Opinion

Why I changed my mind about the ASA boycott

The action clearly targets Israeli institutions, not individuals

December 24, 2013 9:30AM ET
Demonstrators wearing suits covered in fake blood lie with posters in Basque reading "Up with Palestinians. Boycott Israel" and "No to war" during a pro-Palestinian demonstration at Plaza Moyua in Bilbao, Spain, in 2012.
Vincent West/Reuters

In November the National Council of American Studies Association (ASA), an organization devoted to interdisciplinary study of American history and culture, passed a resolution endorsing a call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The proposal was initiated earlier this year by the ASA’s caucus on academic and community activism in solidarity with Palestinian civil-society organizations that are campaigning for a boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. The ASA put the National Council resolution to a vote by the membership at large. On Dec. 16 the resolution passed, with 66 percent voting yes. The ASA is now the second U.S. academic institution to endorse an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, after the Association for Asian American Studies, which did so in April.

For many, the death of Nelson Mandela — whose anti-apartheid struggle led to international calls for boycotts against South Africa — was a profound reminder of the power of such an act of solidarity. Israel’s segregation of and discrimination against the Palestinian people meets international conventions’ criteria for apartheid. For example, the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines apartheid as a crime against humanity “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups.”

The ASA resolution has become a lightning rod. Scholars of various persuasions have weighed in, and regardless of their positions on the resolution itself, they share the sense that one of the basic principles of academic life — that academic freedom is essential — is at stake. Supporters of the resolution maintain that in addition to academic freedom, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank lack basic liberties such as citizenship, the right to vote, the right to due process and freedom of movement; that these systematic, discriminatory practices are carried out by the Israeli state; and that Israeli academic institutions are complicit. For supporters, this boycott is a strong protest against such institutionalized denials of academic freedom.

Opponents of the resolution say that the ASA’s academic boycott violates the principles of academic freedom by restricting the rights of individual scholars to associate with and have scholarly exchanges with others.

“No scholar should be required to participate in any academic activity that violates his or her own principles,” said the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in an open letter to the ASA. “In seeking to punish alleged violations of academic freedom elsewhere, such boycotts threaten the academic freedom of American scholars to engage the broadest variety of viewpoints.”

When I first heard about the boycott, divestment and sanction campaign, I was skeptical for the same reasons. I felt that universities and colleges in Israel and the Palestinian territories presented the most likely places where free and critical discussions could take place.

Two things changed by mind.

First, conditions in Israel and the Palestinian territories have not improved but deteriorated. As Joan Scott writes in the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom, “If anything, the power of the right and the oppression of Palestinians have increased since 2006 — even the supposed ‘weakening’ of the Netanyahu government has taken place through the strengthening of right-wing parties.” Moreover, with Palestinians’ freedom of speech and assembly widely curtailed, the Likud Party–affiliated Council of Higher Education has selectively “elevated a religious college in the settlements to the status of a university, accredited a neoconservative think tank to grant BA degrees to students and conducted inquisitions among university faculty, seeking to harass, demote or fire dissidents — that is, to silence their speech.” A poll taken last year revealed that “more than two-thirds of Israeli Jews say that 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank should be denied the right to vote if the area was annexed by Israel,” in effect endorsing an apartheid state, according to an opinion poll reported in Haaretz. Three-fourths are in favor of segregated roads for Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, and 58 percent believe Israel already practices apartheid against Palestinians, the poll found.

In addition, a third of those polled want Arab citizens in Israel to be barred from voting in elections to the country’s parliament. Almost 6 out of 10 say “Jews should be given preference to Arabs in government jobs.” The poll reveals the depth and nature of the prejudice Palestinians face in academia and the state. In sum, long-standing discussions within the ASA coalesced into a formal motion these past two years because of a sense of urgency.

Israeli forces have destroyed academic institutions in Gaza and prevented students there from traveling to other areas to continue their academic studies.

Second, upon review of the ASA resolution, I was assured that it does not violate individual scholars’ academic freedom. Affirming ASA’s commitment to individual’s rights to freely engage in academic pursuits, the resolution states, “ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.”

It goes on to state:

The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses or collaboration on research and publication. The council also recognizes that individual members will act according to their convictions on these complex matters.

