Universities quit US academic body over Israel boycott

Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg withdraw their membership in the American Studies Association, citing its politicization

A dormitory at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. (John Phelan/Wikimedia Commons)
A dormitory at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. (John Phelan/Wikimedia Commons)

Two US academic institutions withdrew their membership in the American Studies Association this week, after the national body endorsed a boycott of Israeli academic institutions earlier this month, with its members approving the measure on Monday.

Penn State Harrisburg was the first university to announce a break with the ASA on Tuesday, with Brandeis University following suit Wednesday.

Penn State’s Dr. Simon J. Bronner, chairman of the American Studies department, announced that his school was dropping its institutional affiliation, saying the ASA’s boycott measure would “curtail academic freedom.”

“The withdrawal of institutional membership by our program and others allows us to be independent of the political and ideological resolutions issued by the ASA and concentrate on building American Studies scholarship with our faculty, students, and staff,” Bronner added in a statement.

A similar message was posted on Brandeis’s American Studies program homepage.

“We view the recent vote by the membership to affirm an academic boycott of Israel as a politicization of the discipline and a rebuke to the kind of open inquiry that a scholarly association should foster.

“We remain committed to the discipline of American Studies but we can no longer support an organization that has rejected two of the core principles of American culture– freedom of association and expression,” the statement read.

The ASA’s boycott has not gone unnoticed by lawmakers.

On Wednesday, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) released a statement blasting the decision, which he said “applies a deeply offensive double standard.”

Nadler said that the ASA had “embraced an approach that is anathema to our desire for Israelis and Palestinians to co-exist in peace and security,” arguing that “such a stance undermines prospects for a two-state solution and ultimately will perpetuate the cycle of violence.”

The congressman warned that boycott would discourage direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which he described as the only route to “a peaceful and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

“The ASA’s decision is particularly troubling in that it comes in the middle of newly revived peace talks led by the Obama Administration,” he continued. “Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas opposes boycotts and sanctions against Israel, like the one passed by ASA, out of a concern for the potential damage to the talks and ultimately to an enduring peace.”

Earlier this week, Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) also criticized the vote.

Decrying “the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the expansion of illegal settlements and the Wall in violation of international law” and “the systematic discrimination against Palestinians,” the American Studies Association resolved earlier this month to “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”

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 on December 4.

In the resolution passed unanimously by the association’s national council, the group justified its decision with the assertions 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.”

Two-thirds of the 1,252 members of the ASA who then voted on the measure approved the boycott, according to an ASA announcement Monday, a day after the deadline for voting.

At the time of the vote, there were 3,853 eligible voters, meaning one-third of the membership participated.

The membership-wide 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, which unanimously endorsed the boycott.

“The National Council engaged and addressed questions and concerns of the membership throughout the process,” the ASA statement said.

“During the open discussion at the recent convention, members asked us to draft a resolution that was relevant to the ASA in particular and so the Council’s final resolution acknowledged that the US plays a significant role in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

In its announcement, the ASA said it would invite Israeli and Palestinian academics to its 2014 national meeting in Los Angeles. The ASA describes itself as “devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.”

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.

American Studies Association’s Marez admitted that the ASA has 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.

On Wednesday, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association became the third US academic body to push for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The boycott will be open to discussion at the group’s national conference in May in Austin, Texas.

Earlier this year, the Association for Asian American Studies became the the first US academic institution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. At its annual conference in Seattle in April, the group’s general membership unanimously voted in favor of a resolution that accuses Israeli universities of supporting systematic discrimination against Palestinian students, among other charges.

The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel was founded in early 2009, in the wake of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Since then, it has been endorsed by 963 faculty members across the country.

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil, Stuart Winer, Raphael Ahren and JTA contributed to this report.

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