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Two Academic Associations vote to boycott Israel

By Sean Savage/JNS.org

The decision to boycott Israeli universities by the 5,000-member American Studies Association (ASA), the oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, has drawn widespread condemnation. In the resolution endorsed on Dec. 15 by 66 percent of its membership, the ASA national council defined its boycott as “a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations 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, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.”

But some professors blasted the decision.

“As a scholar, I deeply value the free exchange of ideas,” former ASA president and Stanford University Professor of English Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin told JNS.org. “Academic boycotts make the free exchange of ideas impossible. For that reason, I think the ASA’s endorsement of the boycott was a big mistake.”

Fishkin, who served as ASA president from 2004-2005, was part of a group of eight former ASA presidents who sent an open letter to ASA members opposing the move on the grounds that it is “antithetical to the mission of free and open inquiry for which a scholarly organization stands.”

Fishkin said the ASA’s boycott is counterproductive because it targets some of Israel’s most progressive institutions.

“Israeli universities are often at the forefront of fostering dialogue between Arabs and Jews, of educating the future leaders of Arab universities, and of providing the next generation with the tools of critical thinking that can allow them to construct a society more equitable and just than that of their parents,” she said.

Dr. Stephen J. Whitfield, an American Studies professor at Brandeis University who has taught in the field for more than 40 years, shares Fishkin’s sentiments on the ASA’s move.

“I’m outraged by this and my sense is that the organization has become utterly foolish,” Whitfield told JNS.org.

Whitfield said he quit the organization nearly 20 years ago because it had become highly politicized. The boycott is the result of the type of groupthink mentality that has permeated the ASA, said Whitfield. “This is driven by a kind of groupthink and hostility to not only Israel, but to a broader assumption that conscience is inevitably on the side of those who claim to be oppressed,” he said.

Whitfield added that he believes the growth of Ethnic Studies within the American Studies discipline may have also played a role in the ASA’s hostility to Israel.

“What seems to be the case is that the emergence of Ethnic Studies may have tilted the organization heavily in favor of people of color, in this case the Palestinians,” he said.

Ethnic Studies has, in the past, garnered considerable criticism, with some accusing it of “anti-Americanism” — former University of Colorado at Boulder Ethnic Studies professor Ward Churchill in 2005 blamed the 9/11 attacks on U.S. foreign policy.

Jewish groups were also quick to condemn the resolution.

“This vote to boycott Israel, one of the most democratic and academically free nations on the globe, shows the Orwellian antisemitism and moral bankruptcy of the American Studies Association,” said World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder.

Following the ASA’s move, the council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) called for a similar boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

“As the elected council of an international community of Indigenous and allied non-Indigenous scholars, students, and public intellectuals who have studied and resisted the colonization and domination of Indigenous lands via settler state structures throughout the world, we strongly protest the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the legal structures of the Israeli state that systematically discriminate against Palestinians and other Indigenous peoples,” read a Dec. 15 declaration by the NAISA, ignoring the fact that Jews are the indigenous people of the land of Israel.

“By attempting to portray the Palestinians as the ‘indigenous people’ of the territory on which the State of Israel and the administered territories exist and the Jews as the colonial settlers, they are perpetrating the big lie of Palestinian history,” wrote Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary magazine. “Jews are not foreigners in Israel as Europeans were in Africa. They happen to be the indigenous people of their ancient homeland and efforts to deny this isn’t scholarship. Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and those who would deny them the same rights accorded other peoples are practicing bias, not scholarship.”

In response to the ASA boycott of Israel, both Brandeis University and Penn State  Harrisburg announced that they had quit the American Studies Association.

Dr. Simon Bronner, the head of the American Studies department at Penn State Harrisburg, made a similar statement: “In the wake of the passage of the resolution by the ASA to boycott Israeli institutions,” he wrote, “which programs and departments such as Penn State Harrisburg’s program in American Studies consider to curtail academic freedom and undermine the reputation of American Studies as a scholarly enterprise, the chair of the American Studies program at Penn State Harrisburg plans to drop its institutional membership and will encourage others to do so.”

 

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