Foreign Policy Blogs

ASA Boycott of Israel Adds to U.S.-Israel Tensions



On Monday, December 16, the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions.  Members of the ASA voted by a ratio of more than two to one to endorse the boycott in online balloting that concluded Sunday night, the group said.

The election was a response to the ASA National Council’s announcement on December 4 that it supported the boycott, and in an unprecedented move to ensure a democratic process, asked its members for their approval as well. The council called the boycott an “ethical stance” and “symbolic action.” “It represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and the aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians,” the ASA said in an official statement. The statement cited “Israel’s violations of international law and UN resolutions, the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students, the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights” and other factors responsible for such a decision. Curtis Marez, ASA president, said that while there are other nations in the Middle East region that have worse human rights violations, “one has to start somewhere.”

In response to the boycott, Israeli academic officials from the Israel Academic Association said “we oppose all types of academic boycotts, and we ask our colleagues members of academic staff at institutions around the world to act against these boycotts.” Penn State Harrisburg was the first university to announce a break with the ASA on Tuesday, with Brandeis following suit on Wednesday. Penn State’s Dr. Simon Bronner, chairman of the American Studies department, said that “the withdrawal of institutional membership by our program and others allows us to be independent of the political and ideological resolutions issued by the ASA and concentrate on building American Studies scholarship with our faculty, students, and staff.”

What makes the ASA boycott so problematic is in its use of language. As Peter Beinart points out, the ASA resolution denounces “the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the systematic discrimination against Palestinians” while making no distinction whatsoever between Israeli control of the West Bank and Israel proper. Unfortunately, the lack of distinction implies that the ASA is against the state of Israel itself, and not just its discriminatory actions.

Understanding the importance of making such a distinction, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told a group of South African reporters while in South Africa for the memorial service of Nelson Mandela “we do not support the boycott of Israel.” Rather, “we ask everyone to boycott the products of the settlements. Because the settlements are in our territories. It is illegal. But we do not ask anyone to boycott Israel itself,” he reiterated, “we have relations with Israel, we have mutual recognition of Israel.”

Also troubling is that while the U.S. and Israel have their differences regarding towards handling the Iran issue and the peace process, those battles were limited to the political sphere. The effect of the boycott has and will undoubtedly continue to fuel the rapidly evolving conversation among American Jews and non-Jews about what being an Israel supporter really means. One can only hope that the outcome will encourage positive and open debate, and not merely a platform for public hatred.



Samantha Quint

My name is Samantha, I’m 25, and I made Aliyah in June 2013. I got my BA degree from George Washington University where I studied Jewish Studies and Middle East Studies. During my Junior year, I spent the traditional semester abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Since then Israel kept pulling me back, first with a summer professional course on peacemaking in Jerusalem and the West Bank and then a move to Tel Aviv to get my MA in Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University. I was born and raised in the suburbs of Boston. I have a unyielding passion for traveling, Boston sports teams, and making the people around me laugh.