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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nathanguttman
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.