University leaders in Washington region denounce academic boycott of Israel

Many university leaders in the Washington region and elsewhere are denouncing a movement to boycott academic institutions in Israel, an issue that in the past few weeks has seized the attention of higher education.

The American Studies Association, a scholarly group, touched off debate when its members voted last month to endorse a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The resolution, approved by 66 percent of about 1,250 ASA members who participated in the vote, asserted that the Israeli institutions are complicit in state policies that “violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students.” Supporters of Israel reject those characterizations.

The resolution, essentially symbolic, cast a spotlight on the ties U.S. universities have forged over many years with counterparts in Israel. It also raised questions about the role of academia in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

U.S. university presidents have lined up against the resolution. On Friday, George Mason University’s president became the latest in the Washington region to declare opposition to a boycott.

“Universities exist to build bridges of understanding, not to blow them up,” GMU President Ángel Cabrera said in a statement. “Scholars seek truth by engaging not with those who share their views but with those who do not.” GMU, with about 33,900 students, is the largest public university in Virginia.

Often in blunt terms, presidents of several major universities in Maryland, Virginia and the District in the past two weeks have issued, co-signed or endorsed statements of opposition to a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Among them: Charles W. Steger of Virginia Tech, Teresa A. Sullivan of the University of Virginia, Ronald J. Daniels of Johns Hopkins University, John J. DeGioia of Georgetown University, Cornelius M. “Neil” Kerwin of American University, Freeman A. Hrabowski III of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, John Garvey of Catholic University, Taylor Reveley of the College of William and Mary and Wallace D. Loh of the University of Maryland at College Park.

Loh has established what U-Md. officials call a “key academic partnership” with Tel Aviv University. U-Md. also has undergraduate exchange agreements with Tel Aviv and Haifa universities, a business student exchange program with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and various other collaborations with Israeli schools.

“We will continue and deepen these relationships,” Loh said. “This is not at all to say I’m supportive of everything the Israeli government does. Far from it.” But Loh said the best way to resolve conflicts “is by engagement, not by estrangement through boycotts.”

A Johns Hopkins spokesman said that the university has collaborations with Technion, among other Israeli institutions, and that the Johns Hopkins University Press publishes journals connected with the ASA and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A Georgetown spokeswoman said the university has “long-standing and robust” ties to academic institutions in Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East. Georgetown, for instance, operates a satellite campus in Doha in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.

George Washington University said in a statement that it has multiple connections with Israeli institutions “and plans to continue these relationships as well as explore new ones.”

Reached by e-mail, the president of the ASA, Curtis Marez, said he had already addressed questions about the boycott resolution in an opinion piece published by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Marez, in that piece, wrote that the ASA supported a boycott “limited to institutions and their official representatives” and did not intend to “target individual academics.”

Critics of a boycott say that such distinctions are difficult to make because the faculty is the core of any university.

Marez, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at San Diego, took issue with a Washington Post editorial that was critical of the boycott resolution. “The real threat to academic freedom is when major media outlets use their editorial pages to attack students and professors as they exercise their First Amendment rights,” Marez wrote in an e-mail to The Post.

The boycott debate has drawn unusual attention to a scholarly group that previously had a modest public profile.

Chartered in 1951, the ASA counts nearly 5,000 members and is described as “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.”

Members plan to meet in November in Los Angeles for a conference on “The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain in the Post-American Century.”

The ASA has taken stances on public issues in the past, such as in October 2006, when its national council adopted a resolution calling for withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq.

On Thursday, another scholarly group will consider the boycott debate. The Modern Language Association, meeting in Chicago, plans a roundtable discussion titled “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation About Israel and Palestine.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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