By Abigail Adams
Judie Jacobson and JNS.org also contributed to this report
On Dec. 16, after a week of on-line voting, members of the American Studies Association, a professional organization of 5,000 scholars and 2,200 academic institutions, libraries and museums focused on American history and culture, approved a boycott of Israeli academic institutions by a 2 to 1 margin. The vote was a major victory for Palestine’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which equates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to apartheid South Africa and has pressured businesses, governments, and social institutions to take punitive actions against Israel in the name of human rights.
The ASA was the second scholarly association to officially join the BDS movement — the Association for Asian American Studies joined the boycott in April and, on Dec. 15, the Council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association also released a statement of support for the boycott of Israeli academics, although its membership did not vote on the issue.
The decision has evoked outrage from ASA’s membership and the academic community. Brandeis University, Penn State Harrison, Indiana University and Kenyon College have officially withdrawn their institutional membership with the ASA and over 60 colleges and universities, the Association of American University Professors and the Association of American Universities have released statements rejecting the boycott. Dozens of other universities – including Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Cornell, Princeton, Boston University, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Texas – issued statements rejecting the ASA’s boycott. Connecticut universities were among those who were quick to issue strong statements condemning the ASA boycott.
“This ASA boycott is unfortunately yet another example of the double standard applied to Israel as compared to the rest of the world,” said Gary Jones, ADL’s Connecticut Regional Director. “Where was the ASA when Russia imposed a homophobic law banning ‘propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations’ earlier this year? Where is the ASA in Saudi Arabia where in 2013 women still are not legally allowed to drive? The singular focus on Israel for blame and retribution is contrary to the values of academic expression and evidences selective animus toward the only Jewish state in the world.”
The ADL was also quick to comment on the rapid and vehement condemnation by the many American academic institutions and university presidents – including seven here in Connecticut – of the American Studies Association’s (ASA) recent decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
“We commend the presidents of seven Connecticut academic institutions – Connecticut College, Fairfield University, Trinity College, University of Connecticut, University of Hartford, Wesleyan University and Yale University – who have publicly spoken out against this intellectually dishonest attack on academic freedom. We recognize that this is an incomplete list and we expect it to grow both locally here in Connecticut and nationally in the coming days and weeks.”
Although ASA is a small organization, ADL is concerned that in addition to the suppression of academic freedom, the decision may encourage other academic bodies to follow suit. That is one of many reasons why it is so important that the leaders of these academic institutions make it clear that their universities will not stand for such boycott attempts.
“Targeting Israeli institutions solely because they are in Israel – the only democratic country in the Middle East where scholarship and debate are encouraged and flourish – is based on a myopic and fundamentally distorted perspective of Israel and the conflict and is manifestly unjust,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. “Although the ASA resolution will likely have limited practical impact on Israeli academic institutions and on Israeli academics, those members of the ASA who voted in favor of this resolution should also understand the hateful message they are sending. As Lawrence Summers, who, when he was president of Harvard a decade ago said about an initiative to boycott Israel, ‘Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are antisemitic in their effect if not their intent.’ ”
In a response to the ASA vote to boycott Israel, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren called on Congress to pass a bill against academic boycotts of the Jewish state.
“Merely protesting this abhorrent decision will not succeed in reversing it or discouraging other similarly bigoted organizations from following suit,” he wrote in an op-ed for Politico on Dec. 20. “What’s needed is a way to fight back, and Congress can do it,” Oren wrote.
Oren cited laws passed by Congress under President Jimmy Carter that imposed economic penalties on U.S. companies who cooperated with boycotts of Israel. “In signing the legislation, President Jimmy Carter, though a frequent critic of Israel, pledged to ‘end the divisive effects on American life of foreign boycotts aimed at Jewish members of our society,’” Oren wrote.
In an advertisement appearing in The New York Times Dec. 20, the American arms of seven Israeli universities said that the American Studies Association’s (ASA) boycott of Israel targets an academic community that “achieves breakthroughs that benefit humankind.”
The ad noted achievements of Israeli universities, including Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s development of the Exelon drug for the treatment of Alzheimer’s and dementia; Tel Aviv University’s development of BioPetroClean, an environmentally friendly technology for cleaning oil spills in seas; Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s development of Velcade, an new cancer drug; University of Haifa’s identification of the gene capable of increasing the protein content of wheat, contributing to the fight against world hunger; the Weizmann Institute of Science’s development of the multiple sclerosis drugs, Copaxone and Rebif; and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s work towards developing a cure for diabetes.
Here is a look at how Connecticut universities reacted to the ASA boycott.
On Dec. 24, Trinity President James F. Jones wrote a strongly worded public letter to the President of the ASA clarifying that Trinity College was not an institutional member of the organization and claiming that, if it was, it would immediately revoke its membership. Jones ended his letter by stating, “we have welcomed scholars from some of the most repressive countries on the planet, and it is inconceivable to us that we would ever be welcoming a Rescue Scholar fleeing Israel for political reasons. As President of the ASA, you have tarnished a once distinguished association.”
Statement by President James F. Jones Jr.: I am opposed to what the American Studies Association did. I’m opposed to it on principle. For one thing, I’m generally opposed to academic boycotts because I think that they violate academic freedom. Secondly, if one wanted to pick solely on the Middle East for human rights violations I don’t think you should start with Israel. I think you should look at Iran and Syria, where intellectuals really have been persecuted for their beliefs.
