Boycott sparks debate on role of academic group

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Posted: Sunday, January 12, 2014 8:56 pm | Updated: 9:01 pm, Sun Jan 12, 2014.

A U.S. scholarly group has seen its share of negative attention since it called last month for a boycott of Israeli universities.

But Matthew Frye Jacobson, a member of the national council of the American Studies Association, described the hate mail, threats of lawsuits and public criticism the group has received as predictable.

Because of the divisive nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, “no one could wade into these waters and be surprised by the storm,” Jacobson said in an email.

The call for an academic boycott by the nonprofit group, which is based in Washington, D.C., and promotes the study of American culture, has generated heated public debate. 

While some activists, academics and others have praised the group for publicly opposing Israeli policy they perceive as oppressive to Palestinians, many leaders in academia, including Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, have claimed that the boycott would interfere with the academic freedom of American and Israeli scholars. Other critics, including some politicians, have called the move racist, while some supporters of Israel are now threatening legal action against the group.

Members of the group’s national council announced their unanimous support for the resolution calling for the boycott in an online statement Dec. 4. The resolution explicitly condemns certain Israeli policies: expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory, which it calls a violation of international law; the growing security barrier between Palestinian and Israeli territory; and “systematic discrimination” against Palestinians.

The resolution says the group will eschew formal collaboration with Israeli academic institutions to protest these policies. It will also support Palestinian civil society groups that have called for academic and other boycotts against Israel in recent years.

The group opened the resolution up for an online vote from Dec. 5 to Dec. 15, according to Jacobson. About 66 percent of the 1,252 members who voted — out of a total of about 5,000 individuals and 2,200 institutions the group claims as members on its website — voted to support the resolution, according to a statement the group published online the day after the vote ended.

Condemnation, support for the resolution

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was already a point of heated contention both in the United States and globally, the boycott has provoked debate over whether the American Studies Association overstepped its role as an academic organization. 

And although Pitt is not a member of the group, according to spokesman Ken Service, it didn’t take much time for its top official to jump into the fray.

Nordenberg and the other 10 university presidents and chancellors on the executive committee of the Association of American Universities, a nonprofit organization that includes 62 research universities according to its website, claimed the American Studies Association’s boycott would infringe on academic freedom in a statement published online Dec. 20.

“Restrictions imposed on the ability of scholars of any particular country to work with their fellow academics in other countries, participate in meetings and organizations, or otherwise carry out their scholarly activities violate academic freedom,” the statement reads.

Service said the statement by the Association of American Universities characterized Pitt’s position and declined further comment.

The Association of Public Land-Grant Universities, of which Service said Pitt is a also member, issued a statement Jan. 2, saying the “boycott wrongly limits the ability of American and Israeli academic institutions and their faculty members to exchange ideas and collaborate on critical projects.”

The statement, which was published online, similarly accuses the American Studies Association of attacking academic freedom.

These organizations are not alone.

Senior administrators at more than 180 U.S. colleges and universities have issued statements publicly rejecting the boycott so far, according to the right-wing blog Legal Insurrection, which maintains a running list of schools and groups opposed to the boycott.

But Jacobson said the boycott was largely symbolic and that it would largely extend to formal collaboration between the American Studies Association and Israeli institutions. The resolution explicitly allows members of the group to cooperate with Israeli scholars.

Jacobson said criticism of the group has also ignored the Israeli government’s ongoing interference in Palestinians’ right to an education.

“Amid much discussion of the sanctity of ‘academic freedom’ for Americans and Israelis, this issue has flown under the radar for many,” he said in an email.

Despite the critical responses, there are some who agree with the American Studies Association’s resolution.

Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Palestinian professor who teaches at Bethlehem and Birzeit universities in the West Bank, agreed that Israeli policies make educators’ day-to-day work in Palestinian territory difficult.

Twenty years ago, a car trip from Bethlehem, where Qumsiyeh lives, to Birzeit University took only about 40 minutes. The trip now takes at least an hour and a half because of security checkpoints set up by Israeli forces and detours around Israeli settlements, to which access is controlled. Even with his American passport, Qumsiyeh must go around Jerusalem, which Palestinians can’t enter without a special permit, during the commute.

Israeli visa restrictions also make it difficult for Palestinian universities to host students and instructors from abroad, he said.

The political sphere

While Pitt and other universities have largely focused on the issue of academic freedom in their objections to the boycott, the move has set the stage for fights on the legal and political front.

In a cease-and-desist letter sent last Thursday to Elizabeth Duggan, the president-elect of the American Studies Association, two attorneys for Shurat HaDin, an activist organization supportive of the Jewish state, explicitly accused the group of violating New York state laws and federal anti-discrimination laws along with an international treaty against racism.

The attorneys, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, an Israeli lawyer and founder of Shurat HaDin, and Robert J. Tolchin, a New York attorney who serves as the group’s American counsel, claimed in the letter to represent Israeli professors who are preparing to take legal action if the Duggan does not cancel the boycott the group endorsed last month.

