When scholars betray their principles


The resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions recently passed by a 2-1 majority of the American Studies Association (ASA) was an undeserved and unconscionable slap at their Israeli fellow scholars. But it was much more, and much worse: it was a dishonest, destructive and morally incoherent betrayal of their own professional principles.
Israel’s university professors and students — who include Jews, Christians and Muslims — are among the most progressive citizens in Israel. Across the world, whether in joint research projects, international conferences, sabbatical exchanges or individual lectures, Israeli academics have made a passionate case against policies they consider unjust.
There are numerous countries, including many of Israel’s neighbors, which do not share this democratic tolerance toward dissent and any semblance of human rights. Yet the ASA, wearing moral blinders, seeks to punish Israeli academia and sees only Israel as worthy of isolation and denunciation.
It is sadly ironic and blatantly hypocritical for the ASA — an organization of 5,000 members ostensibly dedicated to academic freedom and open inquiry — to support this academic boycott. By doing so, ASA inhibits the very exchange of ideas that can lead to mutual understanding and the resolution of conflict, ideals that ASA presumably favors.
The reality is that, today, Israeli academic institutions lead the way in developing cross-cultural cooperation within the country and around the Middle East. Indeed, it is Israel’s universities — which educate Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Druze side-by-side — that show genuine promise and a proven record of respect and coexistence among all communities in the region.
At The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, scholars engage in joint activities with Arab academics throughout the region in areas including cancer research, human genetics and infectious diseases. For instance, faculty members from The Hebrew University School of Dental Medicine have worked with Palestinians to build a dental school at Al-Quds. The Hebrew University’s Smith Institute for Plant Sciences engages in joint activities with academics from across the Middle East to improve the agricultural life of the region. Scholars have worked with academics at Bethlehem University to establish a permanent laboratory and diagnostic center for Thalassemia, a group of genetic blood disorders, widespread in the Palestinian population.
Hebrew University scientists and scholars have brought agricultural progress to the world through innovations like drip irrigation. In the technology space, many of today’s cars use the EyeQ, an advanced image-sensing auto safety system created by MobilEye, which operates the world’s largest machine-vision development center in Israel.
If anything, one would expect Israel’s universities to receive support, not censure. Yet the anti-Israel double standard reflected in the ASA resolution has been spreading, both on U.S. campuses and in Europe. (Last year, the UK’s University and College Union — representing 120,000 British educators and academicians, far larger than the ASA —  voted in favor of a “comprehensive … boycott of all Israeli academic institutions.”) Why, then, scapegoat Israel?
One answer, from ASA president Prof. Curtis Marez of the University of California at San Diego, was that “one has to start somewhere,” even as he acknowledged that many countries have worse human rights records.
This is arbitrary and weak rationalizing, not the kind of sound reasoning one would expect from rigorously trained scholars. But seeking reason in such a blatantly dishonest and transparently prejudiced policy is ultimately futile; falsehood does not lead to truth, nor does self-delusion produce moral clarity. The ASA
action is based on bias, both political and
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has called the ASA boycott resolution “bigoted” and “one-sided,” citing the sweeping nature of its language (opposing “the Israeli occupation of Palestine”) as raising the question whether the ASA accepts the legitimacy of the Jewish state altogether.
Regarding the slanted nature of the ASA action Friedman added, “China threatens to throw out the U.S. press… . But the ASA singles out Israel for condemnation?”
In this regard, the response of Lawrence Summers, former U.S. Treasury Secretary and former president of Harvard, is also worth noting. Summers criticized the false notion that of all nations “that might be thought to have human rights abuses … there’s only one [i.e., Israel] that is worthy of boycott.” Likewise, the American Association of University Professors — which, at 47,000 members, is almost 10 times larger than the ASA — has also rightly rejected the ASA’s anti-Israel position.
One would expect such a resolution from the enemies of intellectual freedom. Indeed, the world has witnessed many such measures emerge from totalitarian regimes. Often the first victims of authoritarian regimes are scholars and intellectuals. All the more stunning, then, to see such a patently anti-academic stance taken by academics themselves.
The obvious posturing and absurd selectivity of the ASA’s action should be unacceptable, even embarrassing, to professionals in a field devoted to unfettered research, fair-minded analysis, open dialogue and the sharing of knowledge. Yet the group’s boycott call throws these crucial principles under the proverbial bus. Truth and fairness are the casualties when respectable scholars lose their way, marching blindly to a drumbeat of self-righteousness.
Clearer heads must redouble their efforts to oppose such destructive policies and to promote genuine peace, reconciliation and understanding among Israel and her neighbors.
Peter T. Willner is national executive director of American Friends of The Hebrew University.

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