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Why the ASA Should Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions

By endorsing the boycott, we withhold our consent from collaboration with academic institutions that are part and parcel of Israel's ongoing occupation, furnishing its technical infrastructure and expanding onto stolen lands.
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On December 4, 2013, the National Council of the American Studies Association announced that it had voted unanimously for a resolution to "endorse and ... honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions." Their vote came a week after an open meeting at the Association's annual conference at which speaker after speaker strongly supported the resolution, 37 for to seven against. The Council's endorsement is now before the full membership for their ratification.

Despite the clear majority of active members of the Association who support it, this decision has already come under ferocious attack. Opponents claim that it singles out Israel unfairly, when there are many nations around the world who likewise commit crimes against humanity, occupy and expropriate others' land, severely restrict freedom of movement and access to education. Why not boycott all of them? They claim that the resolution imposes a litmus test on Israeli scholars and unfairly targets them because they are Jewish. They claim that the resolution will prevent the dialogue that promotes peace and understanding.

Not one of these claims holds up. A boycott is not a general expression of moral disapproval. It is a last resort that targets a state or other institution because of the ongoing and remediable nature of the harm that it is doing and because other paths to redress are blocked. Above all, we engage in boycott only when those who are the victims of injustice ask us to, as it is they who risk bearing the brunt of its effects. The ASA's resolution responds to the call of over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations for a global boycott of Israeli academic institutions, whose complicity in the occupation, dispossession and discrimination from which Palestinians daily suffer has been detailed by the Israeli-Palestinian Alternative Information Center.

The academic boycott that the ASA has endorsed is part of a growing, global civil society movement to hold Israel finally accountable, as we once held South Africa accountable for its apartheid regime. By endorsing the boycott, we withhold our consent from collaboration with academic institutions that are part and parcel of Israel's ongoing occupation, furnishing its technical infrastructure and expanding onto stolen lands.

We continue to wait for Israel's own institutions to condemn forthrightly both the occupation and the denial of academic freedom to Palestinians. In the meantime, we call on our own academic institutions to cease collaborating with Israeli universities or investing in companies that profit from the occupation. Numerous courageous students across the UC system and elsewhere have already given them the lead by voting for divestment measures.

Under the very clear terms of the boycott, only institutions and those who expressly represent them or the Israeli state are affected. Israeli scholars will remain free to research, publish, travel to conferences to present their work and opinions. They will retain all the rights that academic freedom has traditionally protected.

What is all too often forgotten in the debate about boycott is that Palestinian scholars and students are denied those normal and unexceptional rights, not occasionally but daily. Israeli authorities regularly deny students and professors the right to travel within Palestine and between Gaza and the West Bank or Israel or beyond; Palestinian schools and universities remain vulnerable to arbitrary and prolonged closure or violent raids; academic institutions have reportedly been deliberately targeted in Israel's punitive campaigns against Gaza; in Israeli universities and schools, Palestinians are subject to segregated education and are denied the right even to commemorate their own history of dispossession.

It is the Palestinians who have been singled out by Israel for this discriminatory treatment, with the unstinting support of the U.S. Congress and successive administrations. U.S. taxpayers support Israel's occupation to the tune of $3 or $4 billion every year, but our politicians do nothing to hold Israel accountable for its systematic violations of human rights, for its continuing dispossession of Palestinians, or for its war crimes that numerous respected international organizations have documented, here and here. Instead, the U.S. has used its veto power at the UN to stymie virtually every one of the numerous resolutions condemning Israel. It turns a blind eye to Israel's expansion of illegal settlements even when, as now, they provocatively undermine the "peace process."

No other country in the world has been singled out for such exceptional treatment or gets such a free pass on its injustices. It is because of this political blockade on justice that Palestinians have called for a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. Where the political process is blocked, only a civil society movement can begin to win redress for the victims.

And only when injustice is named and challenged, not supported and funded, can true dialogue begin. As anyone who witnessed the ASA's open meeting observed, we have reached a turning point: a path is opening to a peace based on parity and justice, rather than on coercion and unchecked power.

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