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US academia split over boycott targeting Israel

The decision last week by a US organization of scholars to boycott Israeli academic institutions has ignited debate on college campuses around New England and beyond about academic freedom, the role of politics in scholarly life, and US support for Israel.

The American Studies Association said its boycott was to protest Israel's treatment of Palestinians and what it described as the involvement of Israeli universities in supporting government policy.

Since the association announced the boycott Dec. 16, prominent academic leaders — including Boston University president Robert A. Brown, Harvard president Drew Faust, Yale president Peter Salovey, and Faust's predecessor, Lawrence H. Summers — have condemned the move as a violation of academic freedom.


The American Studies program at Brandeis University is withdrawing from the national American Studies Association in protest, and Brandeis President Fred Lawrence on Tuesday issued a statement urging other universities to "follow our lead and disassociate from the ASA."

Major academic organizations, including the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Universities, have also decried the boycott.

"I just think it's really wrongheaded," Brown said. "Your hope is universities are places where you can have dialogue and discussion in a civil way on very complicated issues. Something like this just shuts it down and polarizes the community."

Like many other critics, Brown questioned the decision to single out Israel. "If you went around the world and decided all the groups you felt were discriminated against, either by their governments or by universities, it's a long list," he said.

But two-thirds of the 1,252 ASA members who cast ballots favored the resolution, and several said they did so in support of academic freedom — the freedom of Palestinians whose ability to work and study is constrained by Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza.


"When diplomatic means fail, civil resistance is a peaceful means of trying to call attention to political problems," said Eric Cheyfitz, an American Studies professor at Cornell University, who is Jewish and has a daughter and grandchildren living in Israel.

"This was used in South Africa, boycotts were used in our civil rights movement, they were used in the farm worker movement," Cheyfitz added. "So the boycott is a time-honored, time-tested mode of civil disobedience in the face of the refusal of political entities to do social justice."

The ASA's decision is a boost for the Palestinian Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, known as BDS, which in 2005 issued a call from more than 100 Palestinian organizations for sanctions against Israeli.

The Association for Asian American Studies joined the boycott movement earlier this year, and the leadership of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association did so last week. But the movement has been much more popular in Europe than in the United States.

The American Studies Association, a professional group of about 4,000 scholars who study American history and culture, said it has been debating a boycott since 2006. After its leadership endorsed the idea in early December, the organization put the matter to a vote.

The decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions, according to the group's statement, "emerges from the context of US military and other support for Israel; Israel's violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; [and] the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights."


The association described its boycott as limited: a refusal to attend conferences officially sponsored by Israeli universities, or to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions.

It doesn't have any such collaborations anyway, said Executive Director John Stephens.

It is not, the group said, a boycott of Israeli scholars, travel to Israel, or "ordinary academic exchange."

A stream of criticism from a number of prominent university presidents followed the American Studies vote.

"Academic boycotts subvert the academic freedoms and values necessary to the free flow of ideas, which is the lifeblood of the worldwide community of scholars," Faust said in a statement issued Friday.

Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth wrote in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last week that, as a Jew, he finds many policies of the current Israeli government abhorrent. Still, he questioned, "not in North Korea, not in Russia or Zimbabwe or China — one has to start with Israel. Really?"

To answer that line of criticism, Cheyfitz cited the unique level of support the United States provides to the Israeli government, as well as the call for support from the BDS movement. "If we get a call from Egyptian society, if we get a call from Chinese civil society, if we get a call from Syrian civil society, we certainly will take a look at that call," he said.

As Harvard president in 2002, Summers famously criticized professors who advocated divestment from Israel as "anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent."


In a recent interview on the "Charlie Rose" talk show, Summers said he hoped "responsible university leaders will become very reluctant to see their university's funds used to finance faculty membership and faculty travel to an association that is showing itself not to be a scholarly association, but really more of a political tool."

For Brandeis's American Studies program, it was an easy — if sad — decision to withdraw from the ASA, said the program's chair, Thomas Doherty.

Doherty said he was most upset about the impact of the boycott on PhD students and young, untenured scholars who disagree with the decision, because they may now feel unwelcome within the group. Yet they depend on the imprimatur of the ASA — in invitations to speak at conferences or publication in the group's journal — to establish their careers.

He also sees it as an harmful distraction for an entire academic discipline.

"This is our brand now, thanks to this vote," he said. "We're known for a political position on the state of Israel. We're not known for doing good scholarly work in the field of Puritan studies or African-American history."

Marcella Bombardieri
can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.