Nearly 100 academic institutions from across the country have issued formal statements rejecting the American Studies Association’s December vote on the endorsement of, and participation in, a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Four American studies departments — at Brandeis University, Indiana University, Kenyon College and Penn State Harrisburg — have gone so far as to withdraw their ASA memberships.
The ASA’s vote last month prompted the group’s highest turnout with 1,252 members voting; 66 percent voted in favor of endorsing an academic boycott of Israel. The ASA’s stance puts it in solidarity with the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which requested the action.
Locally, University of Maryland president Wallace D. Loh and provost Mary Ann Rankin issued a joint statement criticizing the effort as running counter to long-established traditions upholding academic freedom.
The “University of Maryland has long-standing relationships with several Israeli universities, as well as an exchange of scholars and students, and intends to continue and deepen those academic relationships,” they announced. “To restrict the free flow of people and ideas with some universities because of their national identity is unwise, unnecessary and irreconcilable with our core academic values.”
The statement echoed similar denunciations, including a statement signed by Johns Hopkins University president Ronald J. Daniels and provost Robert C. Lieberman.
“This boycott is a contradiction,” they contended, “one that threatens what it purports to protect: the freedom of thought and expression that is the heartbeat of our academic community.”
But while the calls of some within and outside of the Jewish community have urged a so-called “boycott of the boycotters,” the Johns Hopkins stance equally criticized attempts to punish the ASA. Although the university is not a member of the ASA, the statement rejected calls “to dissociate from the association or other organizations of scholars as an expression of protest against their votes.”
Each day, the list of institutions and academics taking sides in the debate grows. Perhaps the most vehement language in the dialogue came from ASA critic John Garvey, president of Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
“The American Studies Association’s recent call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions is lamentable,” he argued. “The association has appointed itself as a kind of inept volunteer fire department, aiming to put out the Israeli-Palestinian conflagration by throwing gasoline on the fire.
“It has decided to pour gas not on the source of the fire but on bystanders, some of whom are trying to extinguish the flames,” he continued. “No good can come of punishing academic institutions for the shortcomings, real and perceived, of their nation’s leaders and policies.”
Garvey instead advocated the “proliferation of U.S. linkages with Israeli universities and other universities in the Middle East” in an attempt to foster continued dialogue.
Although the boycott effort has garnered many headlines of late, its roots can be traced back to 2005, when Palestinians and those sympathetic to their aspirations called for a campaign of “boycotts, divestment and sanctions” against Israel. The U.S. campaign formed shortly after, claiming among its membership a “group of scholars, initially most from California, who all have a long-standing concern with the fate of the Palestinian people,” according to its website. The campaign claims more than 500 endorsements from individuals associated with academic and cultural institutions in the United States and abroad.
And while the ASA endorsement has engendered perhaps the most attention, other groups have quietly signed on to the campaign recently, including the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Asian American Studies Association and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, the first European lecturers organization to call for a boycott.
On the other side of the debate, the World Jewish Congress, in collaboration with the European Union of Jewish Students and the World Union of Jewish Students, launched its Global Campus Initiative to counter the boycott movement. In December, 100 people participated in training sessions in Jerusalem, where students shared best practices to counteract the boycott campaigns. Attendee Jane Braden-Golay of Switzerland, incoming president of EUJS, said the initiative “will provide a network of people who have dealt with this before so that individual students don’t feel totally isolated and overwhelmed.”
Social media efforts have also gained traction. Through a Facebook page, Troycott, a project started by Gil Troy at the Shalom Hartman Institute, invites people to publicly post their commitment to study and learn about Israel. The effort, which is part of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage initiative, recently gathered more than 1,000 supporters during a three-day period.
“When my colleagues at the American Studies Association chose to demonize Israel by boycotting it,” said Troy, “instead of reacting in a defensive way I chose to apply the iEngage methodology of suggesting that the best response to an anti-educational boycott is to commit to learning about Israel and Zionism.”
At Vanderbilt University, humanities professor Colin Dayan, who is Jewish, claimed that instead of quashing academic debate, the boycott movement fuels it.
Palestinian academics “do not have academic freedom,” she wrote in a statement posted on the Al Jazeera America website.
The boycott allows more people to see what has been hidden and to speak out, she continued. “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.”
Melissa Gerr is digital media editor/senior reporter for Baltimore Jewish Times, sister publication of Washington Jewish Week.