In a controversial decision, the American Studies Association moved to boycott Israeli universities last December, accusing Israel of denying academic freedom to Palestinians, according to the Los Angeles Times. Instead, the act seems to be a contradiction; by its very nature, it threatens the academic freedom it claims to protect.
The ASA states that its boycott is aimed at Israeli “institutions that have abetted in the destruction of the Palestinian right of academic freedom for decades,” according to its press release. Carolyn Karcher, a member of the ASA, wrote in a L.A. Times column that the ASA resolution addresses that Israel’s “true assaults on academic freedom,” such as the allocation of less funding to the Palestinian schools within Israel, place limits on Palestinian university professors to travel abroad and prevent visits from international faculty. She also stated that Palestinian students “of all ages endure harassment at military checkpoints.”
Ironically, the ASA’s boycott threatens the very freedom of academic expression that it claims to protect. Molly Corbett, president of the American Council on Education, which covers 1,800 institutions, issued a statement saying that “such actions are misguided and greatly troubling, as they strike at the heart of academic freedom.”
More than 90 U.S. colleges have issued statements rejecting the ASA’s decision to boycott, according to the Jerusalem Post. Among those colleges are Columbia University, Dartmouth College and Harvard University. Of the more than 90 colleges, at least five have withdrawn from the ASA, according to the New York Times.
Critics of the boycott have also been quick to point out that Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, is the only country the ASA has singled out. What about Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey, all of whom have committed violations of academic freedom and human rights? It’s incredibly discriminatory to isolate Israel.
In opposing this boycott, discrete measures must be taken. Boycott the boycotters, as Alan Dershowitz and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg did seven years ago during a British academic boycott of Israel, in which they wrote an open letter stating that any boycott of Israel was a boycott on them. That goes to show that boycotting academic “institutions” doesn’t limit the attack on just the Israeli universities. Though ASA supporters maintain that Israeli academic institutions, not individual Israeli scholars, are the sole targets of the boycott, they seem to forget that institutions are collectives of individuals. Academic freedom is about a collective of people — when institutions are singled out, so are the individuals.
There is no easy solution to an issue that entangles two states that share a complex relationship. The academic boycott only complicates things, ignoring the difficult reality of life in today’s Middle East by reaching for a simple solution that is, by its own nature, counterproductive to any progress toward the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Valerie Yu is a sophomore majoring in biological sciences and English. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Fridays.