American Studies Association Passes Academic Boycott of Israel

122013_American-Studies-Association1Members of the American Studies Association (ASA) voted in favor of an academic boycott of Israel almost two weeks after its national council unanimously endorsed a boycott resolution.

The results of the voting, which closed on Sunday, Dec. 15, were announced Monday; two-thirds of the members voted in favor.

The ASA, the nation’s oldest and largest association dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, has about 5,000 members, according to its website. Of those, 1,252 members voted online, the largest turnout in the organization’s history, with 66.05 percent endorsing the resolution, 30.5 percent voting against it and 3.43 percent abstaining.

The association called the resolution, which does not impede collaboration between individual scholars but in an official capacity and between institutions, an ethical decision. According to the ASA website, the move was made in “solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom.”

Rita Freedman (top), the JLC’s acting executive director, and Geri Palast, managing director of the Israel Action Network, have both voiced their disappointment with the vote. (Photos provided)

Rita Freedman (top), the JLC’s acting executive director, and Geri Palast, managing director of the Israel Action Network, have both voiced their disappointment with the vote. (Photos provided)

“The BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement has the clearly defined goals of ending the occupation, ending discrimination against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and ending forced exile and ongoing expulsion of Palestinians from their homes,” said Curtis Marez, president of the ASA and an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego, via email.

BDS is an international campaign against the Jewish state. Marez said he hopes the resolution leads to ongoing discussion within the ASA; the group has invited Israeli and Palestinian scholars to its 2014 convention.

Organizations such as the Israel Action Network, while disappointed in the vote, said this is not going to reshape the academic environment with regard to Israel.

“It is very troubling,” said Geri Palast, managing director of the Israel Action Network. “It does undermine academic freedom, but I think also it’s going to have limited symbolic significance.”

She said the ASA’s process in getting this resolution passed raises issues about open discourse and transparency. She said it didn’t allow membership to hear views opposing the resolution. In addition, Palast was concerned that at the ASA’s recent annual meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only pro-boycott panelists were featured.

According to a blog posted on CiF Watch, an affiliate of CAMERA (the Committee for Advocacy in Middle East Reporting in America), the ASA deleted comments opposing the resolution from its Facebook page; the ASA denied those allegations.

Palast noted that the ASA’s 5,000 members are far outnumbered by the 50,000 members of the American Association of University Professors, which wrote an open letter to the ASA expressing disappointment in the council’s endorsement of the resolution. In that letter, AAUP representatives said they are opposed to academic boycott as a manner of principle.

Eight former presidents of the ASA also wrote a letter to members of the organization urging them to reject the resolution.

“We believe academic boycotts to be antithetical to the mission of free and open inquiry for which a scholarly organization stands,” the letter said.

Palast also noted that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said boycotts of Israel are counterproductive; in an article published by the Times of Israel, Abbas is quoted as telling reporters, “We do not support the boycott of Israel. But we ask everyone to boycott the products of the settlements. Because the settlements are in our territories. It is illegal.”

Ron Dermer, Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said, “Rather than standing up for academic freedom and human rights by boycotting countries where professors are imprisoned for their views, the ASA chooses as its first-ever boycott to boycott Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East, in which academics are free to say what they want, write what they want and research what they want.”

“The singling out of the Jewish state for boycott is no different than the many attempts throughout history to single out Jews and hold them to a different standard,” Dermer told The New York Times.

His sentiments were echoed by Harvard University President Emeritus Lawrence Summers, who spoke about the ASA boycott on the “Charlie Rose” talk show. While he opposes academic boycotts on principle, he said a boycott of Israel is worse.

“It is much worse because of all the countries in the world that might have human rights abuses … the idea that there’s only one that is worthy of boycott and that is Israel, one of very few countries whose neighbors regularly vow its annihilation, that that would be the one chosen is, I think, beyond outrageous,” said Summers, who served as the Secretary of the Treasury for President Clinton and the director of the National Economic Council for President Obama. “The choice of only Israel at a moment when Israel faces this kind of existential threat I think takes how wrong this is to a different level.”

The Jewish Labor Committee also issued a statement on Dec. 12 opposing the ASA academic boycott, saying it would hinder the exchange of scientific research, undermine hopes for a peaceful Israeli-Palestinian resolution and discourage an open discussion about the conflict.

“We at the JLC are very disappointed with the vote,” said Rita Freedman, the JLC’s acting executive director. “We hope that the organization reconsiders after having a balanced discussion of both sides of the issues, and we fear that it sets a precedent that may open it up for boycott resolutions by other organizations.”

She added that the resolution undermines the objectivity and stature of the ASA as an institution built on academic freedom and feels the decision will hinder the peace process.

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder denounced the ASA’s boycott as well.

“This vote to boycott Israel, one of the most democratic and academically free nations on the globe, shows the Orwellian anti-Semitism and moral bankruptcy of the American Studies Association,” Lauder said in a statement.

“Clearly this is part of a strategy, and there’s going to more of it, and so everybody needs to be on the alert,” said Maryland Del. Dan Morhaim, who helped strike down a similar resolution in the American Public Health Association, an organization of which he is member.

At the group’s annual meeting, Morhaim found a resolution entitled “Improving Health in Occupied Palestinian Territory” among many resolutions that members had proposed. He said that not only did it condemn
Israel and urge the American public health community to divest from the country, but it was also factually inaccurate and selectively used sources.

Morhaim began contacting other members of the organization, which number more than 25,000, and spearheaded an effort that resulted in the defeat of the resolution.

A statement in opposition to the APHA resolution said it focused on one aspect of a broader problem, risked politicizing the organization and ignored several facts, such as Israel’s efforts to protect the health of Gaza residents, the fact that Hamas puts Gaza residents and Israelis at risk and that Israeli and Palestinian public officials collaborate on health-care issues in the West Bank.

Morhaim said it is important to be alert.

“You never know where these things will pop up,” he said.

On a local level, Chana Siff, associate director of Israel and government affairs for the Baltimore Jewish Council, said, “While no one would claim the situation in Israel is perfect, Israel is a vibrant democracy, where minorities are a large part of society. Attacking institutions and organizations that openly include minorities is ineffective.”

Siff said it’s important for the Baltimore community to keep up with the issues and understand the arguments and discussions at local and national levels.

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