Critics of ASA’s Israel boycott marshal forces in US

Palestinian scholars welcome the American Studies Association resolution

February 6, 2014

Source: Getty

Heated debate: the organisations that have backed the academic boycott of Israel have faced claims that such a move limits the academic freedoms of those who want to collaborate with Israeli institutions

An academic boycott of Israeli universities, backed by a number of organisations in the US, has provoked much discussion around the world.

The most prominent body to endorse the boycott is the American Studies Association, an organisation that promotes the study of American culture and history, and whose members voted on the issue in December last year.

The argument behind the ASA’s resolution, which was backed by just over 66 per cent of voting members, stated that a lack of “effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars” had resulted from Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and that Israeli universities were “party to state policies that violate human rights”.

“The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians,” the organisation said in a statement published on its website.

The ASA was the largest US scholarly organisation to endorse an academic boycott of Israel. The Association for Asian American Studies was the first such organisation to do so, in April 2013, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association passed a similar resolution in December.

While these organisations have been keen to highlight their supporters, there have also been many who have criticised their stance, claiming that such a boycott limits the academic freedoms of those who wish to collaborate with Israeli institutions, and of scholars employed by universities in Israel.

Shortly after the ASA endorsed the boycott, the American Association of University Professors issued a statement expressing its disappointment. “The vote represents a setback for the cause of academic freedom,” it said.

‘Against the occupation, not Israel’

But Karim Tahboub, professor in the department of mechanical engineering at the Palestine Polytechnic University and vice-chairman of the Higher Council for Scientific Research in Palestine, recently established by the Palestinian government, welcomed the actions of the ASA and the AAAS.

“They are not against Israel, but they are against the occupation,” said Professor Tahboub, who was visiting Britain on a study tour of the UK organised by the British Council.

One of the main reasons for the boycott, he told Times Higher Education, “is that Israel prevented academics who were coming to Israel from interacting with Palestinian professors. So if you are coming to collaborate with a professor at Tel Aviv University you are not allowed to travel to Birzeit University, for example, and this is against [our] academic freedom.”

Fahoum Shalabi, assistant deputy minister for higher education in the Palestinian National Authority, added that until Palestinian scholars were granted the same freedoms as their Israeli counterparts, government policy would continue to discourage collaboration with Israeli institutions.

“Israeli academic researchers have the freedom to be anywhere, to pass any borders, [but] Palestinian researchers are not able to. They need a lot of permits before having such a freedom as being able to travel,” Dr Shalabi said.

“The Council of Higher Education in Palestine produced a statement not to support any academic collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians. You may find some researchers [making] their own decisions to work together with Israelis, and that’s OK. But at a policy level, or at national level, the council says no. It is too early.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that the US organisations boycotting Israeli universities would find favour with Palestine’s academics and universities, and in the ranks of its government. However, on US soil, the organisations that have backed the campaign have found themselves at the centre of a heated debate.

Boycott ‘anti-Semitic in effect’

To date, five US universities have withdrawn their membership of the American Studies Association because of the outcome of the vote, including Brandeis University, a liberal arts college in Massachusetts that describes itself as the only non-sectarian Jewish-sponsored institution in the US.

In a statement issued in December, Frederick M. Lawrence, the president of Brandeis, said: “We find disturbing the uniqueness of the target of the ASA decision, with Israel representing the only nation on the planet whose universities are thereby stigmatised. As former Harvard president Lawrence Summers has said, boycotts targeted solely at Israel are, if not anti-Semitic in intent, anti-Semitic in effect.”

These sentiments have been echoed by more than 80 heads of higher education institutions in the US, who condemned the boycott. Among them is Gene Block, chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, who said that the boycott would limit academic debate, and violate “principles of independent inquiry and does a disservice…to the state, nation and world we are dedicated to improving”.

Man holding 'Boycott Divest Sanction' placard

Major organisations in the sector to have come out against the boycott include the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the country’s oldest higher education association with member institutions in all 50 states.

In a statement, the APLU declared the boycott “severely misguided and wrongheaded”, adding that it would wrongly limit the ability of American and Israeli academic institutions to “exchange ideas and collaborate on critical projects that advance humanity”.

A resolution ‘animated by hope’

Countering criticism from the sector, the ASA has posted a series of testimonies from academics who support the boycott on its website.

Among them is David Palumbo Liu, Louise Hewitt Nixon professor of comparative literature at Stanford University, who wrote: “People who truly believe in academic freedom would realize protesting the blatant and systemic denial of academic freedom to Palestinians, which is coupled with material deprivation of a staggering scale, far outweighs concerns we in the West might have about our own rather privileged academic freedoms.”

Another ASA member, Fred Moten, professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, said his support of the boycott was “animated by the hope that this endorsement refreshes our capacity to think, speak and act against the structures and effects of incorporative exclusion that viciously shape and define the modern world”.

Among the institutions to withdraw from the ASA in the wake of the vote’s outcome is Kenyon College, an Episcopalian liberal arts college in Ohio.

Its president, Sean Decatur, said in a recent statement that collaborations “among individual scholars and among institutions have the potential to support and nurture…cultural transformation”.

“We should not be shutting out one side or the other, but rather open ourselves to engage in meaningful, substantial dialogue on fundamental questions with all sides,” Professor Decatur added.

Professor Lawrence, meanwhile, said that Brandeis University valued its “many relationships” with Israeli academic institutions and would not allow the ASA’s action to “undermine those relationships or the principle of academic freedom”.

In additional comments made to Times Higher Education, he added: “We primarily oppose academic boycotts because they hinder dialogue in harmful ways.

“Historically, engagement with differing points of view has been much more effective in promoting positive change than isolation of individuals, organisations and nations. They also punish fellow academics, who are rarely in a position to change national policy.”

‘No help’ from Israeli scholars

Dr Shalabi, however, feels there is more that Israeli academics could do to help the cause of the Palestinian academy.

“Sometimes you may find a Palestinian university has closed for six months or one year, and what is the reaction of the Israeli researchers about such an event? No reaction,” he said.

Professor Tahboub found himself in that exact situation when, in 2003, his institution was closed down by the Israel Defense Forces. “We asked for support from all academics in different countries and we wrote to Israeli professors that they should write to the government. We did not get a single response,” he said. “So we support [the boycott].”

Debate about the effectiveness and desirability of the academic boycott looks set to continue into 2014. At the Modern Language Association annual convention, which took place in Chicago last month, delegates voted on a resolution critical of Israel visa policies. It urged the US government to “contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by US academics” and was passed by a vote of 60 to 53 – but only after the words “Gaza” and “arbitrary” had been removed.

A second resolution – submitted after the normal deadline – called for the MLA to support the ASA’s boycott. However, it failed to achieve approval from 75 per cent of delegates, which is required for such “emergency” resolutions to be discussed.

Click here to listen to the interview with Karim Tahboub and Fahoum Shalabi

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