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In Defense of an Academic Boycott of Israel

On December 16 the American Studies Association announced that its membership had voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israel, the second and most high-profile U.S. scholarly association to do so thus far. The boycott is one prong of a global justice movement that is anchored in international law and universal principles of human rights. It aims to help end Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.

Sadly, in the ensuing days, ASA members have been savaged in the press, attacked by Israeli government officials, smeared as anti-Semites, and targeted with threatening emails and phone calls. Most of the criticism has focused on claims that the ASA was stifling academic freedom, punishing Israeli scholars, and unfairly singling out Israel. As one prominent critic, David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, asked, why is Israel being targeted and “not Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Syria, Sudan, or any other serial human-rights violator”?

Why Israel? The ASA acted in response to a boycott call issued by an overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil-society organizations, including trade unions, NGOs, and student groups. They are doing what many in the international community, including President Obama, have repeatedly called on Palestinians to do: embrace nonviolent means in their struggle for freedom and self-determination. However, while Obama and others lecture Palestinians on nonviolence and then do nothing when Israel responds with violence and repression, the ASA and a growing number of other organizations—including churches, student groups, and labor unions—are taking action to support Palestinians.

The Modern Language Association’s annual conference, from January 9 to 12 in Chicago, will feature a panel on the academic boycott of Israel in addition to considering a resolution encouraging the U.S. State Department “to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.”

The boycott that the ASA has approved is voluntary and limited to institutions and their official representatives. It does not target individual academics. We are targeting Israeli universities because they work closely with the government and military in developing weapons and other technology that are used to enforce the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land, while university-associated think tanks develop political and communications strategies to advance government aims and defend them internationally. The fact is that universities are active participants in, and important enablers of, Israel’s repressive, unjust, and illegal policies toward the Palestinians.

If there is any group whose academic freedom is being denied, it is the Palestinians. The Israeli occupation prevents Palestinian academics from accessing outside institutions of higher learning and professional conferences, hampering their ability to do their work, while Israeli authorities make it difficult for foreign academics to travel to Gaza and the West Bank.

Israeli policies also prevent Palestinian students from freely exercising their right to education. Checkpoints in the West Bank impede students from getting to school, and travel abroad to study can be extremely difficult. In 2000 Israel began preventing students in Gaza from traveling to study at universities in the West Bank. In 2008 seven students from Gaza who had won Fulbright scholarships to study in the United States were denied permission to travel by Israel (eventually four made it after American pressure). And in a shameful example of why a boycott is necessary, in 2010 the U.S. State Department initiated a program to provide funding for students from Gaza to study in the West Bank. When Israel refused to issue travel permits, the Obama administration quietly canceled the project rather than challenge Israeli authorities.

Unlike Iran, North Korea, and many of the other countries frequently cited as worse human-rights transgressors by opponents of the boycott, Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid (more than $3-billion annually) and enjoys almost unconditional diplomatic support from the U.S. government. It is in fact this “special relationship,” which U.S. and Israeli politicians frequently boast about, that singles Israel out and makes the plight of the Palestinians a moral responsibility for all Americans.

The university presidents denouncing our move have largely been silent regarding Israel’s abuses of Palestinian academics and Palestinian human rights in general. Those presidents may oppose our principled stance, but in doing so they should at least have the decency to acknowledge those abuses.

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela has reminded us of a time when people bravely stood up to apartheid by initiating boycotts and other proactive measures to isolate the South African regime. This was once a very unpopular position to take, but history proved those people right. One day, after the tide turns, boycotts against Israel and the apartheid regime it has instituted will be viewed in the same way.

Curtis Marez is president of the American Studies Association and an associate professor and chair of the ethnic-studies department at the University of California at San Diego.

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