US scholars endorse boycott of Israel

Academic embargo passes American Studies Association membership poll by wide margin; ADL slams move as ‘morally bankrupt’

Tel Aviv University (CC BY-SA/MathKnight/Wikipedia)
Tel Aviv University (CC BY-SA/MathKnight/Wikipedia)

The membership of the American Studies Association endorsed its national council’s call for a boycott of Israeli universities.

Two-thirds of the 1,252 members who voted 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.

In the resolution passed unanimously by the ASA national council on December 4, the group 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 resolution, which applies to the ASA as an organization, is not binding on members and targets institutions, not individuals.

National council president of the American Studies Association Curtis 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.

Following the national council decision resolution this month, Marez, who is an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego, justified a boycott against Israel in the name of freedom.

The boycott “is the best way to protect and expand academic freedom and access to education,” he said at the time.

The ASA resolution calls on American universities to end collaboration with their Israeli counterparts. However, the organization clarified that the resolution “does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication.” The ASA’s leadership recognized that individual members will “act according to their convictions” regarding interactions with Israeli academia, the group stated.

Suggestions of an academic boycott on Israel have ignited a heated debate among American scholars, with many opposing academic boycotts in principle and some suggesting that singling out Israel hints of anti-Semitism.

The American Association of University Professors, which boasts a membership of some 48,000, has repeatedly stated that it opposes academic boycotts because they stifle the exchange of ideas rather than targeting those who are responsible for oppression, The New York Times reported.

Earlier this year, the Association for Asian American Studies became 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.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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