Dear Mr. President: In Response to Responses to the ASA Boycott

12/30/2013 11:11 am ET | Updated Mar 01, 2014

The recent American Studies Association vote to respond to a call from Palestinian civil society to support boycott, sanctions, and divestment (BDS) protests against the Israeli occupation has resulted in a slew of letters from college and university leaders. Of different tones, they all keep to the same core issues. The letter published by the leadership at the University of Maryland is exemplary is this matter. It states:

"We firmly oppose the call by some academic associations--American Studies Association; Asian-American Studies Association--to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Any such boycott is a breach of the principle of academic freedom that undergirds the University of Maryland and, indeed, all of American higher education.

Faculty, students, and staff on our campus must remain free to study, do research, and participate in meetings with colleagues from around the globe. The University of Maryland has longstanding relationships with several Israeli universities. We have many exchanges of scholars and students. We will continue and deepen these relationships.

In the United States, we can disagree with the governmental policies of a nation without sanctioning the universities of that nation, or the American universities that collaborate with them. To restrict the free flow of people and ideas with some universities because of their national identity is unwise, unnecessary, and irreconcilable with our core academic values."

Wallace D. Loh

Mary Ann Rankin
Senior Vice President and Provost

This letter and others like it are in no way surprising. The letter-writers are heads of colleges and universities who wish to keep as many relations open to their institutions as possible. They also have their alumni and other supporters to worry about, and the ASA resolution is certainly controversial. Especially in the forms in which it has been represented.

It is important to note that, contrary to how it has been depicted, under the resolution members of the ASA are indeed "free to study, do research, and participate in meetings with colleagues from around the globe." The resolution places no restrictions on its individual members from so doing; individuals are free to pursue any relations they wish with their Israeli counterparts, period. Also, the resolution is also decidedly not anti-Semitic, another charge that has been leveled against it. It is a protest against specific state practices, not against a people, and in fact, again, places no restrictions on its members when it comes to their engaging with their Israeli colleagues. The ASA Statement on the Resolution unambiguously declares:

"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."

Critics of the resolution would be hard pressed to explain how this infringes upon the academic freedom of any individual scholar. It is very much as if one's church, or synagogue, or company decided through an open vote not to do business with a certain vendor. But that decision was not binding in any way upon its members. They can individually do business with that vendor. Just so in our own universities we can invite Israeli scholars to speak, and go to speak at their campuses should we wish to. We can co-author papers, do research together. That is clear and plain.

The letter-writers are correct in their assertion that the ASA is, as an institution itself, refusing to enter into formal academic activities with Israeli academic institutions. Boycotts of this nature are protected forms of free speech, and available to any organization wishing to engage in non-violent protest (the anti-boycott laws on the books have to do solely with issues of free trade). Academic institutions, it should be stressed, are not endowed with academic freedom rights. Finally, it has to be said once again that this is a boycott aimed at state practices of discrimination that deny academic freedom to others; it is decidedly not aimed at a people.

So why has the ASA done this?

The basic principle that guided this measure is the belief that academic freedom is indivisible. The ASA refuses to engage with institutions it has deemed complicit with the denial of academic freedom to Palestinians. It refuses to place "our" academic freedoms above and apart from those of others. It refuses to go along with things as they are, which include increased and illegal building of settlements in the Occupied Territories, the bombing of Palestinian schools, the denial of the freedoms of speech and assembly to Palestinians. Even as I write this the Israeli government is expanding those settlements, and on Christmas Day rocket attacks fell upon Gaza, killing a small child and many others, as bulldozers tore down yet more shacks that Palestinians continue to build to shelter themselves in the winter.

The boycott is meant to intervene in business as usual. Whereas skeptics say this is but a small, meaningless symbolic gesture, they ignore the fact it is precisely the amalgamation of small symbolic gestures that help grow a movement and raise public awareness. Of course these presidents are not interested in this, nor should they speak on such matters as representatives of their schools. But they should not act on the basis of a false representation of the resolution, and, importantly they should not go so far as to interfere in the business of academic departments.

In response to this, and contrary to the principles of academic freedom, some college presidents appear to have withdrawn funding for their faculty to participate in ASA activities and have cancelled their subscriptions unilaterally. (See for example this news article about Indiana University). It is regrettable that, unlike the terms of the ASA boycott, which leave it up to individual members to do as they feel best, these sorts of actions deny that right to faculty.

Amidst the flurry of letters from university leaders one reaction, so far, gets it right, in my opinion. Coming from a position of opposition to the boycott, Princeton University president Christopher L. Eisgruber wrote to William A. Jacobson:

I share your dismay at the American Studies Association's misguided boycott. Academic boycotts are almost always bad policy-scholarly engagement helps to sustain and build liberal democratic values. For that reason, among others, I believe that Princeton should continue to work constructively with scholars and institutions throughout the world, whether one admires or dislikes the government under which they operate. And, whatever one thinks of boycotts in general, to single out Israel alone is indefensible.

My personal support for scholarly engagement with Israel is enthusiastic and unequivocal. Indeed, my latest article (currently in page proofs) emerges from a conference in Jerusalem sponsored by the Israel Democracy Institute, and it will appear in a volume published by that organization.

That said, I do not intend to denounce the ASA, make it unwelcome on campus, or inhibit the ability of faculty members to affiliate with it. My hope is that the ASA's more thoughtful and reasonable members will eventually bring the organization to its senses-here, too, engagement may be better than a boycott. That is for individual faculty members to decide. In any event, I look forward to continued interaction with the wonderful scholars and universities in Israel.

Although I myself do not agree with much of what is said here, Eisgruber recognizes an important and critical fact -- this was a decision made by an organization with regard to its own practices. That is its right, and it acted in the belief that this resolution was and is intended to increase, not diminish, academic freedom. The membership voted overwhelmingly and decisively to endorse the resolution. It has never and does not through this measure block or curtail the actions of its individual members, who are free to do whatever they so desire. That the resolution has been so condemned by some without an understanding of these basic facts, upon which supporters voted for it, is regrettable and only shows the more the power of the prejudices to which even very smart people might be susceptible.