Over the past few weeks, it has been difficult to see a newspaper, blog or journal without reading an opinion about the recent vote by the American Studies Association (ASA) to boycott Israeli universities. The ASA boycott incorporates “formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions” and “scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions.”I think the boycott is misguided and wrong. Boycotting all Israeli universities is a grave assault on academic freedom and does little to achieve peace.
I am glad to see that President Roth condemned the boycott. Roth argued that the boycott lacked consistency. That is, why boycott Israel while ignoring North Korea, Russia or China? This argument has merit and proves a double standard on the part of the ASA. However, many opinions have used this argument to show that the boycott has its foundations in anti-Semitism. The President of the ASA did not help his case when stating that, “One has to start somewhere” when explaining the decision to boycott Israel. However, there is no reason to believe that the ASA had its motives rooted in anti-Jewish sentiment.
To understand the morality of the boycott, I think it is important to explore the purpose of a university. Universities, like many institutions, are concerned with professional, not political, performance. While the ASA will not be boycotting specific Israeli professors based on their citizenship, they will not allow them to participate in academic forums if they are sponsored by an Israeli institution. However, if an Israeli institution condemns the occupation, they are exempt from the boycott. I personally do think that Israeli universities should take a stance in opposition to the occupation, but I think it is wrong to boycott universities based on their views. To explain this reasoning I would like to propose a thought experiment. University X is a progressive, liberal institution. However, Professor Y, who is eligible for tenure, is an outspoken critic of many of the university’s policies. It would be wrong of the board of trustees to deny this professor tenure because he does not conform to the university’s beliefs. Non-conforming ideas lead to progress. A university has the right to define its own beliefs, however misguided they may be.
Similarly, it is wrong for the ASA to boycott any academic institution, regardless of the morality of their government. The primacy of freedom of thought is inherent to academic beliefs. While the ASA is not explicitly boycotting Israeli professors, by boycotting their institutions it attempts to delegitimize their academic qualifications. The boycott would also affect joint U.S.-Israeli academic institutions such as the Brandeis-Middlebury Program at Ben Gurion University as well as the Cornell-Technion campus under construction in New York City. This boycott not only affects Israeli academic freedom, but spreads across borders back to the US.
When examining the ASA reasoning for the boycott, it becomes clear that the boycott is the cause as well as the solution to the institution they attempt to protect. The ASA claimed that they endorsed the boycott in order to protect academic freedom. This was summed up in a statement as “the necessity for intellectuals to remain free from state interests and interference.”
The ASA cites the hampering of Palestinian academic freedom by Israel as the primary reason for boycotting Israeli institutions. The ASA claims that boycotting all institutions within a state that hampers the academic freedom of other universities will protect their long-term goal of preserving academic freedom. However, by utilizing a boycott as their means, they are taking part in the exact activity they condemn. The legitimizing of boycotts as a tool for change in regards to academic freedom is hypocritical and shortsighted on the part of the ASA.
My biggest problem with the boycott is not only about the claim of protecting academic freedom, but about the larger outcome that the ASA hopes to achieve. The ASA denounces “The Israeli occupation of Palestine,” rather than “the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.” Peter Beinart explains the importance as such, “making no distinction whatsoever between Israeli control of the West Bank, where Palestinians lack citizenship, the right to vote and the right to due process, and Israel proper, where Palestinians, although discriminated against, enjoy all three.” Without separating the two realities, the ASA makes little effort to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.
I am a strong supporter of the two-state solution and I feel that the ASA’s actions do more to harm the prospect of two states than it does to help it. It is important to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist while also condemning its occupation of the Palestinian territories. Such is the reason why PLO President Mahmoud Abbas does not support a boycott of goods produced in Israel proper, but supports a boycott of the settlements. Self determination on both sides of the Green Line will be achieved through a final status solution negotiated by both sides, not a rejection of Israel’s right to exist. If the ASA truly believes in peace and see’s boycott as the best way to achieve that goal it would boycott Ariel University Center, a recently recognized Israeli university located within the West Bank, while sparing Hebrew University, a university founded before Israel. The lack of distinction delegitimizes Israel’s right to exists and harms efforts towards peace.
Both academic boycotts as well as the ASA misguided motives behind the boycott pave no path towards peace. World wide free speech will be threatened if certain institutions are excluded from the global exchange of ideas due to the actions of their government. There will never be peace between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River without an acknowledgment by both sides of the others right to exist. The boycott achieves little and has the potential for great harm.