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October 1, 2016 / 28 Elul, 5776
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The Proper Response to the ASA Boycott of Israel


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In the middle of December, an academic organization called the American Studies Association (ASA) issued a statement in which they endorsed a boycott of Israel. The boycott was their response to their assessment of the treatment of Palestinians by Israel. About 800 members voted in favor of the boycott.

There have been several strong reactions to this statement as well as many important matter of context that must be discussed.

First, the NY Times reports that the ASA is an organization with few members and little influence. A Google search for ASA reveals that the American Studies Association doesn’t even make the first page of result. A professor friend confirmed that the ASA is not a well regarded association and no one really cares what they say. It’s a small corner of academia that mostly teaches American history and politics. So when opponents try to paint all academics as Israel’s enemies based on this boycott, it’s simply untrue. In fact, the much larger and more influential American Association of University Professors opposes the boycott!

(By the way, it’s interesting that the NY Times chose to use a photo of Israeli Arab students at an Israeli University in Haifa.)

Second, the boycott is not really a boycott. It sounds fancy, but the actual teeth of the boycott are anything but sharp. The boycott calls for American universities to cease cooperation with Israeli universities. It does not boycott the professors or scholars or anything else that Israel does or produces. So when opponents of the ASA make arguments like “Haha, the ASA is hypocritical because they use Israeli developed technology everyday! Haha!” It really does not address the actual boycott.

Third, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian authority actually opposes the boycott too. His position is that anything that is actually produced outside the 1948 borders should be subject to boycott. But not everything inside Israel.

But the thing I was left wondering after seeing the initial statement and the various responses that were written and spoken in defense of Israel was what data the ASA was using to justify its boycott? They make unequivocal statements about the lack of academic freedom for Palestinians. Are these allegations true? Even if they are true, we wouldn’t have to agree that the solution is to boycott Israel. But we should be concerned enough to learn what circumstances led the ASA to reach this conclusion. Once we’ve determined their basis for the boycott we can decide whether they raise legitimate issues or valid complaints. I’ve not seen anything seeking to address their specific grievances that are the basis for their boycott.

The truth is that the ASA did not enumerate these claims in their initial statement. But a recent op-ed in the LA Times by one signer of the boycott sheds light on their position. I have organized the issues she raises. I don’t know that any of these claims are true or false or if Israel can be blamed for any of the true claims. She makes two specific claims:

1. On our first day in Bethlehem, my husband and I met a young man who had received a scholarship from George Mason University in Virginia but was not granted an exit visa by the Israeli authorities. Instead of embarking on a promising journey in academia, this young Palestinian had to resign himself to a job selling souvenirs to tourists. We learned that Palestinian students of all ages endure harassment at military checkpoints, frequent school closures, unprovoked arrests, imprisonment and sometimes death at the hands of trigger-happy soldiers.

2. Within Israel proper, schools are segregated and, following the model of the Jim Crow South, the government allocates significantly less funding to Palestinian schools, which are often overcrowded and understaffed. Palestinian university professors in Gaza rarely receive permission to travel abroad for conferences, those in the West Bank also face difficulties, and international faculty have been prevented from visiting Palestinian universities.

Additionally, she says that the boycott is intended to give a voice to those who support Palestinians on college campuses. By standing up to Israel, the hope is that the popular, automatic assumption that Israel is in the right will be challenged. These supporters are often subject to unfair treatment in her view. She cites a few examples.

I found this interesting because I have become so accustomed to hearing that college campuses are so incredibly anti-Israel that supporters of Israel are subject to discrimination. I guess it’s all a matter of perception.

She also explains that anti-Israel is not anti-Jew or anti-Semitic. This is because the ASA resolution does not target people or ethnicities. Instead it targets institutions that are complicit in human rights violations. By targeting those acting instead of the kind of people who are like those acting, the resolution is not a form of ethnic bigotry.

Finally, she argues that while there are far graver humanitarian issues around the world, the relationship between Israel and the United States justifies singling out Israel. Also, the USA has undermined humanitarian efforts in Israel by vetoing UN resolutions condemning Israel.

It’s so important to understand the claims of those who seek to boycott Israel. They have actual grievances. If their grievances are addressed with competing facts we have a chance of rebutting their claims. Upping the rhetoric and organizing counter boycotts does little to actually discuss the issues. Instead it turns into a war that will be won with the group that has greater public support and resources. That’s just a modern version of “might makes right.” We should be focused on “right makes right.”

If the grievances are true, I can understand why some people feel compelled to organize a limited boycott. Even if I wouldn’t join the boycott myself, I can empathize with their concerns. Wouldn’t any of us prefer that the two substantive examples she cites be untrue? And if they were true, would we not want to fix the problems? I know I would.

I don’t have any first hand data to rebut the claims made in this op-ed. I am sure there are those who can confirm if these policies are real, or explain why these policies exist if they are true, or who is to blame for these policies, or maybe agree that some policies should actually be adjusted. But we need to tone down the rhetoric on both sides and begin to solve the problems. That’s the real solution to BDS and accusations of apartheid in Israel. Showing examples of equality and freedom is not sufficient. Each specific claim should be handled and addressed sufficiently. Let’s get on the same page and fix the misconceptions or errors, whichever it is, it doesn’t really matter.

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Rabbi Eliyahu Fink

About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.

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