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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.

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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.

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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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