Why I Support the ASA Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions


The recent decision of the American Studies Association (ASA) to endorse the academic boycott of Israel has engendered increasingly intense press coverage and social media conversation over the past several days. I’ve already engaged in more than a few of them via Facebook –  but now I’m ready now to weigh in and offer some thoughts in a more systematic fashion.

First, some background:

The ASA is according to its website, “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.” According to a released statement, the ASA has been discussing and debating whether or not to endorse an academic boycott since 2006. On December 4, the ASA National Council announced its support of the academic boycott. Then this past Monday, the ASA membership endorsed the boycott resolution by a two to one margin. 1252 voters participated in the election – the largest number of participants in the organization’s history.

Because there is so much misinformation regarding the precise nature of the boycott, I think it’s important to quote the ASA statement at length:

The Council voted for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions as an ethical stance, a form of material and symbolic action. It 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.

We believe that the ASA’s endorsement of a boycott is warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and the support of such a resolution by many members of the ASA.

Our resolution understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations 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, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.

The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication. The Council also recognizes that individual members will act according to their convictions on these complex matters.

For all of the concern over the resolution’s attack on academic freedom, it is important to note, as the ASA statement does, that Israel actively curtails and denies the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students on a regular basis. Palestinian universities have been bombed, schools have been closed, scholars and students have been deported and even killed. Palestinian scholars and students have their mobility and careers restricted by a system that limits freedoms through an oppressive bureaucracy. Many Palestinian scholars cannot travel easily, if at all, for conferences or research because they are forbidden from flying out of Israel.

Though many are excoriating the Association’s decision as a denial of Israeli academic freedom, their resolution does not endorse a blanket boycott of individual academics and institutions – as was the case with the academic boycott of South Africa, for instance. The ASA endorsement responds to the call from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which explicitly targets institutions, not individuals.  It does not endorse limiting the academic freedom of individual Israeli scholars to participate in conferences, lectures, research projects, publications etc.

Why is the ASA refusing to collaborate with Israeli academic institutions? Because it knows that every major Israeli university is a government institution that is intimately tied to the Israeli military, furnishing it with scientific, geographic, demographic and other forms of research that directly supports Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians.

This 2009 report by the Alternative Information Center cites a myriad of such collaborations. For example, Haifa University and Hebrew University have special programs for military intelligence and training for the Shin Bet (the Israeli security service) and members of the military and Shin Bet have served on administrative boards of Israeli universities. The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology has strong ties to Israeli military and arms manufacturers such as Elbit Systems.  And as of the date of the report, Tel Aviv University had conducted 55 research projects with the Israeli army.

Many criticize the ASA boycott endorsement by asking why, of all the odious regimes in the world, are they singling out and targeting Israel? This is probably the most commonly heard refrain against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement in general, and I’ve addressed it numerous times in previous posts.

I’ll repeat it again: this accusation is abject misdirection. The academic boycott is part of a larger call for BDS that was sent out in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions and movements – the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society – to support their resistance against Israeli oppression through classic, time honored methods of civil disobedience.  The ASA did not initiate this boycott – it made a principled, good faith decision to respond to the Palestinian call for support. Thus the real question before us when addressing BDS is not “what about all of these other countries?” but rather “will we choose to respond to this call?” To miss this point is to utterly misunderstand the very concept of solidarity.

One of the most widely read criticisms of the ASA boycott endorsement came from Open Zion’s Peter Beinart, who wrote that the “real problem” with the boycott was the problem with BDS as a whole:

BDS proponents note that the movement takes no position on whether there should be one state or two between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But it clearly opposes the existence of a Jewish state within any borders.  The BDS movement’s call for “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties” denies Israel’s right to set its own immigration policy. So does the movement’s call for “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality”, which presumably denies Israel’s right to maintain the preferential immigration policy that makes it a refuge for Jews. Indeed, because the BDS movement’s statement of principles makes no reference to Jewish rights and Jewish connection to the land, it’s entirely possible to read it as giving Palestinians’ rights to national symbols and a preferential immigration policy while denying the same to Jews.

This is the fundamental problem: Not that the ASA is practicing double standards and not even that it’s boycotting academics, but that it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.

