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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Focusing on treatment of Palestinian scholars in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the resolution 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.”

The practical ramifications of the boycott will be minor. Even backers of the move, such as former ASA President Matthew Jacobson, described it as “very tempered and much more symbolic” than the original resolution backers of the boycott brought to the association.

Jacobson, a professor of American studies and history at Yale University, said that although the decision does not change much in practice, it has a moral importance. “There is a real sympathy with the notion that this is something the organization should speak out on,” he said.

But others viewed the ASA vote as less about the ASA than about what it might mean for the future of the BDS movement in America, where it has, up to now, gained little traction.

“This experience should serve as a wake-up call regarding the organization of those advocating for academic boycotts and the need of those of us who oppose such actions — on any grounds — to organize to preserve academic freedom for all,” said Sharon Musher, an associate professor of history at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey and one of the organizers of the ASA anti-boycott drive.

The MLA conference may be a harbinger of things to come. It will for the first time include a panel discussion on the issue of boycotting Israel. The expected panelists include Israeli Palestinian Omar Barghouti, a graduate student at Tel Aviv University and one of the leaders of the Palestinian campaign for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

The MLA panel will not debate any specific resolution calling for a boycott, but sources involved in the discussion said such a resolution could be added to the conference’s agenda at the last minute. Meanwhile, the Israel-related resolution that the association will vote on calls on the U.S. State Department to “contest Israel’s arbitrary denial” of some requests by American scholars to attend academic events in the West Bank and Gaza.

Another group potentially considering anti-Israel measures is the 62,000-member American Library Association, where several members have called for action against Israel.

Activists have also said that the leadership of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, which has 749 members, is also considering a resolution supporting academic boycott on Israel.


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