Haifa University to test parameters of ASA boycott

By sending an official representative, school will challenge academic group’s ban on ‘formal collaboration’ with Israeli institutions

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

University of Haifa (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Zvi Roger/Wikimedia Commons)
University of Haifa (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Zvi Roger/Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — Haifa University will test the limits of the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli institutions when it sends a professor appointed by the university’s rector to the organization’s conference in an official capacity, the university revealed Wednesday.

In an announcement posted to the university’s English-language website, officials wrote that “we expect that there will be no interference in our representative’s full participation in the ASA conference.” The ASA was among the first major academic organizations in the United States to adopt a resolution supporting a boycott of Israeli academia, which it approved in late 2013 at its previous annual conference.

This year’s conference, which will be held in Los Angeles in early November, will be the first high-profile test of the resolution.

Earlier this month, the ASA claimed that its boycott of Israel is not discriminatory and does not include sanctions against individual Israeli academics. The statement came after the Los Angeles hotel hosting its annual conference was threatened with a discrimination suit over the group’s anti-Israel policies.

Cast by both opponents and proponents as a watershed moment for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, the ASA’s initial resolution did not include the parameters for the boycott in the initial resolution but simply resolved to “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”

The group said in a statement at the time that the boycott was limited to banning “formal collaborations” with Israeli institutions or scholars “expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors” of Israeli institutions or the government.

“The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange,” the statement said.

While the difference between a “representative or ambassador” of an Israeli academic institution and an “individual Israeli scholar” who is affiliated with an Israeli academic institution remains vague, a letter addressed to the administration at the University of California – San Diego, explained that it meant “deans, rectors, presidents and others.”

It is exactly that fact which makes Haifa University’s announcement all the more challenging. The announcement reinforced the message that the professor who would attend will do so in the context of representing the university.

“Home to several prestigious programs in American Studies, including the Center for the Study of the United States and the Ruderman Program for the Study of American Jewry, the University of Haifa is considering expanding its presence in the field,” the university wrote in the statement issued Wednesday. “Consequently, the Rector of the University, Professor David Faraggi, has appointed a representative to attend the ASA conference.”

“We are sure that our representative will return from the ASA conference with important new insights about American society and culture and new contacts that can serve as a basis for collaborations,” Faraggi was quoted in the statement as saying.

Two weeks ago, in response to a blog post by Northwestern University Law School Prof. Eugene Kontorovich, an ASA official explained that even government officials – in fact, even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – could attend the group’s annual conference provided they represented themselves and not the boycotted institution.

ASA President Elizabeth Duggan responded to a blog post at Legal Insurrection documenting this exchange by claiming that “the boycott never applied to attendance and participation in the conference by Israelis. We invited several to participate, and they are on the program.”

“The boycott never has applied to individual scholars, or to university officials participating as individuals. Our boycott applies only to official ASA collaborations by ASA *as an association* with Israeli universities, all of which are state supported. Our members and depts are free to act according to conscience, the boycott applies only to the associations [sic] official actions,” she wrote.

Haifa’s move could put that claim to the test, forcing a determination of whether any actual academics will be precluded from attending the conference.

“We do not discriminate against any individuals at our conference. We never did, and never would have,” Duggan wrote. “We will not engage institutions of the Israeli state on an official basis, and that is a protest against the abridgment of Palestinian academic and other freedoms by Israel.”

Of the three Israeli academics already listed on the conference schedule, two — Neve Gordon and Ahmad Sa’di of Ben Gurion University of the Negev — are participating in panels highly critical of Israel. Only the third, Mohammed Wattab of the Zefat College School of Law, is in a panel discussing the negative implications of the BDS resolution. None of the three are presenting about any American Studies topic unrelated to Israel.

Even if some Israeli academics are included, the organization has announced steps to ensure that some journalists interested in covering the hottest BDS story of the past month will be shut out.

The media policy restricts eligibility for attendance to “journalists, freelancers, bloggers, and other public writers who either have reported on higher education and its diverse issues for at least four months from the time of request, or are working for or contracted by a media organization or platform with evidence of a history of reporting on issues related to education.”

The policy excludes local journalists whose primary field is covering issues of relevance to Israel or American Jewry. In addition to the extensive documentation required to support the burden of proof established by the organization, the ASA also adds at the end of its written policy that “online publications which are communications outreach, personal blogs, or advocacy publications of non-governmental or non-profit organizations do not qualify for media accreditation,” that “in order to ensure the best possible conditions for open scholarly exchange and debate among its membership the ASA reserves the right to limit and restrict Press access to specific areas and events of the Annual Convention,” and that, critically, “the ASA reserves the right to deny press credentials to anyone at any time.”

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