“It is further demanded that you, the ASA, its membership chapters and affiliates take no additional steps to engage in or implement any boycott against Israeli academics and/or institutions,” Darshan-Leitner and Tolchin wrote.

The attorneys went on to write that if Duggan did not comply with these instructions, they would file suit against the group.

Darshan-Leitner said in an email that the boycott has crossed a legal line that takes it out of the realm of protected speech.

“Everyone is free to express any opinion they have about the Arab-Israeli conflict, regardless of how uninformed or misguided or racist it might be,” she said. “However, we would draw the line when it ceases to be ‘speech’ and starts to be actual conduct.”

But lawyers who work with the American Studies Association have been dismissive of the threats.

The Center for Constitutional Review and Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, both legal nonprofits, jointly responded Friday in a public statement on the former’s website in which they characterized Shurat HaDin’s threat as “legal bullying.”

The authors of the statement also denied the accusations of racism, pointing out that the boycott targets the relationship between Israeli universities and their government.

Liz Jackson, a staff attorney for Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, said the boycott is not racist or anti-Semitic.

“Any academic who happens to be Jewish is not the target of the boycott,” Jackson said.

Although Jackson was not involved in drafting the resolution calling for the boycott, she said the American Studies Association consulted her about the legality of the boycott when the organization started to receive threats of civil action.

As a form of political expression, the boycott is protected under the First Amendment, according to Jackson.

“The government cannot penalize anyone for saying, ‘This is our position on this particular issue,’” she said.

The 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case NAACP v. Claiborne ruled that black residents of a Mississippi town had the right to boycott local white-owned businesses as a form of political protest against racial inequality.

While lawyers argue over whether the boycott is illegal, politicians have also spoken up about the academic boycott.

Pennsylvania Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, introduced a resolution on Jan. 6 that asks members of the Pennsylvania Senate to condemn the boycott as an “intolerable, anti-Semitic, base form of bigotry.” The senate’s Education Committee is currently considering Williams’ resolution, according to state records.

Williams called the American Studies Association “specious” in its reasoning about Palestinians’ rights.

“If they’re concerned about human beings’ academic freedom, they should be concerned about all academic freedom,” Williams said in an interview. 

Williams named other countries that he said are more oppressive than Israel, including Russia, China and North Korea, and said the American Studies Association has ignored these regimes and unfairly singled out Israel for criticism.

While Williams’ resolution would be a largely symbolic act of disapproval, two New York state lawmakers are angling for the very real action of cutting off state funding for schools that boycott Israel.

Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, and Assemblyman Dov Hikind, D-Brooklyn, announced in late December that they plan to introduce legislation that would discourage universities from boycotting Israel.

Under the legislation, schools that receive funding from the state of New York could not participate in boycotts against Israel or other countries not officially listed as state sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. federal law, according to a statement published on Klein’s New York Senate page.

Schools would have 30 days to withdraw from the American Studies Association or any other organization that announced a similar boycott, according to the same statement.

Klein and Hikind plan to introduce bills in the New York Senate and Assembly, respectively, during the legislative session that began earlier this month, although New York state records show that neither has formally introduced such a bill to date.

Anna Durrett, a spokeswoman for Klein, said the law would not violate the First Amendment.

“Individuals continue to have the right to participate in a boycott as a form of political expression,” Durrett said in an email. “At issue is the state funding to do so for discriminatory boycotts like this one.”

But Jackson disagreed, saying she did not expect Klein and Hikind to get far.

In a 1943 ruling on the West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public officials cannot prescribe what constitutes orthodox public opinion. In the 1989 ruling on Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court ruled that government officials cannot censor works they find offensive.

Increasing public interest

Although the American Studies Association’s academic boycott has stirred up especially heated debate, using boycotts to protest Israeli policies is not a newfangled tactic.

Globally, calls for such efforts have rung for at least eight years.

The boycott, divestment and sanctions  — or, BDS movement — a coalition of Palestinian civil society organizations that call on the international community to boycott Israeli institutions and private companies, was founded in 2005, according to its website.

But the American Studies Association is only the second U.S. academic group to announce a boycott of Israeli universities, after the Association for Asian American Studies, which announced a similar decision last April.

U.S. scholarly organizations are taking more interest in such boycotts.

The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association also published a Dec. 15 resolution denouncing Israeli universities for collaborating with their government, although it makes no mention of calling the issue to a vote among its members.

The Modern Language Association also scheduled a session dedicated to a discussion on academic boycotts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last Thursday as part of its annual convention in Chicago.

The Association for Asian American Studies, Native American and Indigenous Studies and Modern Language Association were unavailable for comment despite repeated attempts to contact each.

Qumsiyeh, who said he was active in the movement against South African apartheid during the early 1980s, when activists encouraged divestment from companies that did business in South Africa, said he expected future academic boycotts of Israel.

He said he hopes the language of future boycotts would go farther in opposing the Israeli government.

While the resolution focuses on the effects of Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza, it does not go far enough in demanding a shared state where Israelis and Palestinians could coexist peacefully, according to Qumsiyeh.

“A good BDS resolution would ask just like we asked with Apartheid South Africa — justice, equality, and human rights — one country for all its people,” he said.

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