voices engaging these issues within the American university” (March 2014). Literature and language scholars authored six of the eight essays for and against the boycott.

In 2013 the academic boycott movement gained renewed notice (Pérez-Peña) when the American Studies Association passed an endorsement resolution asserting ASA’s social justice charter and breaking with historic U.S. support of Israel (Council Resolution). Other professional associations, namely Critical Ethnic Studies, Peace and Justice Studies, African Literature, and Humanist Sociology, followed suit. The missions of these associations overlap with current preoccupations in comparative literature, which provides an established model of interdisciplinary and international scholarship in these emerging fields.

The stakes of academic boycott have become so great to literature scholars that the 2015 MLA Delegate Assembly held an “open discussion” on “Institutional and Individual Boycotts” and “the Relation between Boycotts and Academic Freedom” among other “controversial issues” (Agenda).  MLA discussions will continue in 2016 and 2017 at the conventions and online at the Commons.

Citing Bernheimer, Tim Brennan argues that “the new movement in comparative literature” of the 1990s occurred  “in an atmosphere of canonical revision ushered in by postcolonial studies” (31). “Progressive tendencies” in comparative literature identified in 1993 have expanded beyond postcolonial revisionism, opening the field to questions of solidarity and rights. The provocative articulation of international solidarity with professional responsibilities--a crucial feature of comparative literature in the 21st century--critically informs the academic boycott debates that have so intensely activated scholars of languages, literatures and cultures.


Works Cited

“Academic Activism: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Ethics of Boycott.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 16 March 2014. Web 16 March 2015.

“Agenda for the 2015 Delegate Assembly Meeting: Open Discussion.” Modern Language Association, n.d. Web. 16 March 2015.

“Anti-Boycott Bills Proliferate.” Dissent News Wire. Defending Dissent, 7 April 2014. Web. 18 March 2015.

“Bernheimer Report: Comparative Literature at the Turn of the Century.” A Report to the ACLA. American Comparative Literature Association, 1993. Web. 16 March 2015.

Brennan, Tim. Edward Said and Comparative Literature.” Journal of Palestine Studies 33.3 (Spring 2004): 23-37.

Butler, Judith. “Boycott Politics and Global Responsibility.” Online Video. Jadiliyya, 13 April 2012. Web. 16 March 2015.

Council Resolution on the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions. American Studies Association, 4 December 2013. Web. 17 March 2015.

Hassan, Salah D. "Historicizing Palestinian Boycott Politics." Social Text. Periscope, 13 June 2014. Web. 12 March 2015.

Jaschik, Scott. "When to Take a Stand." Inside Higher Ed, 12 January 2015. Web. 12 March 2015.

Kelley, Robin. "Another Freedom Summer.” Journal of Palestine Studies 44.1 (Autumn 2014): 29-41.

McMurtrie, Beth. "Scholars Debate Significance of American Studies Assn.’s Vote to Boycott Israel." Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 Dec 2013. Web. 12 March 2015.

Nixon, Rob. “Apartheid on the Run: The South African Sports Boycott.” Transition 58 (1992).  Web. 16 March 2015. 

Pérez-Peña, Richard and Jodi Rudorendec. "Boycott by Academic Group Is a Symbolic Sting to Israel." The New York Times, 16 December 2013. Web. 12 March 2015.