Israeli rights group may sue to battle academic boycott

Israel Law Center urges American Studies Association not to adopt ‘racially discriminatory’ sanctions

Yifa Yaakov is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Students at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, October 21 (photo credit:  Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Students at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, October 21 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An American academic outfit has come under legal pressure after passing a resolution last month to boycott Israel.

A Tel Aviv-based civil rights organization on Thursday warned the American Studies Association against boycotting Israeli professors and academic institutions, threatening to sue the association if it adopted the “unlawful” boycott resolution.

At the same time, the founder of a political blog submitted a document to the American Internal Revenue Service calling on it to revoke the ASA’s tax-exempt status on the grounds that its boycott of Israel was “not consistent with its educational exempt purpose.”

Rights group Israel Law Center, also known as Shurat HaDin, sent a letter to ASA president-elect Elizabeth Duggan claiming that the ASA’s decision to adopt the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement’s academic boycott of Israel on December 17, 2013, constituted “unlawful racial discrimination on the basis of national origin and race, creed or religion.”

Citing the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and other US state and federal statutes, Shurat HaDin warned Duggan that it would file suit against the ASA in the United States unless it took “immediate steps to cancel the boycott of Israeli institutions and academics.”

In its letter, the organization stated that it represents several Israeli professors. It urged Duggan not to adopt a resolution that was racially discriminatory “under Article 1.1 of the Anti-Racism Convention which was ratified by the United States.”

In the document, racial discrimination is defined as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

Shurat HaDin noted in its letter that the BDS movement, “by its very definition,” seeks to “make distinctions between, impose restrictions on and impose adverse preferences based on … Jewish racial and ethnic origin and Israeli ethnic origin.”

In a press statement, the organization stated the proposed academic boycott was unlike past cultural boycotts in that instead of attempting to “deprive the Israeli public of overseas performers … by harassing them,” as cultural boycotts have done, they “attempt to sever ties between Israeli universities and local universities or prevent Israeli academics from lecturing.”

Shurat HaDin added that not only do academic boycotts damage the local institution, they also deliver “no political message other than anti-Semitism.”

So far, over 150 colleges have registered their opposition to the ASA boycotts and several universities have withdrawn from the association.

As of January 8th, 2013, over 100 college presidents, including those of Harvard, Yale, Brown and Princeton, have gone on record as opposing the ASA boycott and at least five universities, among them Kenyon College and Indiana University, have withdrawn or plan to withdraw as institutional members of the association, joining the growing list of institutions pushing back against the academic body for its recently announced boycott of Israel.

“It is quite simple, the law in the United States prohibits discrimination on the basis of any protected characteristic, faith, ethnicity, sexuality or disability. The ASA boycott which targets Israelis because they are Israelis and Jews is illegal,” explained Shurat HaDin founder Nitsana Darshan-Leitner.

“We commend those professors and academic institutions who have distanced themselves from this blinkered and hateful boycott, and we want to support their efforts by seeking legal clarification that the boycott amounts to unlawful discrimination based upon national origin. One can only imagine the uproar if the boycott’s wording had the word gay, black or blind instead of Israel.”

Earlier in the week, William S. Jacobson of popular political blog Legal Insurrection filed with the IRS to have the ASA’s tax-exempt status revoked.

Calling the boycott “a threat to academic freedom,” Jacobson said it violated US public policy by discriminating on the basis of national origin and singling out Israel, in addition to having “anti-Semitic context and roots.”

Earlier this year, the Association for Asian American Studies became the the first US academic body to boycott Israeli institutions. The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association also announced a boycott, just days after the ASA.

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