With its decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions, the American Studies Association has opened itself up to widespread criticism. In this Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012 photo, Israeli Dana Pulzer, 36, poses for a portrait at the library of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

The American Studies Association (ASA) recently passed a resolution boycotting Israeli universities. The rationale provided for the decision is straightforward: Israeli universities are institutions of a repressive state and deserve to suffer for its policies. Not surprisingly, the boycott generated a heated debate in the United States.

Among those who criticized it, two arguments emerged: The first is that the resolution violates the academic freedom of Israeli scholars. The second is that the ASA suffers from pathological selectivity: Iran executes homosexuals; Saudi Arabia persecutes women; Egypt’s generals squelch its fledgling democracy. How is it that Israel remains the prime target for the ASA’s wrath?  TWEET

Both of these arguments fail. If there is something amiss about the ASA’s decision, and I think there is, it is for other reasons. The first claim falters because it concedes that Israeli universities may well have done something wrong. The second falls short because it forgets that if Israeli universities have done something wrong, it does not quite matter what others are doing.

The ASA asserts that “Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to…policies that violate human rights.” This is vague. Does that mean Israeli universities are guilty by association, because they are funded by a state that engages in unjust policies? Following this rationale, Israeli hospitals, elementary schools and the state’s power company are also legitimate targets for boycotts, and American doctors, teachers and electric grid workers should also sever all ties with their professional counterparts in the Jewish State. But such a conclusion is worse than absurd; it recalls the views of those who justify violence against Israeli civilians by claiming that there are no innocents in an occupying state. Surely, this is not what ASA members had in mind.

The ASA asserts that ‘Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to…policies that violate human rights.’ This is vague. Does that mean Israeli universities are guilty by association, because they are funded by a state that engages in unjust policies?

What they must have meant, rather, is that Israeli universities are doing something wrong; that they are actively propping up the occupation of Palestine. But Israeli universities cannot be accused of this. In fact they are the staunchest holdouts of Israeli liberalism. Most of the internal criticism of the Jewish State’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza originates in its universities. Israeli scholars overwhelmingly use tenure and other academic protections to rail against the exact injustices that the ASA is concerned with. And the ASA’s counter argument, that the resolution is not aimed at particular scholars but rather at the universities that employ them, is nonsense. The two are inseparable. The activities of Israeli academics as well as the protections they enjoy, everything that allows them to protest Israel’s behavior — from sabbaticals to tenure — is paid for and tolerated by Israeli universities.

Now, it is certainly true that there are research institutes in Israeli universities that focus on military strategy. These bodies provide outlets for officers from the Israel Defense Forces to consider questions of local and regional strategy. But does this make such institutes and their host universities supporters of the occupation? One must examine the actual views of the researchers and officers involved. One must look at the studies and reports actually produced. And when one does, it is far from clear that these bodies are hothouses in which the seeds of oppression sprout. And even if they were, when one considers the totality of activities on Israel’s campuses, the balance sheet of the state’s universities remains overwhelmingly impressive.

We are left with a dire conclusion: The ASA’s decision singles out those who, far from being implicated in the wrongs of occupation, actively work against them. If the ASA singled them out without bothering to check for culpability, it is merely careless and incompetent. If the ASA purposefully targeted the innocent in order to sway public policy, it is odious. One assumes that the latter is not true. But the former does not paint a flattering portrait either.


The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Nick Sophinos

    Anti-semitic Studies Association

  • Shein Ariely

    Look at their mirror and ask yourself who they really are!!

    They are silent and not boycotting countries or organizations that:


    1: Lebanon, where there is a law that bans Palestinians from working in over 50 professions.

    2:The press freedoms index :
    In 2002 Turkey was 99th out of 139 countries>
    By 2013 Turkey had fallen to 154th place out of 179 countries.

    3: Palestinians are using ambulances and international press symbol for terror activities.

    4:* “”The struggle will not stop until the Zionist entity is eliminated””.(From the PLO Congress 2009)

    *Hamas charter
    “”Peace and quiet for Christians and Jews is possible only under
    Islam wings””
    “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews
    (killing the Jews)””

    5: Saud Arabia:
    Deny: Women equality–human rights–religious freedom—democracy and fund infidel hate preaching and teaching worldwide

    6: Iran:
    Gays are executed- Teachers of Bahai religion are hanged up- A husband can kill his adulterous wife without punishment while a woman is punishable by death.

    Punishing by death the ones sailing land to Jew

    However boycott the defending Israel

    • rc2132

      These ASA people would have all had nice jobs in 1936 Germany. They say It could never happen again. Don’t believe it. With people like this holding influential jobs in the American education system, anything is possible.

  • Achmad Osman

    I remember in 1986 flying to London to attend a series of lectures. Before the the lectures got under-way, I was informed that one of the lecturers refused to present as I was a South African. Given the impact on the other participants, I agreed to leave. I remember the hurt at the time as I was against apartheid yet I was associated with that hated policy.
    Many Israelis do not agree with many of the policies that the outside world finds offensive. Yet it does not mean that the boycott sentiment is wrong, it merely means that broad-brush boycotts can hurt the innocent too.

    Nick, applying the “Anti-Semitic” term to any action that is not pro-Israel diminishes the argument. Sometimes a sentiment is against a policy and not people.

  • samuelpepys

    Two important facts, missing or unexplained in this op-ed, should be clarified: 1) the ASA action was a response to an international call on academic organizations, not a self-initiated action. Three American academic organizations have responded positively to the call, so far, including the ASA. 2) The action does not “punish” Israeli public, state-run universities (or their faculties): the object of the BDS movement, which has many other irons in the fire, is the Israeli state’s current policies towards the occupied territories and the Palestinians. Mr. Osman’s personal story is no fun to imagine, but as he points out, it’s not relevant. Indeed many Israeli academics favor the BDS movement. It’s a form of pressure though isolation, like the US grape boycott of the 70s. Definitely neither grapes nor grape-pickers were guilty of anything! But while grapes had no views, the grape-pickers supported the boycott, because it was aimed at ending bad policies. Which it did.