THE AMERICAN STUDIES Association, a group of about 5,000 scholars devoted to the interdisciplinary study of U.S. culture and history, has called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The association held a vote on a resolution seeking the boycott as a way to protest Israeli “state policies that violate human rights” of Palestinians, including academic freedom for scholars and students. The resolution drew support of two-thirds of the 1,252 association members who voted. The boycott is largely symbolic; it’s also terribly misguided.
The most difficult thing to swallow about the resolution is how utterly narrow-minded it seems. Was the resolution written on a computer manufactured in China, one of the most repressive regimes on the planet? Did its authors pause to consider China’s incarceration of writers and scholars who dare to think and speak out for freedom, or the ethnic groups in China persecuted for refusing to heel to the Beijing masters? Did they give any thought to what’s happened lately to freedom in Russia, won at enormous cost in a Cold War that lasted more than four decades? Does it disturb the scholars that in today’s Russia, members of a girl band performing a protest against the Kremlin could be thrown into a cold and miserable prison for two years, or that civil society organizations are being systematically shuttered?
Have the scholars overlooked the cries for help from Cuban dissidents bravely standing up to the Castro brothers, demanding freedoms — and suffering beatings and arrest almost every week? Do they condone the decision of a judge in Saudi Arabia who has just sentenced a political activist to 300 lashes and four years in prison for calling for a constitutional monarchy?
To focus a resolution on Israel and ignore these injustices is puzzling at best. It is also fundamentally wrong. For all of its difficulties, including the wrenching, long conflict with the Palestinians, Israel has become a lively and durable democracy. There is more freedom to speak one’s mind and criticize the government in front of the Knesset than will be found in either Tiananmen Square or Red Square today — and far more in Israeli universities than in academia elsewhere in the Middle East.
This is not to ignore the plight of the Palestinians. They suffer indignity and human rights violations for which Israel cannot escape responsibility. But a boycott is not the answer. Progress toward a resolution of the conflict can be made if leaders on both sides find the willpower to negotiate with each other and accept that forceful methods — terrorism, violence and coercion — lead only to more misery. The American Studies Association would have more impact by finding a way to engage deeply with Israelis and Palestinians, perhaps with scholarly conferences and exchanges, rather than by punishing Israel with a boycott.
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