Israel's Defenders Glum as American Studies Association Votes on Boycott Resolution

Vote Would Give BDS Movement Victory, But Have Little Practical Impact

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By Nathan Guttman

Published December 13, 2013.
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Opponents of an Israel boycott proposal being voted on by the Association for American Studies were glum about their chances of defeating the resolution, meant to register the group’s protest against Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

The on-line vote, now taking place, is open to all members of the 5,000-member group and closes Sunday.

If the resolution backing an academic boycott against Israel is approved, as many expect, the outcome would be claimed as an important victory by advocates of the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israeli institutions, often known by the shorthand BDS.

The question will then be whether the vote represents an outlier amid broader rejection of the movement by larger academic associations in America — or the beginning of a trend.

“We are confident that this resolution will be remembered as among the first of many future similar decisions by U.S. academic entities to come,” stated a letter to the ASA signed by nearly 5,000 pro-boycott activists.

The Israel academic boycott movement has gained traction in Europe but has yet to register much success in the United States. In April the Association for American Asian Studies — like the ASA, one of the smaller such academic groups — approved a similar resolution in protest of Israeli policies, though few media outlets took note at the time.

Pro-Israel activists, anticipating the ASA vote, sought to put the decision in the broader context of the battle against BDS. While acknowledging that it would be celebrated as a major victory for detractors of Israel, they argued that the wall of resistance to the academic boycott has not been breached.

“Passage will have limited symbolic significance,” said Geri Palast, managing director of the Israel Action Network, a joint project of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs that coordinates communal anti-BDS activity. “However, it does not reflect the public view or the position taken by large academic organizations.”

The resolution being voted on dials back significantly on the language in the original proposal brought to the ASA by boycott advocates. The resolution calls only for refusing to “enter formal collaboration with Israeli academic institutions or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government.” The boycott resolution explicitly exempts “individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange.”

The association’s National Council, a 20-member body that decides on most ASA policies, endorsed the resolution on December 4 after softening the original language. But in an acknowledgement of the sensitivity of this issue, the council decided in this case to put the matter to a vote of the entire membership.

The resolution, which focuses on treatment of Palestinian scholars in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, states that boycotting Israel “represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.”

Matthew Jacobson a past ASA president and current member of the group’s National Council, judged the decision “very tempered and much more symbolic” than the original resolution. Jacobson, a professor of American studies and history at Yale University, said the language adopted will have little practical impact on academic ties with Israel, but was morally important to adopt.

“There is a real sympathy with the notion that this is something the organization should speak out on,” he said. He added that America’s enabling of the Israeli occupation makes the issue especially relevant for scholars dealing with American history and society.


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