Claims that the boycott by the American Studies Association (ASA) of Israeli academic institutions would restrict academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas reflect a limited and inconsiderate reading of the issue.
In his blog post explaining his opposition to the boycott, President Sean Decatur claimed, “We should not be shutting out one side or the other.” Yet it is precisely the systematic shutting out of Palestinian Arabs from academic opportunities that prompted the ASA’s resolution. Examples of the discrimination entrenched in the Israeli educational system include segregation of public schools, with Palestinian institutions receiving markedly less funding than their Jewish counterparts, prevention of Palestinian professors and students from traveling abroad to attend conferences or foreign universities, unjustified closures of Palestinian schools and exclusionary admissions practices.
The boycott does not stem from anti-Semitism or from merely political considerations, but from Israel’s very real record of human rights abuses and the United States government’s fecklessness in addressing it. Despite Israel’s assault on Palestinian academic freedom, as well as its recent rounds of illegal settlement construction in the West Bank, widespread lack of due process and routine torture of prisoners, the U.S. government has stood staunchly by its ally. Indeed, the U.S. provides Israel with far more military aid than it does any other country and has strongly opposed all international efforts to hold the state accountable for its human rights violations.
Legitimizing the boycott is the fact that Israeli universities are directly involved in many of those violations. Researchers from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology — helped develop the armored bulldozer that the Israeli Defense Forces have used to destroy over 25,000 Palestinian homes in the last half century. Hebrew University, meanwhile, has illegally constructed campuses in the occupied territories and stifled peaceful protest by having participants arrested.
An academic boycott is all the ASA has at its disposal for trying to rectify a grave human rights problem the U.S. government won’t even acknowledge. Importantly, though, the resolution — similar to ones passed by the Association for Asian American Studies and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association — does not limit the activity of any individual Israeli academic. Rather, the resolution prohibits scholars from acting as representatives of the Israeli state, or of institutions that exist under it. The resolution thus has little functional impact on the freedom of Israelis. It could, however, have a positive impact on that of Palestinians.
Institutional academic boycotts can be powerful catalysts for change. In 1980, the movement to boycott South Africa’s academic institutions garnered the United Nations’ endorsement and, together with economic and political pressures, eventually brought an end to that state’s system of apartheid.
Boycotting Israeli academic institutions is a brave and positive step, and I was sorely disappointed to learn that not only had Decatur denounced the ASA resolution but also moved to withdraw the College as an institutional member of the association. As Vanderbilt University professor Colin Dayan put so well, “What the call for a boycott has done is to give us the chance, at last, to realize what Jewish nationalism had always claimed as its boon but never achieved: the universality of learning and the passion for justice.”
Gabe Brison-Trezise ’16 is a prospective political science major from Hanover, N. H. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.