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ASA Boycott: Phil Weighs in Timidly

Among the more shameful acts of the past year was the call by the American Studies Association for American universities to boycott Israeli institutions of higher learning: 1,252 of the group’s 5,000 members participated in the vote, with 66% supporting the boycott and 30.5% opposing it. Here is the full text of the ASA resolution:

American Studies Association Resolution on Academic Boycott of Israel

(December 4, 2013) Whereas the American Studies Association is committed to the pursuit of social justice, to the struggle against all forms of racism, including anti-semitism, discrimination, and xenophobia, and to solidarity with aggrieved peoples in the United States and in the world;

Whereas the United States plays a significant role in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the expansion of illegal settlements and the Wall in violation of international law, as well as in supporting the systematic discrimination against Palestinians, which has had documented devastating impact on the overall well-being, the exercise of political and human rights, the freedom of movement, and the educational opportunities of Palestinians;

Whereas there 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;

Whereas the American Studies Association is cognizant of Israeli scholars and students who are critical of Israeli state policies and who support the international boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement under conditions of isolation and threat of sanction;

Whereas the American Studies Association is dedicated to the right of students and scholars to pursue education and research without undue state interference, repression, and military violence, and in keeping with the spirit of its previous statements supports the right of students and scholars to intellectual freedom and to political dissent as citizens and scholars;

It is resolved that the American Studies Association (ASA) endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It is also resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Such a call can be critiqued on any number of grounds:

— The civil and social rights of Palestinians living in Israel, while far from perfect, are indisputably better protected than the rights of citizens living in the various Arab dictatorships surrounding Israel. Why single out Israel?

— Dialogue is at the core of the academic mission. Refusing to interact with Israeli academics is tantamount to a refusal to educate.

— Universities are the areas of a society that tend to express the greatest sympathy for the downtrodden. Boycotting Israeli schools for the supposed sins of the Israeli state would be akin to European academics boycotting American universities in the 1960’s and 1970’s due to the U.S. government’s prosecution of the war in Southeast Asia.

Fortunately, the ASA’s position has been criticized by prominent academic leaders, notably the Presidents of HYP:

Harvard President Drew Faust:

“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. 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.”

Yale President Peter Salovey:

Any attempt to close off discussion or dialogue among scholars is antithetical to the fundamental values of scholarship and academic freedom. I stand with the Executive Committee of the Association of American Universities in my strong opposition to a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. At the same time, I acknowledge that individual faculty members have the right to their own opinions and beliefs, even if I disagree with those beliefs.

Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber:

“I share your dismay at the American Studies Association’s misguided boycott. Academic boycotts are almost always bad policy-scholarly engagement helps to sustain and build liberal democratic values. For that reason, among others, I believe that Princeton should continue to work constructively with scholars and institutions throughout the world, whether one admires or dislikes the government under which they operate. And, whatever one thinks of boycotts in general, to single out Israel alone is indefensible.

My personal support for scholarly engagement with Israel is enthusiastic and unequivocal. Indeed, my latest article (currently in page proofs) emerges from a conference in Jerusalem sponsored by the Israel Democracy Institute, and it will appear in a volume published by that organization.

That said, I do not intend to denounce the ASA, make it unwelcome on campus, or inhibit the ability of faculty members to affiliate with it. My hope is that the ASA’s more thoughtful and reasonable members will eventually bring the organization to its senses — here, too, engagement may be better than a boycott. That is for individual faculty members to decide. In any event, I look forward to continued interaction with the wonderful scholars and universities in Israel.”

Phil Hanlon is still in his one-year honeymoon period at the College, so I’ll go easy on him in this area, but his own late-to-party statement on the ASA boycott lacks the muscular, determined quality of Dartmouth’s Ivy peers:

Boycott1.jpg

Could Phil not have been more direct and assertive?

I have little time for any member of the ASA who could vote for such a boycott. Academics of this stripe seem to be doing no more than desperately replaying the most superficial aspects of the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s. The fight for civil rights during that period in the United States was fundamentally about the core principles of equality and human dignity; those precepts were violated by American racism. In looking today for similar violations around the world, Israel is not the place one would first land to wage a fight for fairness.

These same academics were at the barricades when I was a student, when they fought for “one man, one vote” in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. The fight against Ian Smith’s system of racial apartheid was a noble one, but one could see the shallowness of these Ivory Tower freedom fighters’ commitment to core principles when they later abandoned the Zimbabwean people to the still-ongoing depredations of Robert Mugabe. Based on that posture, one has to believe that many academics were more concerned about bringing down the white man than freeing an oppressed people.

Finally, as a number of commentators have expressed, boycotts are not only ineffective, they are counterproductive. In the 20th century, the West opposed the tyranny of nominally communist régimes. We interacted with many of them (the USSR and its European satellites) and we boycotted/embargoed a goodly number of the others (Cuba, North Vietnam, North Korea, China). Not surprisingly, the former countries have moved towards democracy, while the latter are still in the hands of the one-party governments that began oppressing their citizens more than half a century ago.

Addendum: The precise meaning of Phil’s salient sentence is unclear to me: “While I do not support this boycott, I hope that together we can work to expand, rather than limit, engagement with our colleagues.” Just what meaning is conveyed by the word “while”?

Addendum: The list of universities rejecting the ASA’s boycott is growing.

Addendum: A faculty member writes in:

I might add that Cornell has a joint program with the Technion, opening soon in NYC. What are we then supposed to do, according to the ASA - boycott Cornell, too?

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