This is classic Beinart: while he writes in the reasonable tones of a liberal Zionist, when you actually deconstruct his analysis, it’s really quite draconian. Beinart condemns the majority of Palestinian civil society for asking that their right of return be respected – a right that is enshrined in international law. Then he goes on to criticize Palestinians for not respecting Israel’s “right” to create preferential immigration policies that keep them from their own ancestral homes (a right that is enshrined nowhere in particular.)

As ever, Beinart seems galled that the BDS movement is not J St. No, the BDS National Committee does not respect preferential treatment for Jews. No, it is not actively lobbying for a two-state solution. While Beinart remains imprisoned in the vagaries of national rights, the BDS call is grounded in the values of universal human rights.

From the BDS National Committee Website:

The campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is shaped by a rights-based approach and highlights the three broad sections of the Palestinian people: the refugees, those under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Palestinians in Israel. The call urges various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law by:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

This call takes no stand on the final political parameters of the conflict, nor should it. As a rights based call, it recognizes that the first order of business is to pressure Israel to end its violations of human rights and to adhere to international law. If at the end of the day, a two-state solution is made impossible, it will not be because of the Palestinian people’s desire for their legal right of return to be respected and recognized – rather it will be due to Israel’s ongoing colonization and Judaization of the Occupied Territories.

I’ve heard many say that this one little resolution by one American academic organization is really no big deal and doesn’t really amount to much at the end of the day. But if this was truly the case, why are so many people talking about it so often and so fervently?  Yes, the ASA is but one humble scholarly institution. But by endorsing this boycott, it is clearly becoming part of a movement – and one that is gaining in strength. Just last April, the Association for Asian American Studies broke the ice to be the first American academic institution to endorse the boycott. And immediately on the heels of the ASA, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association has now signed on as well.

I realize that it is painful for many to see Israel isolated in such a fashion. But in the end, as long as the US government remains unwilling to use its leverage to end its oppressive behavior, this movement will only gain in strength and influence. For those who doubt its effectiveness, we have only to look at the way the international BDS campaign against apartheid South Africa eventually reached a tipping point until the Pretoria regime had no choice but to dismantle apartheid.

As the world mourns Mandela’s death, we would do well remind ourselves of the ways popular movements can help bring institutional systems of oppression to an end.

21 thoughts on “Why I Support the ASA Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

  1. Brian Walt

    What a clearly argued, rational and convincing argument in favor of this important resolution. I am so grateful for your courage and clarity. It is painful for Jews to see Israel so marginalized. . For some Jews it seems that our pain and sense of loss at the immoral and disastrous path that Israel has chosen (and that has led to it’s isolation) can be translated into opposition to the legitimate grassroots struggle of the Palestinian people for justice.

  2. Ilene Carson

    I am having some trouble with feeling totally comfortable with this action only as afr as how this would impact Israeli and other Scholars who support the peace process and care very much for Human Riaghts. But Israel is stopping or making it very difficult for Palestinian students and scholars to have the same opportunity to achieve their academic goals. So until I srael can give the Palestinian students and scholars the same rights that they give to Jewish Students I have to support this boycott.

  3. Seth Appel

    I am very uncomfortable with your perspective, and the boycott in general, because it assumes a degree of moral clarity in a situation that is actually very complicated. The Occupation endures first and foremost as a result of Israel’s fear of the most likely alternative; the rise of a hostile state along its border bent on continual terrorism and warfare against Israel.

    I am also mystified by your rebuttal to the accusation that the boycott is an obvious example of holding Israel to a higher moral standard above and beyond those for other countries in violation of human rights.

    Are you saying you are not boycotting the numerous other countries in the world violation of human rights because no one asked you to do so? So if a bunch of Falun Dafa dissidents asked you to boycott China you would do so? If LGBT activists asked you to boycott Saudia Arabia you would? Basque separatists in Spain? Coptic Christians in Egypt? Kurds in Turkey?

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      If, as you say, “the Occupation endures first and foremost because of Israel’s fear of a hostile state bent on its border,” it does not logically follow that Israel would settle this territory with utter impunity, necessitating a stronger and more extensive military settlement regime in order to keep its settlers safe. I agree that the politics of this situation are complex. But if you would go to the West Bank and see this occupation up close, you would see that at hear it is really quite simple. At the end of the day, oppression is oppression.

      My answer to your question in your final paragraph is: absolutely. If the overwhelming majority of the civil society of any of these countries put out a principled call to support their cause through the divestment from corporations that profit from their oppression, boycott of academic and cultural institutions and government sanctions – I would say such a call would be eminently worthy of our consideration.

