The American Studies Association (ASA), which according to its website is "the nation's oldest and largest association devoted to interdisciplinary study of American culture and history" recently approved a boycott resolution against Israeli Academic institutions. When they announced this action the ASA became the largest group in the United States to back a growing movement to isolate Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.
But for many trying to decipher the meaning of this stand by the ASA it is hard to understand what they hope to accomplish other than lashing out at Israel.
According to a New York Times article by Richard Perez-Pena the ASA said "The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians." According to Perez-Pena, ASA president Curtis Marez admitted that "The American Studies Association has never before called for an academic boycott of any nation's universities... [and] did not dispute that many nations, including many of Israel's neighbors, are generally judged to have human rights records that are worse than Israel's, or comparable, and added, one has to start somewhere."
I would question an organization that would start a boycott of the one democratic country in the region and pass a resolution as vague as the one they passed and not attribute it to just strong anti-Israel sentiment.
Many around the world have sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people and are opposed to how Israel has handled the settlement question and other issues surrounding efforts at generating a lasting peace. But to boycott academic institutions would seem to be totally counterproductive. While there may be some stifling of dissent and opinion these are the institutions where the most open discussion can still take place and to boycott them, according to the New York Times article, even goes against the suggestion of Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who reportedly said "that his government's stance is to boycott Israeli businesses and other activities in the occupied territories, but not in Israel itself."
In response to the boycott, Bloomberg reported on statements by Lawrence H. Summers during an appearance on the Charlie Rose show where he said, "I find academic boycotts abhorrent but this one is even worse if the only country they find worthy of boycott is Israel." He added that this appears to have anti-Semitic implications and went on to suggest that universities should think twice about paying for faculty dues to ASA which he said is acting as a 'political tool.'
The backlash against the ASA continues as reported in the New York Times with "a rising tide of college presidents speaking out against it". They reported that the executive committee of the American Association of Universities joined the American Association of University Professors in opposing it.
The call for such a boycott dates back to the B.D.S. movement which arose out of Palestinian Civil Society and began in 2005. The idea of boycotting Israeli academic institutions is not new but when in 2005 the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) announced a boycott of two Israeli institutions the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a group with nearly 50,000 members took the opportunity to reiterate its strong stance against academic boycotts.
While there can and should be debate on how academic institutions deal with freedom of speech and the freedom of students to speak-out and debate; and there can be criticism of how some institutions handle these issues; boycotts only tend to make situations worse not better and end up making those boycotting just as guilty as those they are boycotting of stifling appropriate academic openness and discussion.
I would hope that the leaders of the ASA and other groups considering joining them would rethink their stance as they come under increasing pressure from individuals and academic institutions to do so. The New York Times reported that universities such as Brandeis, Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, Indiana University, and Kenyon College have withdrawn from the ASA.
There is a huge difference in criticizing a university for its policies or calling for a boycott. While one can criticize Israel for their policies toward the Palestinians one must in the same breath speak of groups like Hamas who have vowed to see to it that Israel ceases to exist. The end to the war in the Middle East will take concessions from both sides and hopefully scholars with heartfelt positions on both sides will continue to speak with one another. A boycott accomplishes nothing and may in the long run make things worse.