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Letter to the ASA Opposing the Proposed Academic Boycott of Israel

November 20, 2013, 9:42 am

182377754_400x400_FrontTo: John Stephens, Executive Director of the American Studies Association

Subject: Opposition to proposed resolution before the National Council of the ASA for an academic boycott of Israel.

Dear John,

Please count me as an ASA member who opposes the proposed sanctions of Israel’s academic institutions and, by logical extension, the scholars associated with those institutions, that has been put before the Council by the Academic and Community Activism Caucus. Scholars of any nation ought to be free to travel, publish and collaborate across borders: I consider this to be a fundamental human right, and so does the United Nations. We in the American Studies Association cannot defend some of those human rights and disregard others.

Although it grieves me to oppose a number of distinguished colleagues and friends in this matter, I cannot agree that such sanctions are any more than an empty gesture toward those people who are suffering under, and threatened by, the exclusions, violence and expulsions that are characteristic of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. At the same time, this gesture — which would cost the vast majority of ASA members nothing, as few of us have the occasion to directly do business with Israel’s academic institutions, creates a precedent that the ASA is willing to not just tolerate, but promote, restrictions on academic freedom.

Putting the question of why Israel’s human rights violations are being singled out as especially gruesome, given US complicity in the repression of many peoples across the globe, the ASA also runs the risk of isolating progressive colleagues in Israel by passing this resolution. BDS and PACBI claims, echoed by the ASA colleagues promoting this resolution, that this boycott would be “the same” as similar boycotts enacted against South Africa are simply incorrect, in my view. Full scholarly and historical attention, I am quite certain, would reveal that this is a facile comparison and that the boycott of South Africa was not the engine of that country’s transformation that BDS supporters wish to believe. What would be similar, in my view, is that anti-Occupation academics, including Palestinian scholars employed by Israeli institutions, would be likely to have even fewer resources for their own struggle under a right wing state that has far greater internal and international legitimacy than did South Africa’s apartheid government.

The Academic and Community Activism Caucus — currently populated with longtime BDS activists — insists that their own allies within Israel support this boycott. I believe those claims — many of us who oppose this resolution have friends on the left who have asked us to act on their behalf as well. But I might add that since 2010 the right to free speech in Israel has narrowed dramatically, and providing some context for pro-Palestinian activists’ view that international boycotts would not make their situation dramatically worse.

I disagree. Despite the growth of the US national security state in the past decade, some of us think that freedom of speech is not something you give away — for yourself, or on behalf of another nation’s scholars. Please register my views with the Council.

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