Dozens of universities reject academic boycott of Israel (update)

A boy runs along a wall surrounding Jerusalem's Old City December 23, 2013. REUTERS\Baz Ratner (JERUSALEM - Tags: SOCIETY)
Jerusalem (Reuters\Baz Ratner)

(Update: U.S. legislator writes letter to ASA, new details)

Dozens of American colleges and universities are rejecting an academic boycott of Israeli universities recently approved by the academic American Studies Association, the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.  Some schools said they are withdrawing from the organization.

Rep. Eliot Engel, the senior Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter (text below) to the ASA president, Curtis Marez,  expressing concern over what Engel said was “the unfair double standard Israel is regularly and unfairly subjected to by organizations such as yours.”

The association’s membership — or, rather, 66.05 percent of the 1,252 votes that came in from the group’s 5,000 members — approved the boycott last week over the objections of numerous former presidents of the organization and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who angered activists by saying that he does not support a boycott of Israel (though he does support a boycott of Israeli products in the occupied territories).

Schools including Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Princeton and Boston universities and the Universities of Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Texas at Austin  and others have slammed the boycott, issuing statements similar to one by Harvard President Drew Faust that said that 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.”

Penn State University at Harrisburg and Brandeis University have said they are withdrawing their memberships from the American Studies Association, and other schools are considering doing the same thing. In addition, two major associations of institutions of higher education, the Association of American Universities and the Association of American University Professors, have issued statements rejecting the boycott.

The approved ASA boycott resolution, which followed a similar one by the Association for Asian American Studies, said in part:

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.

The Association of American University Professors has long opposed academic boycotts, saying in a 2005 resolution:

We reject proposals that curtail the freedom of teachers and researchers to engage in work with academic colleagues, and we reaffirm the paramount importance of the freest possible international movement of scholars and ideas.

I recently asked Marez if his organization had instituted an embargo on any other country’s academic institution and he responded in an e-mail saying that:

ASA members condemned apartheid in South Africa and urged divestment from U.S. corporations with operations there. More recently the ASA condemned anti-immigrant discrimination in Arizona and in other states.

That’s a long way of saying that the Israeli boycott is the first and only for the ASA.

Here’s Engel’s letter, and following that are some of the statements that presidents of universities have issued:

Mr. Curtis Marez

President
American Studies Association
1120 19th St NW, Suite 301
Washington, DC 20036

Dear Mr. Marez:

I noted with great dismay the decision of the American Studies Association (ASA) to launch a boycott targeting Israeli academic institutions. I believe such action by the ASA is another example of the unfair double standard Israel is regularly and unfairly subjected to by organizations such as yours. I could not help but notice that the American Association of University Professors condemns such boycotts as violations of academic freedom, and that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas himself made clear that his government does not support boycotts of the institutions that the ASA is now targeting.

I take great issue with how supporters of the ASA’s misguided actions draw a distinction between boycotting individual Israelis and Israeli academic institutions, which the ASA has termed “party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights.” Simply put, I fail to see how cutting off ties to Israeli universities furthers the interests of peace and coexistence. Does your membership really believe the institutions such as the Walter Lebach Institute for Jewish-Arab Coexistence Through Education at the Tel Aviv University, the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, or the Jewish-Arab Center at the University of Haifa contribute to the purported Israeli assault on human rights and academic freedoms?

Further, I was surprised to learn that Israel is the first country formally subject to a boycott by the ASA, which curiously has chosen to stay silent on China’s suppression of independent academic voices critical of the Communist Party, the Venezuelan government’s retaliation against opposition-oriented universities, or Zimbabwe’s denial of foreign academics from countries critical of Robert Mugabe’s dictatorial government from assuming academic residencies at the University of Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, your response that “we have to start somewhere” when queried about this contradiction only serves to highlight your organization’s bias against Israel. If you must “start somewhere,” than I strongly suggest the ASA turn its attention to Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s forces have indiscriminately shelled universities, killing students even as they sat for exams.

I have attached several sections from the State Department’s most recent Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for your review. I would note that under the Israel country section, the report states “there were no government restrictions on academic freedom.”

If you desire any assistance in further identifying other countries with human rights records of concern, I and my staff stand ready to assist you and the ASA in that regard.

Sincerely,

ELIOT L. ENGEL

Ranking Member

President Drew Faust

Harvard University

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. 

President Susan Herbst
University of Connecticut

The recent votes of two scholarly societies — the American Studies Association and Association for Asian American Studies — to endorse the Palestinian boycott of Israeli academic institutions is contrary to both academic freedom and the international exchange of ideas. The University of Connecticut joins the American Association of University Professors in firmly opposing all such boycotts. Choosing one nation for a boycott is patently unfair and represents a disturbing philosophy among some segments of the academy.

As a university with global reach and prominence, UConn seeks research and educational partnerships with people of all nations, and is proud to serve as a force for political conversation, inter-ethnic exchange, and the pursuit of scholarly excellence.

Academic leaders at UConn will continue to visit Israel and Arab nations, invite Israeli and Arab scholars to our campuses, encourage our students and faculty to study in these nations, and pursue research collaboration with the many outstanding Israeli universities. We do this with pride and a productive focus on social justice, to forge the very critical dialogues that will someday lead to the peace we all seek.

That is the true essence of a university — to foster dialogue and develop solutions to problems without regard to political, racial, and cultural differences.

Susan Herbst
President
University of Connecticut

BOSTON UNIVERSITY
PRESIDENT ROBERT A. BROWN

I am disappointed and concerned that the American Studies Association, invoking the principle of academic freedom, would vote to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Research, teaching, and scholarship flourish through robust exchange of ideas, across borders and among institutions in different parts of the world. Universities and their faculties can often transcend even profound political differences. It is ill-advised to make academic institutions the instrument with which to promote a political agenda by attempting to isolate students and scholars. Boston University cannot support this boycott.

I hope that there will be a serious discussion within our American & New England Studies Program, which has an institutional membership in the ASA that, obviously, is funded by the University. This institutional membership does not come with a vote that is exercised by either the program or the University. The poll taken by the ASA represents the votes of individual members of the organization. We are not prepared to suggest (implicitly or explicitly) to faculty members who hold individual memberships (some of which are funded out of professional funds allocated to individual faculty members) how they should vote. That would lead us onto a slippery slope.

I do hope the faculty in the American & New England Studies Program will consider whether or not continuing membership in the ASA will create the opportunity for a temperate and thoughtful reconsideration of the wisdom of the boycott.

For my part, I am somewhat cautious about following a boycott with a boycott. I’d rather see thoughtful discourse and engagement. This is a case in which the application of the principle of academic freedom is both important but fraught with subtlety. I take the point that the ASA boycott is pernicious and a rather direct attack on academic freedom and scholarly interactions across borders. With my formal statement, I have registered that objection. At the same time, we must be careful about reactions that have the effect of further limiting much-needed dialogue.

Robert A. Brown
President

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 23, 2013