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Asher '15: The baffling boycott

Here is what I understand about the recent resolutions passed by the American Studies Association (ASA) and Modern Language Association (MLA) regarding Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The ASA resolved to boycott all Israeli academic institutions, forbidding its members from collaborating with the country’s colleges and universities. This was widely lambasted by major American universities — Brown included — and a number of other public figures, including 134 members of Congress. The MLA, on the other hand, opted for a more moderate resolution censuring the Israeli government for denying passage to academics attempting to visit the West Bank. An earlier version of the resolution included a reference to the Gaza Strip as well but was removed before the final vote, 60-53.

I take more issue with the ASA’s approach, not only on the grounds that a boycott of academic institutions stifles intellectual freedom and progress — that is, assuming that there is a significant enough number of American studies students in Israel that the boycott would stifle much of anything — but also on the grounds that as a strategy for effecting change, a boycott is, well, stupid. Israeli institutions, such as Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, have received criticism from within the country’s borders and from the government for hiring too many left-leaning professors. Pressuring institutions that are already bastions of the Israeli left wing to move even farther to the left is, at best, misguided.

Even if more academic institutions had followed suit and supported the ASA’s boycott — a scenario that is highly unlikely given the number of important collaborations in a variety of fields between Israeli and American institutions — it is difficult to understand what its endgame was in passing the resolution. It is especially baffling when you consider that the ASA has not banned collaborations between Israeli scholars and ASA members, and Israeli scholars can still be invited to attend ASA events.

If the goal is to isolate Israel, the ASA will be pleased to learn that al-Qaida and Hezbollah have already done much of their work for them. A Jan. 19 New York Times article titled “Region Boiling, Israel Takes Up Castle Strategy” details the myriad threats Israel faces at its borders. Besides the ever-present threats of Hezbollah to the north and Iran to the east, Sunni cells affiliated with al-Qaida have played a major role in the war in Syria and recently took over the Iraqi city of Fallujah, threatening the stability of the young democracy’s government. These groups that “are pledging to bring jihad to Jerusalem can hardly be ignored, the Times reported.”  A boycott from an obscure academic guild will not prompt right-wing Israelis like Benjamin Netanyahu to work with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. What will, however, is the knowledge on both sides that two democratic states in a region in imminent danger of being consumed by religious extremism have a better chance of surviving together than they do at odds with each other.

I understand there is more than one type of isolation. However, academic isolation has no place in efforts to make peace between Israel and the PA. The ASA argues that there currently is no academic freedom in Israel-Palestine because of the oppression faced by Palestinian students, academics and institutions. Even if that is true, the solution is not to impose even more academic restrictions. The MLA, for its part, understood that. The ASA, in an effort to make a bold statement and garner headlines for the organization, either did not understand or chose to ignore that line of reasoning.

In addition to the considerable criticism its resolution has received, the ASA now faces a lawsuit to remove its tax-exempt status as an educational organization on the grounds that its boycott is “anti-educational.”  One has to imagine its members expected a better outcome from their efforts. Granted, there is still time for the academic boycott movement to gain more traction, and perhaps the ASA will be looked back on as a pioneer that spearheaded peace in the Middle East. I wouldn’t count on it, though.

 

 Adam Asher ’15 is entering his third semester as an opinions columnist and is concentrating in classics.



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