Section: Opinion

Boycott contradicts our own principles

In mid-December, the American Studies Association (ASA) quietly approved an academic boycott of Israel, citing apartheid-like conditions between the Israel state and Palestinians. The boycott was immediately met with extreme disapproval both nationally and on campus; 134 members of Congress have condemned the boycott, while our own American Studies Department withdrew from the ASA. The blowback has been either defamatory or political in nature, such as outright calling the ASA a bunch of anti-Semites, or wondering why the ASA seemed to be picking on Israel by not boycotting anyone else (and thus implying anti-Semitism).  Other critics have appealed to the importance of academic freedom over political skirmishes, as outlined by President Decatur in his response (“On academic boycotts,” Dec. 23, 2013, Notes from Ransom Hall).

My response to the defaming and political critics hasn’t changed. Crying anti-Semitism is an overreaction that doesn’t require much thought, and effectively stops intellectual debate. Furthermore, a conglomeration of American Studies departments is in fact uniquely qualified to criticize Israel. While there are certainly many other countries on our planet that deny academic freedom to large groups of people, these countries are generally not considered our closest allies. As Israel is, the ASA has more credibility with this boycott than one against Iran or China. Furthermore, it is undeniable that our country has adopted a foreign policy of backing Israel at all costs, evident from our economic and military support, to using our United Nations Security Council veto against anything Israel may not like. This no-questions-asked pro-Israel attitude is not only potentially harmful to those who are not the Israel government, but also harmful to our own values.  Two New York state senators wrote a bill to take away funds from schools participating from the boycott, implying that supporting the actions of the Israeli government is more important that the first amendment. A boycott that goes against an American policy (that goes against American ideals) by the academic experts of America should make us question said policy. The automatic disagreement only proves that this policy is ingrained into our political culture; the jump to accusations of anti-Semitism shows without a conscious effort against it, it may never even be put up to debate.

At first, however, I championed President Decatur’s response. The man steered clear of politics to remind us what was actually important: academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. Yet, I couldn’t make sense of why this meant we had to withdraw from the institution. It seemed contradictory; weren’t we essentially academically boycotting the ASA because academic boycotts are inherently bad? The ASA not only has no power over its members, but the boycott is not even aimed for that level of participation. A quick glance at their website will show that the ASA leaves the role of their members in the boycott up to them, and that they have no intention of stifling academic collaboration and research. They don’t even give a concrete set of demands to the Israeli academic institutions; instead, they call it a difficult question to answer. From this, we can conclude that the ASA’s boycott would never actually be effective in changing Israel. But it could be a springboard for changing, or at least rethinking, our views. I realized President Decatur’s lovely academic ideology did not apply to this situation; in fact, it completely ignored it. The act of withdrawing was just another form of automatic overreaction, like jumping to anti-Semitism, that would only prevent much needed discussion from taking place.

If the ASA’s boycott truly intends to change Israel, then by itself it is a failure. But both our country and our campus’ reaction to this boycott shows how desperately we need to examine our beliefs. Our American Studies Department has withdrawn itself from not only the ASA but from any meaningful dialogue about American-Israeli relations. Hiding behind academic ideology only proves this is a conversation that, like the rest of our country, we do not want to have. If we truly want to live up to the words President Decatur believes in, then we need to have this discussion and we need to have it now.

Derek Foret ’17 is a prospective math major from Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at


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