Earlier this month, the 5,000-member American Studies Association (ASA) voted more than two to one to endorse a scholarly boycott against Israeli universities.
It asked its members to refuse to “enter formal collaboration with Israeli academic institutions or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government.”
Boycotting Israel “represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.”
Why are academics, supposedly devoted to the free exchange of ideas and knowledge, voluntarily cutting off contacts with fellow scholars? Actually, there’s a history behind this and it doesn’t bode well for Israel.
The movement to demonize, delegitimize and eventually eliminate the state of Israel has been gathering steam ever since the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa in 2001, where Israel was singled out for special condemnation as a “racist” state practising “apartheid.”
In April 2004, 60 Palestinian academic and non-government organizations called for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. The worldwide Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has grown in the years since; its objective is to force Israel through various boycotts to comply with its goals: The end of Israeli occupation and colonization of Arab land, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and respect for the right of return of Palestinian refugees into Israel itself (which would likely turn it into a non-Jewish country).
The BDS movement, already a force in the British academic community, is now spreading to the United States. In the wake of the Gaza war fought between Israel and Hamas between December 2008 and January 2009, a group of American university professors launched a campaign calling for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
“As educators of conscience, we have been unable to stand by and watch in silence Israel’s indiscriminate assault on the Gaza Strip and its educational institutions,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel stated in its inaugural press release.
In April the 800-member Association for Asian American Studies voted to support a boycott, the first American academic group to do so. Their resolution contended that the boycott was “in protest of the illegal occupation of Palestine, the infringements of the right to education of Palestinian students, and the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel.”
Next month, the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Chicago will debate a resolution calling on the State Department to criticize Israel for barring American professors from going to Gaza and the West Bank when invited by Palestinian universities. With 30,000 members, the MLA is a much larger body than the ASA.
“The debate at ASA breached a taboo that existed about how people discuss Israel and Palestine,” explained David Lloyd, an English professor at the University of California at Riverside, who will speak in favor of an academic boycott at the MLA meeting. “ASA has paved the way for MLA and other associations.”
These are organizations with professors from many institutions and covering many disciplines, he added, maintaining that the discussions indicate a “larger, nationwide shift” regarding Israel. “It’s beginning to become something people recognize as an issue of justice and ceases to be something held by a vocal minority.”
The 749-member Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) will also be debating a resolution in support of an academic boycott of Israel at the group’s national conference next May in Austin, Texas.
The NAISA Council has encouraged its members to boycott Israeli academic institutions to protest “the infringement of the academic freedom of Indigenous Palestinian academics and intellectuals in the Occupied Territories and Israel who are denied fundamental freedoms of movement, expression, and assembly.”
Ohio State University English Professor Chadwick Allen, the president, said the move followed a member-generated petition asking that the group formally support the boycott.
Another group potentially considering anti-Israel measures is the 62,000-member American Library Association, where several members have called for action against Israel.
Many academics are incensed at the way Israel is being singled out, noting that these scholarly groups have not taken it upon themselves to boycott, among others, China, Iran, Russia, Syria, or Zimbabwe — countries with far worse records. This is true but it doesn’t change the fact that Israel is losing the battle within the academic community, once a reliable friend of the Jewish state.
For years, pro-Israel activists have tended to minimize the impact of the BDS movement and claimed that it has not been successful in shaping public opinion regarding Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. They are wrong.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.