Why Are American Academics Boycotting Israeli Universities?

News and views from academia.
Dec. 19 2013 8:43 AM

“Not Just a Family Feud”

Why are American academics boycotting Israeli universities?

Israeli riot police chase Palestinian stone-throwers (unseen) past the Dome of the Rock mosque following Friday prayers at Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque compound, on December 6, 2013.
Israeli riot police chase Palestinian stone-throwers (unseen) past the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem on Dec. 6, 2013.

Photo by Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

Members of the American Studies Association have voted in favor of endorsing the academic boycott of Israel by a 2–1 margin, making it the second major U.S. scholarly association, after the Association for Asian American Studies, to do so.

Of the 1,252 votes cast, 66.1 percent of members endorsed the boycott, 30.5 percent rejected it, and 3.4 percent abstained. Slightly less than a third of the association’s 3,853 eligible voting members participated in the 10-day online referendum. The association’s elected National Council had previously endorsed the resolution, which was approved by the membership despite concerns by some that it is discriminatory in unfairly singling out Israel, and over and above opposition on the part of the American Association of University Professors to academic boycotts in general. The AAUP holds that academic boycotts violate principles of academic freedom and open exchange, while those in support of the ASA boycott argue that they are seeking to increase the academic freedom of Palestinians.

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The resolution approved by a plurality of ASA members cites as a rationale the lack of “effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation” and calls for the association to boycott Israeli higher education institutions, which are described as being “a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students.”

“I think what the vote indicates is that people recognize the illegal occupation of Palestine as one of the major civil rights issues of our time globally,” said Bill Mullen, a professor of English and American studies at Purdue University and a member of the ASA’s Caucus on Academic and Community Activism, which first put forward the boycott resolution. “American scholars now understand the physical violence that’s part of the Israeli occupation; they understand the massive restrictions on academic freedom for Palestinian scholars that is part of living under an illegal occupation. These facts are now irrefutable to so many people that the vote indicates a kind of coming to consensus around the illegitimacy of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.”

“We are on the cusp of a turning point on this issue,” said David Lloyd, an English professor at the University of California at Riverside and a member of the organizing collective for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (and an ASA member). “Once the blockade on open and free discussion of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is lifted, as it has been in the ASA, then people begin to listen to actual arguments rather than rhetoric and accusation.”

“I think you’ll see over the next year more and more academic associations taking up this issue,” Lloyd said.

From the anti-boycott perspective, 72 ASA members had signed a petition objecting to the boycott, as did 74 Americanists who are not members of the association. Eight past ASA presidents sent a letter last week opposing the boycott as being "antithetical to the mission of free and open inquiry for which a scholarly organization stands” and taking issue with the association's leaders for refusing to post the anti-boycott petition and an open letter from the AAUP opposing boycotts on its website. 

“I hope that people will remember that many more members did not vote than did vote,” said Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a former president of the association and the director of American studies at Stanford University. “The views that were expressed in this flawed process should not be taken as representative of the views of the majority of scholars in the field.”

“I’m disappointed and outraged,” said Simon J. Bronner, chair of the American studies program at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg. Bronner, who’s also an affiliated faculty member at the University of Haifa, in Israel, said that he was worried that the boycott vote would be a stain on the reputation of the field.

He cited as a cause for concern a Charlie Rose interview with Larry Summers about the ASA boycott in which the former Harvard University president described boycotts that single out Israel as “anti-Semitic in their effect, if not necessarily in their intent” and said his hope is that “responsible university leaders will become very reluctant to see their universities' funds used to finance faculty membership and faculty travel to an association that is showing itself not to be a scholarly association but really more of a political tool.”

Bronner said the vote demonstrates "how a political agenda can take over an organization that is supposedly devoted to scholarship."

“This is not just a family feud," he said. "It’s a crossroads for talking about the role of academics and academe in public culture.”

The Reasons for the Boycott

In its press release approving the resolution the ASA included statements from prominent scholars endorsing the boycott in light of their personal histories and areas of professional scholarship. Among the scholars who endorsed the resolution was Eric Cheyfitz, an American studies professor at Cornell University who wrote, “I am a Jew with a daughter and three grandchildren who are citizens of Israel. I am a scholar of American Indian and Indigenous studies, who has in published word and action opposed settler colonialism wherever it exists, including of course the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It is worth noting in this respect that just as the myth of American exceptionalism seeks to erase the genocide and ongoing settler colonialism of Indigenous peoples here in the United States so the myth of Israeli exceptionalism seeks to erase Israeli colonialism in Palestine and claim original rights to Palestinian lands.”

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