Kenyon College and Indiana University officially withdrew their memberships from the American Studies Association on Monday, joining the growing list of institutions pushing back against the academic body for its recently announced boycott of Israel.
Penn State Harrisburg and Brandeis University had announced they were cutting ties with the ASA last week, and dozens of other universities, including Harvard, Yale, Brown and Princeton, have come out against the boycott, which applies to Israeli universities and academics, though they have not cut off ties with the group.
Earlier this year, the Association for Asian American Studies became the the first US academic body to boycott Israeli institutions. The Native American studies association also announced a boycott, just days after the ASA.
Stressing the importance of intellectual exchange as a vehicle to affect society, Kenyon president Sean Decatur railed against the ASA boycott, saying in a statement that it ignores the importance of education “to incubate the very types of political change that the boycott proponents advocate.”
“One can look at the course offerings at the American Studies Department at Tel Aviv University and find courses similar to what one would find at Kenyon, including, for example, ‘The Age of Thoreau’ and ‘African-American Literature,’ Decatur’s statement read. “Imagine discussions of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in the context of a nation facing ethnic and religious strife, or reading Thoreau and Emerson in the context of a nation struggling with both existential challenges and the process of defining for itself concepts of justice and equality.”
“As the leader of an academic institution, I consider this an excellent example of the potential transformative power of the liberal arts, raising questions and generating discussions that both transcend time and place and also brightly illuminate current issues,” he added.
Indiana University president Michael McRobbie said in a statement that the ASA and similar boycotts would have a chilling effect on academic freedom.
“Indiana University values its academic relationships with colleagues and institutions around the world, including many important ones with institutions in Israel, and will not allow political considerations such as those behind this ill-conceived boycott to weaken those relationships or undermine the principle of academic freedom in this way,” he wrote. He also endorsed the position of the Association of American Universities on the matter.
The executive committee of the AAU, which consists of 60 leading US and Canadian universities including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, released a statement Friday saying that boycotts violate “the academic freedom of Israeli scholars but also of American scholars who might be pressured to comply with it.”
Other American universities, including Johns Hopkins and Washington University, issued letters to their respective academic communities, clearly rejecting the boycott of Israeli institutions. But the president and provost of Johns Hopkins refused to “boycott the boycotters” and dissociate from the ASA, or other bodies.
Wesleyan’s president Michael S. Roth wrote, “The ASA has not gone on record against universities in any other country: not against those that enforce laws against homosexuality, not against those that have rejected freedom of speech, not against those that systematically restrict access to higher education by race, religion or gender.”
“No, the ASA listens to civil society only when it speaks against Israel. As its scholarly president declared, “One has to start somewhere.” Not in North Korea, not in Russia or Zimbabwe or China — one has to start with Israel. Really?”
“Academic boycotts subvert the academic freedoms and values necessary to the free flow of ideas, which is the lifeblood of the worldwide community of scholars,” read a statement released by Harvard President Drew Faust. “The recent resolution of the ASA proposing to boycott Israeli universities represents a direct threat to these ideals, ideals which universities and scholarly associations should be dedicated to defend.”
The editorial board of the Washington Post slammed the ASA boycott on Monday, calling the measure “misguided.”
The Post cited human rights violations at the hands of the repressive regimes of China, Russia, Cuba and Saudi Arabia as examples of injustices around the world that the academic body had overlooked in focusing its attention on Israel.
“To focus a resolution on Israel and ignore these injustices is puzzling at best. It is also fundamentally wrong. For all of its difficulties, including the wrenching, long conflict with the Palestinians, Israel has become a lively and durable democracy,” the editorial read.
“There is more freedom to speak one’s mind and criticize the government in front of the Knesset than will be found in either Tiananmen Square or Red Square today — and far more in Israeli universities than in academia elsewhere in the Middle East.”
On Monday, the heads of The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations sent a letter to the presidents of all universities affiliated with the ASA, calling on them to also come out publicly against the boycott.
“Without a proper response to the ASA action, there will be continued acts of discrimination with escalating consequences,” read the letter by Conference of Presidents chairman Robert Sugarman and CEO Malcolm Hoenlein. “We cannot dismiss these initiatives as the acts of a radical few who manipulate the larger organization. These measures will only further isolate, damage, and denigrate Israel and Israeli academic institutions.”
The ASA’s boycott has not gone unnoticed by lawmakers either.
Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) released a statement blasting the decision, which he said “applies a deeply offensive double standard.”
Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) also criticized the vote.
The Anti-Defamation League called the vote to endorse the boycott “manifestly unjust.”
“This shameful, morally bankrupt and intellectually dishonest attack on academic freedom by the American Studies Association should be soundly condemned by all who are committed to the ideal that open exchange of ideas is the most effective way to achieve change,” said National Director Abraham Foxman in a statement.
The ASA announced last week that two-thirds of the members who voted on the matter, approved the boycott. The membership-wide ASA canvas was unprecedented and was undertaken in part at the behest of boycott opponents, who said at a session during the ASA annual conference in Washington last month that the matter was too sensitive to leave up to the 20-member national council.
That council unanimously passed a resolution on December 4 in support of a boycott. The resolution asserted that Palestinian students and scholars enjoy “no effective or substantive academic freedom” under Israeli rule and that “Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students.”
The “boycott is the best way to protect and expand academic freedom and access to education,” ASA president Curtis Marez said in a press release after the national council approved the measure.
Marez admitted that the ASA had never before called for a boycott of any other nation’s universities and did not dispute that many other countries, including some of those in Israel’s region, are considered to have a comparable — if not worse — human-rights record than Israel.
“One has to start somewhere,” he said according to a New York Times report, adding that the US has “a particular responsibility to answer the call for boycott because it is the largest supplier of military aid to the state of Israel.” In addition, Marez noted, Palestinian civil groups had asked the ASA for the boycott, whereas no similar requests had been made by similar groups in other countries.
Founded in 1951 and now counting about 5,000 members, the Washington, DC-based ASA is America’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, according to its website.
In January, the Modern Language Association is scheduled to host a roundtable on the merits of a boycott on Israel, and will only offer a pro-boycott perspective. No boycott resolution is under consideration.
Lazar Berman contributed to this report.