December 19, 2013
NEW YORK (JTA) — It started as barely a blip on the radar.
At its annual conference last April, the Association for Asian American Studies, or AAAS, unanimously approved a resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israeli universities to protest the country’s treatment of Palestinians. While the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement had been active for some time on campuses across the country, it was the first time an American academic organization had signed on. But since the AAAS is a tiny group of barely 800 members, and fewer than 100 were still around on the final day of the conference when the vote was taken, the step was viewed more as a curiosity than the beginning of a trend.
Now the blip is beginning to look more like a wave. This month, the much larger American Studies Association, or ASA — it has nearly 5,000 members — passed a similar resolution by a 2-to-1 margin in an online vote in which about a quarter of the members participated. The language, previously approved unanimously by the organization’s national council, claims there is "no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation” blames the United States for "enabling" the occupation; and endorses "a boycott of Israeli academic institutions."
While the ASA has long had a reputation for leftist and anti-Western bias, resolutions to the same effect are expected to be proposed at the upcoming meetings of the large mainstream academic bodies in the humanities, such as the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association. Both will hold their annual meetings in January.
The professoriate is the most highly educated sector of our society, its members taking justifiable pride in their ability to think clearly and not be swayed by faulty logic. Surely those who come to the subject with no preconceived anti-Israel feeling will see through the two-tiered hypocrisy of the boycotters.
First, it is rather odd that the ASA has never before called for severing academic relations with any other country, not even such authoritarian regimes as China, Iran, Sudan or Syria, where no academic freedom exists. Whatever failings can be laid at Israel’s door, it is a democracy with free elections, a free press and, yes, academic freedom. Indeed, it was Israel that established the first Palestinian universities on the West Bank. Far from seeking to oppress the Palestinian population under its control, Israel is engaged in intensive negotiations with the Palestinian Authority to achieve a peace agreement whereby Israeli and Palestinian states can live side by side in peace.
Acknowledging that Israel is hardly among the worst human-rights offenders, the ASA president insists nonetheless that "one has to start somewhere." But why start by boycotting a free society rather than a repressive one — unless you come to the issue already predisposed against Israel?
Second, for consistency’s sake, a boycott aimed at Israeli academia should insist on forgoing the use of anything produced by Israeli brainpower — much of it at the very universities targeted for boycotting. That would include computer laptops, cell phones, crops produced by drip irrigation, geothermal power, and a host of biomedical devices and pharmaceuticals. At the very least, such a boycott should logically include an end to the enjoyment of the most visible fruits of Israeli intellectual life — the path-breaking accomplishments of its 12 Nobel Prize winners, by far the highest per-capita number of Nobel laureates for any country in the world.
The fact that none of the would-be boycotters has even suggested taking such a step raises the strong possibility that the entire academic BDS campaign is shot through with another form of hypocrisy, one that decries Israel as an international pariah while at the same time making use of the life-enhancing and life-saving breakthroughs that the objectionable country has achieved.
If they remain fair-minded, and look behind the hypocritical rhetoric, American professors can stop the academic boycott in its tracks.
(Lawrence Grossman is the American Jewish Committee’s director of publications.)