The American Studies Association announced on Wednesday that its executive body, the National Council, had voted unanimously to support an academic boycott of Israel. The organization has asked members to vote on the resolution, however, and if most of them are opposed, the council will withdraw it.
The decision by the council's 18 voting members caps a contentious few weeks, in which both pro- and antiboycott petitions had gained signatures from members and past presidents.
In a lengthy explanation of the vote and the debate leading up to it, the group emphasized that the boycott was directed against higher-education institutions, not individual scholars, and that it "represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians."
As a result, the association said, in its official capacity it would not collaborate with Israeli academic institutions or with their representatives, such as presidents and deans. But the resolution "does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange," including conference presentations and research projects, the group said.
"As an association of scholars and educators, the ASA has an ethical responsibility to act," the group's president, Curtis F. Marez, said in a written statement. He is chairman of the ethnic-studies department at the University of California at San Diego. In a telephone interview, he said the discussion of the boycott proposal was both lengthy and comprehensive, encompassing eight days.
"The ASA has long been committed to struggles against discrimination and for academic freedom and for various kinds of democracy," he said. "So I would hope that even members who agree or disagree with the resolution would be compelled by the ASA's commitment to the process."
Opponents have argued that boycotts are antithetical to the concept of intellectual freedom. "What they're saying encourages the curtailment of dialogue and contact," said Simon J. Bronner, a professor of American studies and folklore at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, who is a nonvoting member of the council.
He also found the association's distinction between individuals and institutions unrealistic. "How does that not affect individuals?" he asked, anticipating "tremendous fallout" from the vote.
During its annual meeting last month, the association held an open session for members to debate the proposal before the council voted. A large majority of the 44 speakers there endorsed the boycott. Several members have already publicly declared, however, that they would resign from the organization if the boycott proposal were approved.
The online voting process for association members is open through December 15.