A First for the Israel Boycott?
The general membership of the Association for Asian American Studies has unanimously approved a resolution endorsing the boycott of Israeli universities, making it the first scholarly organization in the U.S. to do so, according to the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
About 10 percent of the association’s membership was present for last week’s secret ballot vote, which was open to all members and took place on the final day of the AAAS annual conference in Seattle. The resolution raises a number of concerns about the impact of Israeli policies on Palestinian students and scholars – including restrictions on travel and the forced closure or destruction of schools as a result of Israeli military actions – and describes Israeli academic institutions as “deeply complicit in Israel's violations of international law and human rights and in its denial of the right to education and academic freedom to Palestinians, in addition to their basic rights as guaranteed by international law."
“Be it resolved that the Association for Asian American Studies endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” the resolution reads in part. “Be it also resolved that the Association for Asian American Studies supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.”
The AAAS president, Mary Yu Danico, confirmed the resolution was approved and directed questions to the association’s past president, Rajini Srikanth, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Srikanth likened the academic boycott to that which was levied against South African universities to protest apartheid, and emphasized that the boycott is of institutions, not individual academics. “The reason that we’re very clear that this is a boycott of Israeli institutions and not Israeli scholars is that we are very aware that there are Israeli scholars who understand the difficulties that Palestinian academics and students have and speak up in support of Palestinian rights,” she said. “So we would absolutely be working with them, and providing them whatever support they need to challenge their institutions.”
At the same time, she said, “We would discourage partnerships with Israeli academic institutions, whether they’re curriculum partnerships or study abroad partnerships, because that would be becoming complicit with the discriminatory practices of Israeli institutions, and we would be encouraging faculty, staff and students to forge alliances with Palestinian faculty and Palestinian students who now have so much difficulty engaging in conversations with scholars from the rest of the world."
Britain’s main faculty union, the University College Union, has issued a series of resolutions over the years that fall just short of endorsing an academic boycott of Israel (see for example this 2008 resolution and this one from 2011). In April, the Teachers Union of Ireland became the first educational trade union in Europe to support an outright boycott, as The Jerusalem Post reported. However, the issue hasn’t gotten as much traction among academics on this side of the Atlantic, where boycotts are widely viewed as antithetical to academic freedom.
The American Association of University Professors opposes academic boycotts, stipulating in a 2005 statement that "since its founding in 1915, the AAUP has been committed to preserving and advancing the free exchange of ideas among academics irrespective of governmental policies and however unpalatable those policies may be viewed. We reject proposals that curtail the freedom of teachers and researchers to engage in work with academic colleagues, and we reaffirm the paramount importance of the freest possible international movement of scholars and ideas." (The AAUP further elaborated on that statement in regards to a then-proposed boycott of two Israeli universities here.)
“It’s a morally incoherent argument that somehow on behalf of the Palestinian cause it’s O.K. to abandon the principles that academics normally hold dear, which is that you don’t penalize scholars for having political affiliations that you may or may not agree with,” said Richard L. Cravatts, the president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a pro-Israel organization, and the director of Simmons College’s communications management program. "Having a litmus test for the political affiliations or connections of professors has always been anathema to most academics."
Cravatts also rejected as “abhorrent” what he described as a singling out of the Jewish state for criticism when many other governments engage in condemnable behavior. Srikanth argued, however, that on the contrary academic criticism of Israel is subject to suppression through intimidation or censorship and that it is precisely the absence of meaningful criticism of Israel's human rights record on the part of the U.S. government that necessitates an academic boycott. "This is where civil society comes into play," she said.
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