      1. Youssef Tamer

        I appreciate your objectivity and sense of commitment to your opinions despite some subjective intimidations that are unfortunately manipulating many…

      2. Seth Appel

        I appreciate your consistency in your willingness to show solidarity with all who need it. It is a peculiar that the key determining variable on who you are supporting is whether or not they are organized enough to reach out to you to request help.

        I have seen the occupation up very close. I spent a few months across several years as a soldier doing my reserve duty there. Yes, it’s terrible. And it is implemented with a great deal of needless stupidity and cruelty.

        For me it is obvious that if Israel withdraws from the territories tomorrow it will produce much more violence for the region. There will be more violence within the Palestinian community, and there will be more violence directed against Israeli citizens. Yes, Israel would be adhering to a higher moral plane of what’s ‘right and wrong’ but it would entail embracing a day-to-day reality with even more violence.

        While I appreciate your core value system where we disagree is your belief that the key problem in the Middle East is the occupation. There are actually bigger problems of which the occupation is merely a symptom. Namely: The entire region exists in a hyper tribal / religious mindset that leaves little room for western values.

      3. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author

        Seth, I think you and I also differ on the concept of solidarity. I don’t think it is peculiar at all to respond to calls for support by those struggling against oppression. I think it patronizing in the extreme – a belies a certain kind of colonial attitude – to assume that people of power and privilege should initiate campaigns on behalf of the oppressed. Those who stand in solidarity with the oppressed understand that our job is to support them and to let them be the architects of their own liberation.

        And yes, I certainly don’t agree with you that the key problem in the Middle East is the “hyper-tribal/religious mindset that leaves little room for western values.”

  4. Steve Hinman

    It’s a little hard to take the American Studies Association seriously when their members have benefited as the recipients of the roughly $1 trillion in outstanding student debt (that’s not a typo, folks). Forcing 18 – 22 year-olds into significant debt so they can get a college degree is oppressive, especially when degrees in such fields as American Studies often lead to lower paying jobs relative to other degrees. When was the last time you heard of someone who paid their full tuition by working through school? That is because Big Education has marked up the cost so much in recent decades. The debt cannot even be discharged in bankruptcy. Does anyone really believe it is necessary to run up an average $30K in tuition charges per year for a private university in order to teach undergraduate classes? The ASA should think twice before throwing stones from their own oppressive glass house.

  5. Mark Zivin (@Beyondzs)

    I love you man!

    But your statement that “This call takes no stand on the final political parameters of the conflict, nor should it” is just plan incorrect on the surface.

    Note that directly before that statement, point #3 of the BDS National Committee calls for the Palestinian right of return. This is clearly one of the four major POLITICAL parameters (the others being: borders, security, and Jerusalem) that need to be addressed in any peace agreement.

    While I have the utmost admiration for your moral and values based positions, they cannot be separated from the very real political issues that are going to require true courage, perseverance and guts from our leaders. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are doing their utmost, but unfortunately, those traits are tough to find in Israel and the Muslim world.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author

      Love you too, Mark, but I must respectfully stand by my statement. If you had read point #3 of the BDS call carefully, you would see that it calls for the Palestinian right of return (a right enshrined in international law) to be “respecting, protected and promoted.” It does not make any claims about how this right might eventually be implemented. These kinds of final political parameters will have to be addressed, as you correctly note, through a negotiated peace agreement.

  6. seniorpunk

    Thank you for a very clear-cut response to those currently attacking the ASA. As a (now retired) academic, I find it ironic that the Israel Lobby has suddenly become so concerned about academic freedom. Are these really the same folks who have done everything possible to curtail the academic freedom of scholars who questioned the behavior of the Israeli government?

