Leadership

Association's Academic Boycott of Israel Sparks Controversy

By Ernie Smith / Dec 18, 2013 University of Haifa, one of Israel's major academic institutions. (Zvi Roger/Wikimedia Commons)

The American Studies Association’s vote in favor of an academic boycott of Israeli universities in protest of the Palestinian situation has drawn criticism from pro-Israeli activists, other academic groups, and even a former ASA president.

It may be a symbolic move, but it’s one that’s got a lot of people in academia talking this week.

The American Studies Association (ASA), which represents about 5,000 American studies university professors nationwide, voted this week—by a 2-to-1 margin, with more than 1,250 members casting ballots—to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

The resolution cites as the reason for the boycott Israel’s treatment of Palestinian students and academics and the role Israeli universities play in supporting human rights violations: “[T]here is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation, and 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 states.

According to The New York Times, while the ASA’s is not the first such boycott by a U.S.-based group (the Association for Asian American Studies approved a similar one in April), the move signifies an increased focus on Israel by American academics. More details:

A rising movement: For the past decade, a coalition of Palestinian groups known as the BDS Movement has pushed for a campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel based on the country’s treatment of Palestinians. The movement had not caught on in the United States until recently, but many European groups (most recently the Teachers’ Union of Ireland) have shown openness to the BDS campaign. Though the ASA’s move is seen as largely symbolic—it has few formal ties to Israeli universities, and the boycott does not ban individual educators from working with the schools—many consider the vote a big victory for the BDS Movement.

Opposition within academia: While other associations have undertaken similar academic boycotts in the past, the much larger American Association of University Professors, which represents nearly 50,000 professors nationwide, has traditionally opposed them. When the British Association of University Teachers announced a boycott of two Israeli universities in 2005, the AAUP released a policy statement opposing academic boycotts, saying that they damage the free exchange of ideas. (The British AUT later canceled its boycott after a backlash.) “Though often based on assertions of fundamental principle, boycotts are not in themselves matters of principle but tactical weapons in political struggles,” the AAUP statement says. While AAUP protested South Africa’s practice of apartheid, the organization did not formally join an academic boycott.

The reaction: ASA’s boycott has drawn criticism from the Israeli government and a number of Jewish groups in the United States, including the American Jewish Committee. The AJC’s Kenneth Stern told the Associated Press that the move was “abhorrent.” Some critics, The New York Times noted, have suggested that the boycott attacks the wrong target, as Israeli universities have often been critical of government practices. And a former president of ASA, Stanford University professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin, sided with the AAUP’s stance. “As a scholar, I deeply value the free exchange of ideas,” Fishkin told the Jewish news service JNS.org. “Academic boycotts make the free exchange of ideas impossible. For that reason, I think the ASA’s endorsement of the boycott was a big mistake.”

ASA’s move may not be the last one by a U.S. association that targets Israel. Next month, according to The New York Times, the Modern Language Association will consider voting on a resolution concerning Israel’s “arbitrary denials” of U.S. professors visiting universities in Gaza and the West Bank.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now and a former newspaper guy. More »

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