It is clear, then, that individual academic freedoms are not affected. This is a boycott aimed at Israeli institutions.

In a 2009 article published by The EMBO Journal, a leading scientific publication focusing on research in molecular biology, Steven Rose listed a number of examples underscoring the difficulty of academic work in Israel. “An attempt to establish a collaborative research project with a colleague from Birzeit foundered when we were told that Israel would not permit the use of radioactive tracers,” he wrote. “A physiology lecturer at Birzeit is routinely stopped at a military checkpoint and prevented from giving his lectures; on one occasion, a soldier decided that as an ‘assistant professor,’ he wasn't qualified to lecture — only ‘full professors’ could cross.” Rose added that in one part of Gaza, Israeli forces have destroyed academic institutions and prevented students from traveling to other areas, including the West Bank, to continue their academic studies. 

To date, not a single Israeli institution has condemned the unfair treatment of Palestinian academics. Hence the ASA resolution boycotts Israeli institutions and refuses, as an organization, to participate in activities sponsored by them.

Of course, it is true that individuals make up institutions, and the ASA’s noninvolvement with Israeli institutions will be felt by some Israeli scholars. But two important points need be clear: First, calling attention to the connection between individual academic work and institutional practices is precisely what the boycott seeks to shed light on. The lack of ASA involvement in the events, programs and activities of Israeli academic institutions is meant to signal our belief that ordinary academic life in Israel without full academic freedom for Palestinian scholars is unacceptable.

Second, we are talking here about academic freedom for all. The discussion in the U.S. has so far focused on our academic freedom. The ASA sees no difference between our right to academic freedom and the Palestinians’ in the face of a wide array of oppressive measures. It is the blanket persecution of Palestinians that affects Palestinian scholars’ academic freedom far beyond our own experience.

Beyond appeals to academic freedom, critics ask why the ASA singled out Israel for condemnation. However, the resolution was not invented by the ASA acting on its own initiative to condemn Israel. The resolution was created in response to a call for solidarity and support from Palestinian civil society — not unlike appeals to the international community from anti-apartheid activists in South Africa. The ASA leadership felt that it could not ignore the appeal and initiated a discussion to adopt a resolution within its ranks. This is emphatically a protest against specific state practices, not against a people. The resolution targets institutions that are complicit in the denial of academic freedom for Palestinians as well as for Jewish scholars who opposed the lack of academic freedom in Israel. In addition to denial of visas to scholars and scientists, this includes routine acts of intimidation, surveillance and censorship. 

Over the years, many academics and artists have voiced their opposition to Israel’s policies in various ways. For example, American mathematician David Mumford, who won the 2008 Wolf Foundation Prize in Mathematics, donated his prize money to Birzeit University, a Palestinian university near Ramallah, and to Gisha, an Israeli organization that advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement.

Or consider the case of Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, a major cultural figure with strong views against the Israeli occupation. In 1999 he founded, along with the noted literary critic and activist Edward Said, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a youth orchestra made up of musicians from the Middle East, including Israelis and Palestinians. These and similar activities by high-profile individuals are but various ways one can support the struggle of Palestinians in the occupied territories. People should use the tools at their disposal to register their protest. Mumford used the media attention around his prize to make that generous and politically important gesture, and Barenboim used his artistic talent and global audience to demonstrate possibilities for peace and cooperation even if on a smaller scale.

In a similar spirit, the ASA acted using the power and right it has to disengage from cooperating with Israeli academic institutions. Academic boycott is a tool available to all academic organizations and institutions to register their opposition to Israel’s policies and practices that are intended to harass, intimidate and silence Palestinian scholars. These include restricting their travel, assembly and free-speech rights. The ASA’s vote is a rejection of the notion that events in Palestine are acceptable as they are, and it is part of a growing multifaceted protest movement against Israel’s racist policies. The very fact that we are now having these discussions is in large part because the ASA took this bold stance. Regardless of individual positions on the boycott, the public discourse has finally turned to the critical issues of the occupation and to basic Palestinian human rights. We can all be grateful to the ASA for initiating and keeping alive this very important discussion. 



David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. His most recent book is "The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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