We at Trinity help with the scholars program that tries to rescue academics that have been targeted in oppressive countries. We’ve had people here who have literally been persecuted for their academic beliefs. It’s incomprehensible to me and to many of my peers why if one wanted to pick on a country why one wouldn’t pick on North Korea, or Russia for what they’re doing to their scientists, or Iran, or Syria, or Sudan. It just makes no sense to me why they would single out Israel.
UNIVERSITY OF CONNECTICUT
Less than two months ago, a delegation of administrators, including UConn President Susan Herbst, visited Israeli academic institutions with the goal of creating on-going collaboration between the institutions. The 10-day trip featured meetings with scholars and administrators from Israel’s Hebrew University, Ben-Gurion University, the Weizmann Institute of Science, the University of Haifa, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. While initially issuing a no-comment on ASA’s boycott, President Susan Herbst released an official statement on Dec. 23.
President Susan Herbst: The recent votes of two scholarly societies – the American Studies Association and Association for Asian American Studies – to endorse the Palestinian boycott of Israeli academic institutions is contrary to both academic freedom and the international exchange of ideas. The University of Connecticut joins the American Association of University Professors in firmly opposing all such boycotts. Choosing one nation for a boycott is patently unfair and represents a disturbing philosophy among some segments of the academy.
As a university with global reach and prominence, UConn seeks research and educational partnerships with people of all nations, and is proud to serve as a force for political conversation, inter-ethnic exchange, and the pursuit of scholarly excellence.
Academic leaders at UConn will continue to visit Israel and Arab nations, invite Israeli and Arab scholars to our campuses, encourage our students and faculty to study in these nations, and pursue research collaboration with the many outstanding Israeli universities. We do this with pride and a productive focus on social justice, to forge the very critical dialogues that will someday lead to the peace we all seek.
That is the true essence of a university – to foster dialogue and develop solutions to problems without regard to political, racial, and cultural differences.
UNIVERSITY OF HARTFORD
President Walter Harrison: The University of Hartford opposes the boycott of academic institutions in Israel that was recently endorsed by the American Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies. We believe that open scholarly exchange among universities is essential to the advancement of knowledge, discovery, and international understanding.
The University is proud of its long history of international exchanges, joint programs, and faculty and student involvement with Israel. Our University has been enriched by the presence of Israeli faculty and students on our campus, and many of our faculty and students are involved in research and scholarly pursuits in Israel.
As is the case with all universities, our faculty members hold a wide range of opinions on this and many other subjects, and I acknowledge and cherish their right to do so. But a boycott of Israeli institutions, in my opinion, would be harmful to this free exchange of opinions and would be antithetical to the advancement of knowledge, which is the principle on which all colleges and universities around the world should stand.
Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Rev. Paul J. Fitzgerald, S. J.: Individual faculty members are protected by the customs and policies of academic freedom of their institutions to pursue research and to teach their disciplines without fear of censorship or reprisal should their positions be unpopular or their research troubling. Learned societies similarly have the right, as voluntary associations, to take public positions on important questions of the day.
As a Jesuit and Catholic institution, Fairfield University lives out the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which positioned the Church in dialogue with the whole world for the service of faith and the promotion of justice. Cutting off conversation and exchange with a whole nation through a boycott seems to go against this spirit of dialogue and service. It also seems to go against the freedom of individual faculty members and of institutions that would seek the ways of peace and healing, especially where such engagement is most needed.
President Katherine Bergeron: I become president of Connecticut College on Jan. 1, 2014 and so I have not yet had an opportunity to discuss the boycott with members of the college community. But the foundational values of free speech, civil debate, and shared governance lie at the very heart of our institution. An academic boycott is antithetical to these values. To be true to our mission of educating engaged, global citizens – of putting the liberal arts into action – the College must sustain an environment of open inquiry in which all voices can be heard.
Many scholars at Yale University have come out strongly in favor of the ASA boycott. Yale University President Peter Salovey, however, released the following statement to the Connecticut Jewish Ledger and publicly endorsed the position of the Association of American Universities, which has rejected the boycott.
President Peter Salovey: Individuals and associations can, of course, make their own determinations, but as a matter of principle I believe that any attempt to close off discussion or dialogue among scholars is antithetical to the values of scholarship.
On Dec. 19, Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth wrote an op-ed for the LA Times strongly condemning ASA’s boycott of Israeli academics. The following are excerpts from his article.
President Michael S. Roth: The boycott is a repugnant attack on academic freedom, declaring academic institutions off-limits because of their national affiliation.
The ASA has not gone on record against universities in any other country: not against those that enforce laws against homosexuality, not against those that have rejected freedom of speech, not against those that systematically restrict access to higher education by race, religion or gender. No, the ASA listens to civil society only when it speaks against Israel. As its scholarly president declared, “One has to start somewhere.” Not in North Korea, not in Russia or Zimbabwe or China – one has to start with Israel. Really?
There is plenty of debate among Israeli scholars about the policies of their government, and there is plenty of debate among Israeli, Palestinian and other scholars about a reasonable path forward in the Middle East. As a citizen of the United States, I have supported efforts to develop new approaches to achieving peace in the Middle East. As a Jew, I have argued against the policies of the current Israeli government, many of which I find abhorrent.
Boycotts don’t serve these debates; they seek to cut them off by declaring certain academic institutions and their faculty off-limits. This tactic, in the words of Richard Slotkin, an emeritus professor here at Wesleyan University, “is wrong in principle, politically impotent, intellectually dishonest and morally obtuse.”
As president of Wesleyan, and as a historian, I deplore this politically retrograde resolution of the American Studies Association. Under the guise of phony progressivism, the group has initiated an irresponsible attack on academic freedom. Others in academia should reject this call for an academic boycott.