Boycott by Academic Group Is a Symbolic Sting to Israel
With fewer than 5,000 members, the group is not one of the larger scholarly associations. But its vote is a milestone for a Palestinian movement known as B.D.S., for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions, which for the past decade had found little traction in the United States.
Members of the American Studies Association voted by a ratio of more than two to one to endorse the boycott in online balloting that concluded Sunday night, the group said.
With fewer than 5,000 members, the group is not one of the larger scholarly associations. But its vote is a milestone for a Palestinian movement known as B.D.S., for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions, which for the past decade had found little traction in the United States. The American Studies Association is the second American academic group to back the boycott, movement organizers say, following the Association for Asian American Studies, which did so in April.
“It’s almost like a family betrayal,” said Manuel Trajtenberg, a leading Israeli scholar. “It’s very grave and very saddening that this happens, particularly so in the U.S.,” he said.
Dr. Trajtenberg, an economics professor at Tel Aviv University, earned his doctorate at Harvard and like many Israeli academics has had frequent sabbaticals at American universities.
Israel has strong trade ties with Western Europe, where the B.D.S. campaign has won some backing for economic measures, a particular concern for Israelis. Last week a Dutch company, Vitens, announced that it would not do business with Israel’s national water company, Mekorot, because of Israel’s policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israel recently faced a potential crisis when it seemed its universities and companies would lose out on some $700 million for research from a European Union program after new guidelines prohibited investment in any institutions operating in territory Israel seized in the 1967 war. Israeli academics were reeling at the possibility that they would be punished over government policy toward the Palestinians, until Israeli and European officials struck a deal late last month to allow Israel to participate.
In April, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland endorsed an academic boycott of Israel, and several times in recent years there have been strong efforts within Britain’s largest professors’ group, the University and College Union, to do the same.
Israelis have long seen Europe as more hostile — even anti-Semitic in some pockets — but a slap from the United States has a particular sting.
“Rather than standing up for academic freedom and human rights by boycotting countries where professors are imprisoned for their views, the A.S.A. chooses as its first ever boycott to boycott Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East, in which academics are free to say what they want, write what they want and research what they want,” Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said Monday.
America is viewed not only as Israel’s staunchest ally, but its best friend, and many analysts have fretted publicly in recent weeks that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outspoken opposition to the interim Iran nuclear deal had damaged relations with Washington.
Next month, the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting will debate a resolution calling on the State Department to criticize Israel for barring American professors from going to Gaza and the West Bank when invited by Palestinian universities.
People on both sides of the issue acknowledged that despite the heat it generates, the requested boycott will have little practical effect, at least for now. The American Studies Association resolution bars official collaboration with Israeli institutions but not with Israeli scholars themselves; it has no binding power over members, and no American colleges have signed on.
In fact, the American Association of University Professors, the nation’s largest professors’ group, said it opposed the boycott. A number of American scholars, while angry at Israeli policies in the West Bank, say they oppose singling Israel out over other countries with far worse human rights records. Others say it makes little sense to focus on Israeli universities where government policy often comes under strong criticism.
“O.K., so a couple of Israeli researchers will not be invited by a couple of American researchers,” said Avraham Burg, a leftist former Labor Party lawmaker who was one of the founders of Molad, a research group that recently published a report on Israeli isolation. “That for me is awful, because the academic community is the last one with the freedom of thought and freedom of expression.”
But Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian activist and a founder of the B.D.S. movement, said the boycott vote shed light on the close collaboration between Israel’s universities and its government and military, and it put those universities on notice that they will become unwelcome in international academic circles.
“It is perhaps the strongest indicator yet that the B.D.S. movement is reaching a tipping point, even in the U.S., the last bastion of support for Israel’s unjust system,” he said.
President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has publicly rejected a boycott of Israel. While pro-boycott forces draw parallels to the sanctions movement against South Africa during the apartheid era, Mr. Abbas, who was in South Africa last week for the funeral of Nelson Mandela, restated the Palestinian Authority’s longstanding position of supporting a boycott only against products made in West Bank settlements, but not institutions that operate within Israel’s 1948 lines.
“We are neighbors with Israel, we have agreements with Israel, we recognize Israel, we are not asking anyone to boycott products of Israel,” Majdi Khaldi, an adviser to Mr. Abbas, said in an interview on Monday. “The problem is two things: occupation, and the government of Israel continuing settlement activities.”
On Dec. 4, the 20-member national council of the American Studies Association voted unanimously for a boycott resolution, but decided to put the matter to a full membership vote. The group said that of 1,252 members who cast ballots, 66.05 percent voted in favor and 30.5 percent against, with the rest abstaining.
The American Association of University Professors, with 48,000 members repeated its position that while economic action against a nation might be warranted, academic boycotts stifle academic freedom and are likely to hurt people who are not the intended targets.
But the American Studies Association’s online forum filled with comments rejecting that logic, like this one from David Palumbo-Liu, a professor at Stanford: “People who truly believe in academic freedom would realize protesting the blatant and systemic denial of academic freedom to Palestinians, which is coupled with material deprivation of a staggering scale, far outweighs concerns we in the West might have about our own rather privileged academic freedoms.”
Richard Pérez-Peña reported from New York, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem.