US scholars join academic boycott of Israel

The American Academic Studies Association approved a resolution to support a decade-old effort to boycott Israeli academic institutions. 

A major US academic association has joined the boycott against Israeli educational institutions, marking a key victory for the Palestinian-led movement and instantly drawing fire from critics.

The 5,000-member American Academic Studies Association (ASA), comprised in large part of US university professors, announced Monday that its members approved a resolution to support a decade-old movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions in protest of Israeli treatment of Palestinians. The resolution is nonbinding, but it is a significant victory for the growing movement. 

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel has lobbied since 2004 to pressure Israel to correct what it says are injustices against Palestinians by disrupting collaboration between Israeli academic institutions and the global academic community. The rationale is explained in the movement’s call to action, posted on its website:

Israeli academic institutions (mostly state controlled) and the vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics have either contributed directly to maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying [oppressive measures against Palestinians], or have been complicit in them through their silence. … People of conscience in the international community of scholars and intellectuals have historically shouldered the moral responsibility to fight injustice, as exemplified in their struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa through diverse forms of boycott. 

Because the movement reinforces an explicit comparison between Israel’s policy and apartheid-era South Africa, the recent death of Nelson Mandela helped spur the ASA's vote, The Guardian wrote today.

The ASA said in a statement posted online that the resolution was passed by a roughly 2-1 margin in a vote by “the largest number of participants in the organization’s history.” Here is how ASA explained its decision:

The ASA’s endorsement of the academic boycott emerges from the context of US military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; [and] the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights.

Although the resolution calls for ASA members to cease collaboration with Israeli academic institutions, it is “primarily symbolic,” The New York Times reports. It is not binding for the association’s members and only targets Israeli colleges and universities, not individual scholars, who may continue working with their American counterparts on an individual basis.  

But the resolution immediately drew angry responses from Israeli officials and American critics, CBS News reports, not least because it is the first such decision by an American organization, marking a clear shift of the movement’s momentum, which previously lagged in the US. (It has claimed several recent victories in Europe, most notably swaying celebrated physicist Stephen Hawkins to pull out of a high-profile conference, as The Guardian reported last May.)

Critics cried foul over what they said was the intellectual dishonesty and anti-Israel bias embodied by the resolution, receiving some fervent voices of support. The first viewpoint was passionately argued by Larry Summers during an appearance last week on the Charlie Rose Show: 

“The idea that of all the countries in the world that might be thought to have human rights abuses, that might be thought to have inappropriate foreign policies, that might be thought to be doing things wrong, 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 [Israel] would be the one chosen I think is beyond outrageous as a suggestion."

Speaking with The New York Times, Curtis Marez, ASA president and an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California – San Diego, acknowledged that numerous states, including many of Israel's neighbors, are much more egregious human rights abusers, but said, “one has to start somewhere”: 

He argued that the United States has “a particular responsibility to answer the call for boycott because it is the largest supplier of military aid to the state of Israel.” While acknowledging that the same could be said of a number of oppressive governments, past and present, he said that in those countries, civil society groups had not asked his association for a boycott, as Palestinian groups have.

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