NEW YORK — An association of American professors with almost 5,000 members has voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israeli colleges and universities, the group announced Monday, making it the largest academic group in the United States to back a growing movement to isolate Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.
The group, the American Studies Association, said its members approved the boycott resolution by 2-to-1 in online balloting that concluded Sunday night, with about a quarter of the members voting.
“The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians,” the American Studies Association said in a statement released Monday.
The statement cited “Israel’s violations of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights,” and other factors.
Boycott supporters concede that resolutions by professors’ groups are primarily symbolic, as long as no American college or university supports such an action.
‘The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom.’
The boycott called on American schools and academic groups to ban collaboration with Israeli institutions, but individual Israeli scholars would still be able to attend conferences, lecture at American universities, or do research with American colleagues, as long as they did not officially represent Israeli universities or the government.
Still, attempts in the West to isolate Israel have received close attention in that country. The greatest danger to Israel may lie in calls for an economic boycott — an idea that has gained much more traction in Europe, where Israel has close trade ties — which resulted last week in a Dutch company, Vitens, announcing that it would no longer do business with Israel’s national water company.
The national council of the American Studies Association voted unanimously on Dec. 4 in favor of a boycott resolution and then put the issue to its members.
The group’s stance has pitted scholars and organizations against one another in a heated debate about the ethics of academic boycotts, the motives behind the campaign, and whether Israel is being singled out unfairly.
The movement to cut off relations with Israeli academic and cultural institutions dates back a decade, but organizers say it was not until April that an American academic group of any size, the Association for Asian American Studies, endorsed a boycott.
The Modern Language Association’s annual meeting next month will include a discussion session on academic boycotts, and it will consider a motion critical of Israel for restricting professors’ freedom to visit Palestinian universities.
The American Studies Association has never before called for an academic boycott of any nation’s universities, said Curtis Marez, the group’s president and an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego.
He did not dispute that many nations, including many of Israel’s neighbors, are generally judged to have human rights records that are worse than Israel’s or comparable, but he said, “one has to start somewhere.”
The singular focus on Israel has become the most pointed part of the boycott debate, with opponents seeing signs of anti-Semitism — which supporters vehemently deny — and arguing that the real aim of boycott backers is not to change Israel’s behavior, but to eliminate the state.
On the Charlie Rose show on PBS last week, Lawrence H. Summers, the former Harvard University president and former Treasury secretary, disparaged “the idea that of all the countries in the world that might be thought to have human rights abuses, that might be thought to have inappropriate foreign policies, that might be thought to be doing things wrong, the idea that there’s only one that is worthy of boycott, and that is Israel.”
He called for a kind of reverse boycott, saying that universities should reconsider paying for faculty members to belong to the American Studies Association or to participate in its events.