National academic organization to consider boycotting Israeli universities

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The American Studies Association National Council announced Wednesday that after years of consideration, it had endorsed a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

If association members approve the resolution, the organization would refuse to engage in formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions or scholars serving as their representatives or ambassadors, according to the association’s website. Scholars serving on behalf of the Israeli government would also be boycotted.

The American Studies Association is a national organization made up of professors and scholars that aims to take an interdisciplinary approach to the study of American culture and history. It also facilitates international programs such as teaching abroad and student and faculty exchanges.

A Palestinian campaign as part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has been calling for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel since 2004. In response to this call, the association held a series of committee discussions and an open discussion at its annual convention in November.

After the convention, the national council, which includes one UC Berkeley professor, unanimously voted in favor of the boycott.

Association members have until Dec. 15 to vote for or against the resolution becoming the official position of the association.

UC Berkeley associate professor of architecture Andrew Shanken, who is an association member, believes that given the support it received at the convention last month, the resolution will likely pass, although he personally opposes the boycott.

“To sanction Israeli academics for the political behavior of the country that they happen to work in is not an effective way to bring attention to (the political problems in Israel),” Shanken said. “It’s a black stain on American academia to have this sort of illogical way of thinking about things.”

Shanken suggested opening a dialogue with Israeli academics rather than cutting ties with institutions altogether as an alternative to the boycott.

Yet association President Curtis Marez, a UC Berkeley alumnus and associate professor of ethnic studies at UC San Diego, sees the boycott as a movement to expand academic freedom rather than infringe on it.

“The boycott addresses exactly the way in which the occupation impedes the academic freedom of professors and students,” Marez said, citing the difficulties of Palestinian academics in traveling to conferences and conventions and participating in certain kinds of research.

The association members’ concerns parallel those that surfaced among some UC Berkeley students last spring around a controversial ASUC Senate bill calling for divestment of funds from companies affiliated with the Israeli military and urging the UC system to do the same. In April, the ASUC Senate passed the bill, although the ASUC Judicial Council later ruled that the senate lacked the authority to divest the related funds.

UC Berkeley sophomore Nir Maoz, president of a campus Israeli-American student group Mishelanu, said that the association is an academic institution that should focus on facilitating discourse, calling the resolution “inappropriate.”

Additionally, J Street U at Berkeley co-chair Elon Rov said a boycott may hurt the relationship between Israel and America.

“This is not going to make anyone more likely to engage in peace,” Rov said. “As an American and as a Jew, I’m also frustrated and angry with the status quo and at the Israeli occupation of the West Bank … However, I think a boycott is counterproductive.”

UC Berkeley senior Taliah Mirmalek, however, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, said boycotting is a useful strategy to put pressure on states.

“We’re so happy to see the tide turning in favor of supporting human rights and condemning oppression,” Mirmalek said in an email. “We hope this decision starts a chain reaction with more and more associations engaging in pro-justice, anti-oppression academic activism.”

The American Studies Association hopes to influence other academic organizations through the possible boycott, which Marez sees as a partially symbolic gesture. In April, the Association for Asian American Studies became the first scholarly association in the United States to endorse a boycott of Israeli universities.

Contact Tahmina Achekzai at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tahminachekzai.