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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In the new terrain pro-Israel advocates face in their battle against boycott resolutions, backing, of a sort, may be available from an unexpected corner: the Palestinian Authority.

Speaking to reporters in South Africa at the recent funeral for Nelson Mandela, P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas stated that Palestinians “do not ask anyone to boycott Israel itself.” As a matter of longstanding policy, the P.A.’s leadership does support targeted boycotts against Israeli business and enterprises operating from exclusively Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. But when it comes to boycotting Israel as a whole, Abbas explained, “We have relations with Israel, we have mutual recognition of Israel.”

Asked if such a stand from the P.A.’s own leader had any impact on his push to advance an academic boycott of Israel, Lloyd said that Palestinian civil society activists are interested in a different field of operation than the P.A., and that, “everyone knows that the Palestinian Authority is a kind of corrupt puppet regime that has a lot to benefit from the occupation.”

The Israel Action Network, however, used Abbas’ quote in its press release, noting that, “Even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected boycotts of Israel as counterproductive.”

In dealing with what could amount to a wave of academic organizations considering anti-Israel resolutions, pro-Israel groups are stressing the broader impact such resolutions will have on the very academic freedom its members say they hold sacred. Most academics, the pro-Israel activists argue — even academics critical of some Israeli policies — strongly oppose academic boycotts as damaging to the kind of free intellectual exchange on which their work depends.

The most significant partner pro-Israel groups have in this respect has been the Association of American University Professors with its 48,000 members. AAUP has taken a strong stance against boycott moves and voiced its opposition to the ASA move in a letter to the organization.

But just how far should the mainstream Jewish groups, which until now have relied largely on such opposition from within the scholarly community itself, go in taking on academic associations?

“Ultimately, these battles should be won by the people inside these organizations,” said Kenneth Stern, director of anti-Semitism and extremism at the American Jewish Committee. “We can provide intellectual context, but outside groups cannot dictate the agenda.”

Asaf Romirowsky, acting executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, argued that mainstream Jewish groups should take a more active approach.

“Given the anti-Semitic nature of BDS, this should be the number one issue the pro-Israel community needs to address,” he said. Romirowsky called on activists to “raise their voices high, underscoring how these views do not represent true academic freedom by [their] demonizing [of] another country like Israel.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter @nathanguttman


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