Academic Backers of Boycott Israel Movement Take Aim at Bigger Targets

Modern Language Association Next After ASA Win

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By Nathan Guttman

Published December 18, 2013, issue of December 27, 2013.
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Fresh off their recent success, supporters of an academic boycott against Israel are hoping to parlay their first high-profile American victory into momentum toward wider support for the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction the Jewish state.

A December 16 vote by the American Studies Association approving a boycott resolution in protest of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians has drawn dismissive responses from many in the pro-Israel community. Among other things, pro-Israel advocates emphasized the small size of the ASA, which has about 5,000 members.

But partisans on both sides of the battle lines are now gearing up for the annual conference of the 30,000-member Modern Language Association, which meets in Chicago for its annual conference, starting January 9. Both sides agree the stakes then will be much higher.

“The debate at ASA breached a taboo that existed about how people discuss Israel and Palestine,” said David Lloyd, an English professor at the University of California, Riverside and one of the scholars who will speak in favor of an academic boycott at the upcoming MLA meeting. “ASA has paved the way for MLA and other associations.”

Though no boycott resolution is currently on the group’s agenda, the conference will vote on a resolution critical of Israel’s policies regarding freedom of access to Palestinian scholars in the occupied West Bank.

Pro-Israel advocates remain confident about their prospects in such larger settings. “The broad mainstream of academics oppose boycotts,” 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.

But the ASA’s approval of a boycott resolution against Israeli academic institutions — albeit much watered down from the language of the proposal originally presented to it — is driving pro-Israel activists to fine-tune their approach to battling BDS. After gaining support from large academic groups in opposing academic boycott moves, advocates for Israel are now starting to pay special attention to smaller groups whose actions may carry more symbolic importance than practical impact.

The ASA’s vote to adopt a boycott resolution passed with a 66% majority of the 1,252 members who took part in the online referendum. Supporters of the move highlighted the impressive margin of the vote. But those opposed to the move argued that the boycott resolution won affirmative backing from only 16.5% of the group’s total 5,000 members.

The resolution calls on its members only to refuse 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 resolution explicitly exempts “individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange” — a significant dialing-down of the proposal’s original language.


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