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Israel boycott sparks campus debate

Community, university leaders split over boycott of Israeli higher education institutions

The American Studies Association’s recent vote to boycott Israeli higher education institutions in protest of the country’s treatment of Palestinians has ignited debate across college campuses nationwide in recent months.  At Brown, many professors, students and administrators said they believe the boycott inhibits academic freedom, but others expressed support for the ASA’s decision.


Academic freedom

In a statement released Dec. 24, President Christina Paxson joined over 80 presidents of U.S. colleges and three prominent scholarly organizations in the United States — the American Association of University Professors, the American Council on Education and the Association of American Universities — in opposition to the boycott, the New York Times reported.

In her statement, Paxson wrote that the boycott “would be antithetical to open scholarly exchange and would inhibit the advancement of knowledge and discovery.”

The organization’s vote aligns the ASA with the movement known as B.D.S. (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions), initiated by elements of Palestinian civil society in 2005 to call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

“I feel that the boycott undermines a lot of things that academic freedom should represent,” said Jason Ginsberg ’16, vice president of engagement for Brown Students for Israel. Secretary of State John Kerry is leading negotiations currently, and the boycott impedes these conversations, he added.

“If you are critical of Israel’s occupation and policies towards Palestinians, universities are where conversations about these issues are likely to occur,” said a professor of history who asked to remain anonymous to avoid appearing biased in class. “By preventing these conversations from happening, you are potentially turning against your allies,” the professor said, referencing the perception of some intellectuals in those universities as supportive of the Palestinian cause.

But others, like Associate Professor of History and American Studies Naoko Shibusawa, said they feel the boycott does not hinder academic freedom, because it targets “institutions and not individuals.” Shibusawa is a member of the American Studies Association and voted in favor of the boycott, though she continues to work with a colleague in Tel Aviv, Israel. The University’s membership expired June 30, but Shibusawa said she has maintained an individual membership and called the ASA an important space for professors and students to present their work, hold conferences and network.

Mika Zacks ’15, a member of Brown Students for Justice in Palestine and a former Herald opinions columnist, said she is “disappointed but not surprised” by Paxson’s statement.

“It’s interesting to see what kind of academic freedom is valued,” Zacks said.

“Academic freedom is denied for the Palestinians,” who are underrepresented in Israeli higher education institutions some of which, like the Hebrew University in Jerusalem,­ exist on occupied territory, she added.

Universities have a role in the occupation — they build technology and support the military, Zacks said. “There is intellectual exchange happening, but the (Israeli) institutions themselves still take a pro-Israel stance.”


‘A much wider problem’

Others argue that the boycott ignores wider problems in the Middle East.

“Israel commits human rights violations, but isolating Israel’s behavior is ignoring a much wider problem in that region,” said the history professor. “Israel’s neighbors also engage in these abuses.”

“By singling out Israel and ignoring neighboring countries with horrendous human rights records, the ASA’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions is an offensive attempt to hide bigotry behind the mask of progressivism,” Jennifer Sieber ’14 wrote in an email to The Herald.

But Zacks called the ASA boycott a “courageous step” and another victory for B.D.S.


Rising tensions

The ASA boycott has created some tension among faculty members, students and ASA members.

Despite receiving support from over 60 percent of ASA members present at the vote, some of the organization’s members disagree with the boycott. “There is a generational divide,” Shibusawa said, adding that many older scholars are opposed to the boycott.

Prior to the ASA’s vote, the Association for Asian American Studies also voted to boycott Israeli higher education institutions, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association plans to follow suit at its annual conference in May, according to the New York Times.

Zacks said some students within the Jewish community feel conflicted. They desire to be part of a Jewish community but feel their personal support of the Palestinian cause can sometimes isolate them from some Jewish groups — particularly Hillel, she added.

“What’s painful is I have friends on the other side,” Shibusawa said, adding that she knows people who have lost friends over this issue, she added.

In her statement, Paxson wrote that “faculty, students and staff are free to express their own ideas and opinions on any issue.”

But Shibusawa said professors nationwide are afraid to speak their minds about the boycott, because it may jeopardize their chances of getting tenure or lead to accusations of being anti-Semitic.

“I’m a little scared, and I’m a tenured professor,” Shibusawa said. “We shouldn’t feel scared.”


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