Top US academic association decries Israel boycott

Association of American Universities releases statement saying measure ‘clearly violates’ academic freedom

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

An illustrative photo of pro-Palestinian demonstrators during an Apartheid Week event at the University of Texas. (photo credit: CC-BY Monad86, Flickr)
An illustrative photo of pro-Palestinian demonstrators during an Apartheid Week event at the University of Texas. (photo credit: CC-BY Monad86, Flickr)

A leading international group of academic institutions issued a scathing attack on a decision last week by American professors to boycott Israel.

The executive committee of the Association of American Universities, 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.”

Last week, the American Studies Association voted to boycott cooperation with Israeli universities, a move that was quickly mimicked by the Native American Studies Association. The boycott decision by the ASA spurred Brandeis University and Penn State University Harrisburg to cut off ties with the 5,000-member group.

The AAU said in its statement Friday that academic freedom should not be “abridged by political considerations.”

“Academic freedom is the freedom of university faculty responsibly to produce and disseminate knowledge through research, teaching, and service, without undue constraint,” the statement read. “American colleges and universities, as well as like institutions elsewhere, must stand as the first line of defense against attacks on academic freedom.”

“Restrictions imposed on the ability of scholars of any particular country to work with their fellow academics in other countries, participate in meetings and organizations, or otherwise carry out their scholarly activities violate academic freedom…,” continued the statement. “We urge American scholars and scholars around the world who believe in academic freedom to oppose this and other such academic boycotts.”

The AAU was founded in 1900, and works to promote national and campus policies that support scholarship and research. Membership in the organization is seen as a sign of prestige among American universities.

The American Studies Association announced last week that two-thirds of its members who voted approved the boycott of Israeli universities and academics.

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.

In the resolution passed unanimously by the national council on December 4, 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.”

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.

Almost immediately after the announcement, opposition to the decision surfaced. Penn State Harrisburg was the first university to announce a break with the ASA the next day, with Brandeis University following suit.

Other university presidents have come out strongly against the boycott.

“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,” wrote Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth. “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 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.

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.

In January, Austin will also see a panel by the Modern Language Association debate the question of whether to boycott Israel. The group has been criticize for failing to include a pro-Israel voice in the discussion.

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.

The Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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