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The ASA Boycott And The Gathering Backlash

It had long seemed that the movement to boycott Israel, particularly its colleges and universities, was unstoppable. Almost every week brought news of some fresh resolution according pariah-like status to Israel, ostensibly in response to Israel’s alleged trampling on the rights of Palestinians – though it was easy to suspect something more insidious and deep-rooted at play.

And many of the intelligentsia were curiously unwilling to address the irony of a broadly applied boycott – the antithesis of reasoned discourse – being touted as the remedy for what they said was Israel’s denial of academic freedom to West Bank Palestinian students and scholars.

But the negative reaction to the recent targeting of Israeli institutions of higher learning by an American academic group may be a breakthrough and should be encouraged.

Several weeks ago the American Studies Association “resolved that [it] endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.“

In a separate follow-up public statement the ASA said:

Our resolution understands boycott as limited to 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.

The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication. The Council also recognizes that individual members will act according to their convictions on these complex matters.

The careful wording as to the reach of the boycott does not mask the fact that the ASA plainly planned to “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” Again, this sort of thing had become expected. But there has been a very real fallout this time, one that can only be described as swift, negative and overwhelming.

As of early this week at least 55 colleges and universities had condemned the boycott, all emphasizing the importance of academic freedom in their statements. Among the schools were Northwestern, Cornell, Harvard, NYU, Brown, Yale, Brandeis, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins, Boston University, Tufts, University of California, Fordham, Stanford, Purdue, USC, University of Texas, Ohio State, Rutgers, Brooklyn College, MIT, Columbia, Emory, University of Illinois, Amherst, Dartmouth, Wesleyan and Barnard.

We do not delude ourselves that this represents some mass epiphany on Israel in academia. But it is a step forward, even though the core concern raised by most of the schools is academic freedom rather than the merits of Israel’s position vis-à-vis the Palestinians. As such it should be heralded and nurtured by those of us interested in Israel’s welfare.

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