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More U.S. academic groups join boycott of Israel — and critics push back

A student housing village made of reused shipping containers  in the southern Israeli town of Sderot on Oct. 23, 2014. (Max Becherer/Polaris Images for The Washington Post)
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In the wake of recent action by two U.S.-based scholarly organizations to join the Palestinian-led boycott of Israel’s academic institutions, the board of the Association of American Universities has issued a statement reminding them that any such boycott “directly violates academic freedom.”

In the past few months, two U.S. academic organizations decided to embrace the boycott. In November 2015, the annual business meeting of the American Anthropological Association voted to join the boycott and the full membership is expected to vote on it this year. That same month, the National Women’s Studies Association Executive Committee voted to do the same (and its measure supports the full 2005 request by Palestinians for a boycott of everything Israeli.)

The academic boycott of Israel is part of a broad campaign started at least a decade ago by Palestinians to isolate Israel economically, culturally, militarily and academically.  Since 2013, about half a dozen U.S.-based scholarly organizations in the social sciences and humanities have voted to join, including the American Studies Association, the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.

These organizations have not voted to boycott the academic institutions of any other country, and Israel, boycott critics have noted,  has a healthy feminist movement, unlike in other countries where, for example, women are stoned to death for adultery. The political motive behind joining the boycott is clear in the resolution approved by National Women’s Studies Association’s Executive Committee, which says in part:

As feminist scholars, activists, teachers, and public intellectuals we recognize the interconnectedness of systemic forms of oppression.  In the spirit of this intersectional perspective, we cannot overlook the injustice and violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, perpetrated against Palestinians and other Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, within Israel and in the Golan Heights, as well as the colonial displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the 1948 Nakba. [The Nakba refers to the displacement of Palestinians surrounding the 1948 creation of the state of Israel.]

It is also clear in this statement by the National Women’s Studies Association’s Simona Sharoni, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and one of the co-founders of Feminists for Justice in/for Palestine, who was quoted by Inside Higher Education as saying:

“We’re basically redefining feminism and putting solidarity with Palestine into that definition of what it means to be a feminist.”

Would that be like redefining the phrase “scholarly association” to be any organization composed of scholars who promote authentic academic freedom/open debate and, as such, refuse to embrace any politically motivated academic boycott?

When the American Studies Association decided to join the boycott in 2013, there was public pushback from a number of scholars, including  Harvard President Drew Faust, who issued a statement saying 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.” Rep. Eliot Engel, the senior Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter to the ASA expressing concern over  “the unfair double standard Israel is regularly and unfairly subjected to by organizations such as yours.”

As a result of the latest pro-boycott votes, the Board of Directors of the Association of American Universities just issued a statement explaining why it opposes such boycotts and re-releasing its definitive 2013 statement on this subject by the then-Executive Committee of the association. (AAU has renamed its governing body.)

This is the 2013 statement:

“The Executive Committee of the Association of American Universities strongly opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Three U.S. scholarly organizations have now expressed support for such a boycott. Any such boycott of academic institutions directly violates academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle of AAU universities and of American higher education in general.
“Academic freedom is the freedom of university faculty responsibly to produce and disseminate knowledge through research, teaching, and service, without undue constraint. It is a principle that should not be abridged by political considerations. American colleges and universities, as well as like institutions elsewhere, must stand as the first line of defense against attacks on academic freedom.
“Efforts to address political issues, or to address restrictions on academic freedom, should not themselves infringe upon academic freedom. Restrictions imposed on the ability of scholars of any particular country to work with their fellow academics in other countries, participate in meetings and organizations, or otherwise carry out their scholarly activities violate academic freedom. The boycott of Israeli academic institutions therefore clearly violates the academic freedom not only of Israeli scholars but also of American scholars who might be pressured to comply with it. We urge American scholars and scholars around the world who believe in academic freedom to oppose this and other such academic boycotts.”
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