This past December, members of the American Studies Association, the United States’ oldest and largest academic association dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of American history and culture, passed a resolution endorsing a boycott of Israeli universities. In the election that led to this endorsement, which drew the largest number of participants in the organization’s history, an overwhelming 66 percent of members voted in favor of the boycott. According to the ASA’s website, its endorsement stems from “Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; [and] the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights…”
In passing such a resolution, the ASA has joined the growing international ranks of left-leaning academic associations and individuals who have condemned Israel for its treatment of its Palestinian population. Some within this movement, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, have even drawn parallels between Israel and Apartheid South Africa. These condemnations have drawn consistent and impassioned criticism from a variety of fronts, notably academic and political, which have continued their criticism by reacting to the ASA’s recent boycott.
In the month and a half that has followed the resolution, at least five institutions have withdrawn their membership from the ASA while several current and former presidents of prominent American universities, including Amherst and Princeton, have condemned the ASA’s resolution. In doing so, they have cited general opposition to academic boycotts for their negative impact on academic speech and exchange as well as displeasure with what they perceive as a double standard in the ASA’s decision. Furthermore, two Democratic state assembly men from New York have indicated plans to introduce legislation that would remove state support from any public or private college that participated in the ASA or any other group involved in a boycott of Israel.
Though such reactions may appear rash, they make sense when one considers several basic facts. Firstly, it is interesting to note that the ASA has not endorsed the boycotting of universities in countries with far worse human rights records than Israel’s, such as Iran or China. Following the ASA’s rationale that violations of human rights and international law by a country’s government merit repercussions against that country’s educational institutions, it is illogical and unfair that Israel’s universities alone should be singled out for boycott. The ASA’s decision to narrow its resolution to Israeli universities is thus logically inconsistent and, more importantly, intellectually dishonest.
The ASA ignores Israel’s tangible achievements in human rights as the strongest democracy in the Middle East, with free and open elections and minority representation in parliament. It also ignores Israel’s strides in reducing inequality of opportunity between Jews and minorities by instituting a comprehensive affirmative action program. Such a program has led to high minority enrollment at institutions such as the University of Haifa, where over 30 percent of the student body is Arab (with Arabs comprising roughly 20 percent of Israel’s total population). Rather than unfairly single out Israel by endorsing university boycotts that adversely affect the flow of ideas and the empowerment of a group of people on whose behalf the organization is claiming to act, the ASA should withdraw its support for the boycott and promote proactive policies that further assist Israel’s Palestinian population. It should also distribute its criticism more evenly and hold Israel’s neighbors to the same standards.