ASA boycott unwise, hypocriticalJust before Winter Break, the American Studies Association issued a resolution to boycott Israeli universities in an act of protest against Israeli occupation of Palestine. Since the declaration, the ASA, which is a conglomerate of American universities, academic institutions, and individuals unified by an interest in promoting the study of American history and culture, has earned a jolt of backlash for its misguided tactics. Over twenty member universities, including Duke, have issued or cosigned statements condemning the ASA’s boycott on a multitude of grounds. Additionally, four universities immediately withdrew their memberships from the ASA over the resolution.
The poor reasoning that informed the ASA’s boycott goes well beyond the divisive situation between Israel and Palestine. As many commentators have noted in recent weeks, the ASA’s move is in and ofitself hypocritical, not to mention directed at parties with little immediate affiliation to the Israeli government—the group responsible for occupying Palestine and for compromising the available education opportunities.
First, the obvious contradiction is that the ASA has undermined the tradition that permits its very existence—academic freedom. The boycott of Israeli universities disregards the pursuit of intellectual freedom that is necessary to any academic enterprise. Certainly, the fact that Palestinian universities are not afforded the basic opportunity to engage in academic inquiry is a significant problem. But the ASA’s remonstration of Israeli academia opposes its mission statement and ignores the dignity of the students and faculty at the targeted schools.
The boycott is also completely misdirected. Israeli universities constitute civil society, and—by being part of a free, democratic state—they largely promote the general causes of the ASA. While some Israeli universities may be “complicit in the multi-tiered system of oppression that has denied Palestinians their basic rights” on an institutional level, each is composed of individuals, many of whom may even share the sentiments of the ASA with respect to Palestine. Thus, broadly targeting universities, instead of the Israeli government, substantively overlooks the democratic impact that scholars can have on the state’s policies toward Palestine, rendering the protest all the more a travesty.
Ultimately, the boycott amounts to a poorly executed, reckless political move. Considering the sensitivity of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, diplomacy is paramount, which makes Duke’s response all the more noteworthy. President Brodhead, along with ten other members of the American Association of Universities (AAU), cosigned a letter condemning the protest on the basis that it violates the academic freedom of Israeli scholars, as well as others who may feel pressured to comply with the protest. “[Academic freedom] is a principle that should not be abridged by political considerations,” the letter notes.
Unlike the boycott, the AAU’s response productively engages the issue at hand. Realizing that, on the whole, the American Studies Association promotes the advancement of knowledge, the AAU limits its criticisms to the Association’s poor tactics without provoking the controversial underlying issue or attacking the Association at large. Not only does this effectively censure the ASA boycott, but it also addresses the oppression of academic freedom in Palestine. Perhaps the ASA can learn something from the discretion of its member institutions.