For the American Studies Association, it was a defining moment.
Last week, the 5,000-member national group — dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history — turned its attention to the Middle East. Citing a list of complaints that included “the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students,” a strong majority of the ASA voted to boycott Israel’s academic institutions.
Since then, the reaction in academia has been swift — and very, very negative. On Thursday, Florida International University became the latest college to publicly oppose the ASA’s action.
“You don’t protest the lack of academic freedom for one group by taking it away from another group,” FIU Provost Douglas Wartzok said. FIU on Thursday released a formal statement, authored by Wartzok and university President Mark Rosenberg, stating the boycott “would impose restrictions on the academic freedom of Israeli scholars and of scholars from FIU and elsewhere who interact with them.”
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University of Florida President J. Bernard Machen also blasted the boycott on Thursday, releasing a statement that “I believe the entire University of Florida community holds academic freedom to be a cherished principle that advances the interests of society.”
Two days earlier, University of Miami President Donna Shalala released a statement that UM opposes academic boycotts “of any kind.”
“We join with other higher education institutions in rejecting the actions of the American Studies Association as misguided, inappropriate, and hostile to the larger purposes of learning, academic freedom, and intellectual exchange— which are fundamental missions of American higher education,” she wrote.
Nationally, the leaders of such prominent schools as Harvard, Yale and Boston University have all publicly condemned the ASA’s boycott. Penn State University at Harrisburg and Brandeis University have gone so far as to withdraw their memberships from the ASA. Neither UM nor FIU appear to have institutional memberships with the group, so that action is not being contemplated at the two local schools.
ASA representatives could not immediately be reached for comment. The academic group has described its boycott as limited in nature: travel to Israel and typical academic exchanges would still be allowed, but the association will not attend conferences sponsored by Israeli universities, nor will it formally collaborate with schools in Israel.
In a lengthy explanation of the boycott posted on the ASA website, the association accuses Israeli universities of being “a party to state policies that violate human rights.”
The ASA also notes “US military and other support for Israel” as part of the reason that the association chose to get involved. More than 1,200 ASA members voted on the boycott proposal, with about two-thirds endorsing the idea.
The ASA website also includes written pledges of support from distinguished professors who support the boycott. Among them: Eric Cheyfitz of Cornell University.
“I am a Jew with a daughter and three grandchildren who are citizens of Israel,” Cheyfitz writes, describing himself as to opposed to “settler colonialism wherever it exists, including of course the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.”
Other professors, in supporting the boycott, compare the treatment of Palestinians to oppressive U.S. policies in the Jim Crow-era South, or the former apartheid regimes of South Africa.
Another academic group, the Association for Asian American Studies, has adopted a similar Israel boycott.
But in an op-ed recently published in the Los Angeles Times, Wesleyan University President Michael Roth argued that a boycott is the wrong approach. Roth wrote that he, as a Jew, finds many policies by the current Israeli government to be “abhorrent.” But Roth insisted boycotts don’t help these debates, and he noted that the ASA has never taken a similar stance against any other country.
“Not in North Korea, not in Russia or Zimbabwe or China — one has to start with Israel,” Roth wrote. “Really?”