    1. Vicky

      Palestinian academic freedom also doesn’t rank too highly with them. Berlanty Azzam, a young Bethlehem University student originally from Gaza, was deported back to Gaza blindfolded and in handcuffs after being stopped at a flying checkpoint. She had a permit to be where she was, for what that’s worth: the army can revoke them any time they like. She was in the final year of her degree. She had gone to Bethlehem because, as a Catholic herself, she wanted to study in a Catholic university. Amnesty International was lobbying for her right to complete her course, along with several other prominent organisations, but in the end she had to finish her degree via e-correspondence because the army/government couldn’t permit this young woman to be in Bethlehem. Her case obviously isn’t unique. I lose count of the number of desperate students in both Gaza and the West Bank who have won scholarships to study at prestigious institutions abroad and are being blocked by leaving by the Israeli authorities, who won’t issue them with the magical slip of paper they need. This was the same regime that in 1967 banned Palestinian students and faculty in foreign universities from returning to their homes – some died in exile, others (like Mourid Barghouti, who wrote about his experiences in the memoir ‘I Saw Ramallah’) got back after a few decades…for a visit. After this, Palestinians realised that they needed to invest more in their own universities, as travel/return to Cairo or Beirut was no longer a safe and easy matter. Ironically, I have heard occupation supporters pointing to the newly established universities as proof that occupation has actually been good for the benighted backward natives, who didn’t have nearly so many higher education institutions before the benevolent occupation.

      And that would be the same benevolent occupation regime that banned education during the First Intifada, shutting down all Palestinian universities, schools, and even most kindergartens. There were clandestine schools all over the Territories, and soldiers were stopping people who looked like they might be student-age to search for textbooks. In Bethlehem, we have people who remember sneaking to class in a neighbour’s apartment by wriggling over the rooftops, because there was a curfew on the streets. One of the women who comes to our centre, a music teacher, composed a nationalist song that she taught to her students. The army banned the song.

      The people who are so outraged by the ASA’s supposed violation of academic freedom don’t seem to have anything to say about any of this – except, of course, “Palestinians should be grateful they’re not in Syria, Israel is so much better, why don’t they stop whining about trivial things like getting an education and bow down and lick the army’s boots in thanksgiving for not being massacred with barrel bombs?” It seems that academic freedom only matters if you’re a rich institution that’s pickled in occupation profiteering, not if you’re a blindfolded and handcuffed undergraduate student from Bethlehem University whose only crime is trying to get a degree.

      1. seniorpunk

        Thank you for your vivid account of one of the sad realities of the occupation. Yes, this certainly shows the utter hypocrisy of those who decry the ASA action as a violation of academic freedom. Were Israeli students blocked from completing degrees and even attending school, we would be hearing about it endlessly in sources such as the NYT.

  7. Salomon Benzimra

    In the preamble to the ASA Resolution – which Rabbi Rosen endorses – we read about the “Israeli occupation of Palestine.” I submit it would be far more accurate, historically and legally, to talk about the “Arab occupation of Judea.”
    If Rabbi Rosen disagrees with the above, I will be glad to hear his arguments.

  8. Sylvia

    The order to boycott Israel’s academia as a whole couldn’t possibly have come from the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. The Palestinian Authority are opposed to boycotting Israel since their economies are intertwined. Abbas said so in South Africa and in Morocco.

    On the other hand, Hamas has a clear interest in sinking the PA’s economy.

    1. Vicky

      Firstly, no Palestinian political faction issued the BDS call. The text was drafted in 2005 by a slew of different civil society organisations in Palestine, ranging from universities to theatres to church groups, and the original statement with the original signatories can be read here: http://www.bdsmovement.net/call

      Secondly, living conditions in the West Bank are already tough for average Palestinian, with high unemployment and poverty, and the economic and cultural boycott of settlements isn’t going to make much practical difference to their day-to-day life. The view that BDS must be opposed because it will prevent Palestinians from gathering the crumbs that fall from the settlement tables is not an argument against BDS. The people who use it are essentially saying, “The captives living in this captive economy will be punished if you dare to touch us, the profiteers”, and all this does is show everyone how sick the logic of occupation actually is.

      Finally, BDS isn’t going to sink anyone’s economy, any more than it did in the South African case. The sale of settlement agricultural produce to Western Europe may have plummeted dramatically in the past two years (down by about 50%) and Ahava may have been forced out of its flagship store in London, but the main damage isn’t to the pocket – it’s to the reputation. In the years that the protesters were outside the Ahava store, they informed thousands of passers-by about what is happening in the Jordan Valley – everything from the home demolitions to the exploitation of farm workers. That’s what matters, that more and more people know about these things and thanks to BDS the awareness is creeping up all the time. This is how it happened in South Africa. The apartheid regime didn’t totter over economic issues. The real killer blow was the fact that the nation became a pariah state and no one would play them at cricket.


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