The American Studies Association (ASA) voted in the middle of December to boycott higher education institutions in Israel, leading to backlash and criticism within United States institutions. The group, whose self-proclaimed focus is the study of American history and culture, defended its decision to boycott Israel’s academic institutions by claiming that these institutions have contributed to depriving Palestinians of their basic rights.
ASA membership, open to anyone interested, allows for a broad spectrum of involvement, ranging from moderate membership — merely subscribing the American Quarterly, ASA’s journal — to a more active involvement — serving on committees, presenting at the annual meeting, participating in regional chapters, as English literature professor and ASA member Lara Cohen explained.
“Palestinian students face ongoing discrimination, including the suppression of Palestinian cultural events, and there is sanctioning and ongoing surveillance of Palestinian students and faculty who protest Israeli policies,” the ASA website says. “Israeli universities have been a direct party to the annexation of Palestinian land. Armed soldiers patrol Israeli university campuses, and some have been trained at Israeli universities in techniques to suppress protesters.”
The website also explains that the association’s boycott entails refusing to collaborate with any of Israel’s academic institutions, including any scholars who represent either such institutions or the Israeli government in a formal manner. Such academic representatives could include deans, rectors, and presidents. According to the website, ASA vows to uphold this boycott “until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.”
In response to this announced boycott, several academic institutions have withdrawn from ASA membership, and some United States higher-education organizations have publicly condemned the boycott. Some members of the Swarthmore community are responding similarly.
“I find the ASA’s vote distressing, because it imposes a political or ideological litmus test on whether or not an institution or individual can be involved in the transnational academic community,” said history professor Robert Weinberg, whose teachings include the Jewish encounter with modernity. “The irony of the ASA’s position is telling: the ASA adopts the same measures — deprivation of academic freedom for certain Israeli and Palestinian academics — to condemn government policies it finds abhorrent.”
A statement published on the college’s website expresses similar objections to the ASA boycott to the ones that Weinberg articulated.
“By their very nature, academic boycotts stop conversation, and thereby threaten academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas,” President Chopp said when asked to articulate her perspective on the issue further. “I believe the academy has a sacred responsibility to protect academic freedom and to be open to a diversity of views. In that same spirit, I also fully support a debate about boycotts and their consequences. My personal belief is that we should do all we can to encourage academic institutions, and different nations, to support the lively and open exchange of ideas, even those which we do not approve or that might be critical of our own positions.”
Her official statement can be found under the “President’s Office” section of the college’s website, under a December 28, 2013 posting entitled “Statement from President Rebecca Chopp on ASA Resolution.”
While Weinberg supported Chopp’s statement, he felt it was not entirely comprehensive.
“I wish . . . she would have elaborated on why the boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education is a threat to the principles of academic freedom,” he said.
But despite the articulated sentiments of Weinberg and Chopp, Cohen has encountered enthusiasm on campus towards the organization’s vote against Israel’s higher academic institutions.
“[The enthusiasm is] both because of the injustice of the occupation and because it’s refreshing to see academia, which has a reputation for being airless and apolitical, become a place of meaningful political activism,” she said. “What’s especially exciting is hearing support from people who are neither professors nor part of the ASA. I don’t know if it’s a generational shift or something else, but criticism of Israeli seems possible right now in a way that it wasn’t for a long time, between the momentum of the BDS movement and greater media attention to the violence against Palestinians.”
While Cohen sees this response as proof that political activism in academia is growing, Weinberg feels that there are other alternatives to political activism than outright boycotting.
“Individuals can choose to avoid contact with Israeli colleagues and institutions, and there are other ways for the ASA to protest Israeli policies,” he said. “For example, censure, which is not the same as a boycott, is one possibility. A systematic and organized boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education weakens the principles of academic freedom.”
To this accusation, Cohen sees flaws.
“The ASA’s decision not to conduct official business with Israeli universities does not impede individual scholars’ research, teaching, travel, or communication,” she said. “On the other hand, checkpoints and other travel restrictions that obstruct students and professors’ abilities to learn and teach impact individual scholars in very real and destructive ways, as do Israeli raids on Palestinian universities and detentions of Palestinian students and professors. So […] any kind of ‘academic freedom’ that is separated from and elevated above other types of freedom, like freedom of movement and freedom of access […] seems like a very empty version of academic freedom.”
The impact of ASA’s boycott is yet to be determined.