Academic Group Grapples With Ongoing Backlash Against Israel Boycott

Controversy has followed the American Studies Association in the 10 months since it announced a boycott of Israeli academic institutions over human rights issues. This week, it officially denied claims that it is planning to discriminate against Israelis at its annual conference.

Controversy has followed the American Studies Association in the 10 months since it announced a boycott of Israeli academic institutions over human rights issues. This week, it denied claims that it will block Israelis from attending its annual conference next month.

The American Studies Association recently added fuel to the fire that started when it called for an academic boycott of Israel 10 months ago.

In the resolution passed in December, ASA, which represents about 5,000 college professors of American studies nationwide, cited Israel’s treatment of Palestinian students and academics and the role Israeli universities allegedly play in supporting human rights violations. The policy follows the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement’s strategy to pressure Israel regarding human rights issues.

Supporters of Israel have criticized the boycott, and other academic groups have suggested that it hurts the free flow of information.

This week, ASA amended the terms of the boycott to fix what some interpreted as “discriminatory practices” concerning its upcoming annual convention. The change caused so much confusion that the association had to dispute claims that it had canceled the boycott.

Civil rights questions: On October 13, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) sent a letter [PDF] to the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites in Los Angeles, where the ASA annual conference will be held November 4-9, warning that the event could trigger civil rights liability for the hotel under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. The law bars discrimination based on a range of criteria, including national origin and ancestry.

“No other national origin group is subjected to this exclusionary policy and litmus test as to representative capacity,” the ACLJ letter states. “Moreover, since the overwhelming majority of Israelis targeted by the boycott are Jewish, the exclusionary policy is likely to have a disparate impact on Jewish Israelis—thereby discriminating on the bases of race and religion.”

In a Friday blog post published by the Washington Post, Northwestern University law professor Eugene Kontorovich made a similar argument that the hotel could be liable under the Unruh civil rights law. In contrast, the American Civil Liberties Union has defended similar BDS-style academic boycotts of Israel as free speech.

Reports of a backtrack: This week, a series of reports from sources such as The Daily Caller and The Jerusalem Post suggested that ASA had backtracked on its boycott, partly as a result of the Kontorovich column. ASA Executive Director John Stephens responded immediately, stating that Israelis are not barred from taking part in the annual meeting. “Our conference is open to anyone, including Israeli academics and nonacademics,” Stephens told Kontorovich.

ASA clarification: On Tuesday, ASA sought to clarify the boycott policy, saying that it blocks only formal collaborative projects with Israeli institutions, not Israeli scholars’ attendance at its events. The association emphasized that while the boycott remains in effect, the group will “welcome Israeli academics to attend,” noting that some are scheduled to take part in its conference program. “The ASA has a longstanding commitment to social justice and believes in the power of nonviolent strategies, such as boycotts and divestment movements, as a tool to effect political, social, and economic change,” the association said in a news release. “The United States Supreme Court has upheld boycotts against human rights violations to be constitutionally protected under the First Amendment.”

Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a school that is subject to the ASA boycott. (iStock/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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