Academic institutions generally promote the free expression of idea and unfettered cooperation among scholars and schools. But the membership of the American Studies Association, the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, has voted to back an academic boycott of Israeli universities.

The Web site of the 5,000-member association put up a post Monday saying that the election, which ended Sunday night, attracted a total of 1,252 votes — the largest number of participants in the organization’s history — and that 66.05 percent of those endorsed the resolution, while 30.5 percent of voters voted no and 3.43 percent abstained. The group’s National Council had on Dec. 4 decided to support the academic boycott and then sought to find out whether the membership agreed. Earlier, a letter signed by more than 50 members, including seven past presidents of the organization, was sent opposing the resolution on the grounds of academic freedom, Inside Higher Ed reported.

The resolution — which is essentially symbolic because the organization can’t enforce it–  says 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 call apparently didn’t come from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who, while in South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service a few days ago, said that he does not does not support a boycott of Israel, though, he does support boycotting Israeli businesses in the occupied territories. Palestinian activists were furious at Abbas.

The academic boycott of Israel is part of a broad campaign pushed by some Palestinians to isolate Israel economically and academically that began at least a decade ago, and it has had success in Europe. It wasn’t until this year, though, that the boycott was endorsed by a major academic organization, which the Association for Asian American Studies did in April.

The ASA’s Web site has a number of links to Web pages about the boycott and provides “talking points” to help members talk to others about the decision to back the boycott. It says in part:

With the boycott resolution, the ASA takes a principled position while respecting the unique conditions and diverse positions of our  membership. The National Council understands that some of the Program Directors and Faculty, and Regional Chapters representatives, may come under particular pressure from your institutions, administrators, or local organizations about the ASA boycott. We emphasize that we uphold your right to say whatever you wish to administrators or university officials who are hostile to this action. In some circumstance the following general statements may be appropriate:
“While I may not agree/don’t know where I stand on the issue, I support the right of scholars and students to take ethical stands on important public issues.”  Or
“The ASA recognizes the rights of its members to act in accordance with their own conscience and convictions and to disagree with the resolution. As an association that upholds the principle of academic freedom, the ASA exercises no legislative authority over its members.  (By contrast, it is a civil offense for scholars within Israel to endorse this boycott.)”
If you experience confused, puzzled, or critical reactions that prove difficult to manage, please contact the ASA office for further assistance.

Curtis Marez, president of the  American Studies Association, responding to a recent question about whether the ASA has instituted a boycott of any other country’s academic institutions, said in an e-mail:

SA 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.

Which means that no, Israel is the one and only country that deserves to be boycotted. Not Iran, North Korea, South Africa in the days of apartheid. Just Israel. Why? He further wrote:

The current boycott resolution responds to a request from the Palestinian people, including Palestinian academics and students, to act in solidarity. Because the U.S. contributes materially to the Israeli occupation, through significant financial and military aid – and, as such, is an important ally of the Israeli state – and because the occupation daily confiscates Palestinian land and devastates Palestinian lives, the ASA resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions takes on a particular urgency.

Do academic boycotts by academic organizations make sense? I’d say they are anti-academic. The American Association of University Professors Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure issued a statement in 2005 saying that academic boycotts “damage academic freedom”:

Delegates to a recent meeting of the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) approved resolutions that damage academic freedom. The resolutions call on all members of AUT to “refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration, or joint projects” with two universities in Israel, Haifa University and Bar Ilan University. Excluded from the ban are “conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies,” an exclusion which, because it requires compliance with a political or ideological test in order for an academic relationship to continue, deepens the injury to academic freedom rather than mitigates it.
These resolutions have been met with strong condemnation and calls for repeal within the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The American Association of University Professors joins in condemning these resolutions and in calling for their repeal. Since its founding in 1915, the AAUP has been committed to preserving and advancing the free exchange of ideas among academics irrespective of governmental policies and however unpalatable those policies may be viewed. 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. The AAUP urges the AUT to support the right of all in the academic community to communicate freely with other academics on matters of professional interest.