The American Studies Association, a scholarly group supposedly dedicated to the study of American culture and history, recently voted to boycott Israeli institutions. On one level, it is tempting to ignore its decision. The ASA is a small, marginal organization whose impact on academic affairs, much less American foreign policy, is negligible. Moreover, it is not clear how many Israeli scholars actually attend ASA gatherings or, given their good sense, would choose to do so if they could.
Nevertheless, the ASA decision does matter. There is a worldwide movement to delegitimize Israel, and much of its strength has come from the academic world. Up until now, the focus of these efforts has been in Europe and the Middle East. The United States has been largely immune. It matters then if the ASA decision is the first step in a larger movement in which American academic bodies censure Israel or if it is seen as simply the efforts of Israel haters craving attention that will soon die out.
As tempting as it might be, if the ASA decision is to be marginalized, focusing on its unfairness is not the path to take. Of course, it is absurd to boycott Israel for its policies in the West Bank, when other countries, including American allies such as Pakistan, have done far worse. Of course, to single out Israel from all other countries smacks of hypocrisy and anti-Semitism. But it is not productive to base the opposition to the ASA decision by focusing on whether Israeli actions justify a boycott.
Instead, the best way to confront the ASA is to draw on the same academic values it claims drove it to launch the boycott in the first place, namely its commitment to academic freedom. Academic organizations that are true to their mission believe in open inquiry and debate. They do not believe in denying scholars the right to speak or attend conferences simply because of their nationality, whatever policies their governments may pursue. Presumably, these values explain why the ASA has never boycotted other countries, including South Africa when it was an apartheid state. As such, even if all the criticisms leveled by the ASA on Israeli policies were true, even if Israeli policies were worse than those of North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others that the ASA did not seem fit to rebuke, boycotting Israeli academic institutions would still not be justified because it is a clear and blatant violation of academic freedom.
By demonstrating that the ASA is violating both what it says it stands for and what all academic organizations are supposed to work toward, the poison that it seeks to spread will be contained. That will be good for Israel and academia.
Steven R. David is a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.