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Local Academics Speak Out Against Boycott

December 31, 2013 By:
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Simon Bronner, chair of the American Studies program at Penn State Harrisburg

Simon Bronner, chair of the American Studies program at Penn State Harrisburg, isn’t opposing a boycott of Israeli institutions because its target is Israel rather than a country like China; he just believes all academic boycotts are bad.

“They shut off dialogue, which is what we need at this point,” said Bronner, who is also the editor in chief of the encyclopedia put out by the American Studies Association, which endorsed the boycott in December.

“It’s especially egregious in this case because there is an effort to open negotiations. There are pro-peace forces within Israel and within the Palestinian Authority that are trying to reach agreements.”

The national council of the ASA, which, according to its website, has more than 5,000 members, unanimously approved the measure before putting it to an organization-wide vote. Some two-thirds of 1,252 members who voted approved the boycott.

The resolution, which states that the organization will “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” has sparked a backlash in the academic world from American Studies professors who say that the organization does not represent their views. It also has prompted four schools, including Penn State Harrisburg, to withdraw from the organization.

Leaders of Jewish and other academic organizations have also expressed their opposition to the boycott and questioned what motivation ASA has for singling out Israel when other countries allow far less academic freedom.

The ASA’s move was preceded by a similar boycott vote by the Association for Asian American Studies in April, and was followed by one from the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.

It is the latest sign of increasing antagonism toward Israel on college campuses. The issue has been particularly hot in Philadelphia, where the University of Pennsylvania hosted a national boycott, divestment and sanctions conference in 2012 and where the Hillel at Swarthmore College last month declared itself an “Open Hillel,” breaking from its umbrella organization’s guidelines that bar speakers and partnerships with those who seek to delegitimize Israel or oppose its existence as a Jewish state.

In addition, Amy Kaplan, a Penn English professor, has been an outspoken supporter of the BDS movement and is a past president of the ASA. Roya Rastegar, a Bryn Mawr College professor, is a member of the ASA national council who voted for the boycott. Neither could be immediately reached for comment.

The executive committee of the Association of American Universities and the American Association of University Professors both issued statements expressing their opposition to the boycott. Locally, Drexel University, Dickinson College, Haverford College and Lehigh University issued separate statements in opposition to the boycott. The University of Pennsylvania did not issue its own statement but the school’s president, Amy Gutmann, is on the executive committee and was a signatory to the Association of American Universities’ statement.

Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, in its own statement, described the boycott as deriving from the BDS movement and being “based on malicious fabrications and mischaracterizations of Israel that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.”

“The attempt to create an academic boycott against Israel is part of a broader strategy to isolate Israel on the international scene,”  Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said in an interview. “Its support seems to be strong in a narrow and perhaps fringe part of the academic world.”

Local Jewish leaders have also been vocal with their outrage.

“These efforts both seek to delegitimize Israel and undermine the fundamental principle of academic freedom,” wrote Sherrie Savett, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Sam Katz, co-chair of the Federation’s Partnership2Gether initiative, said he thinks it’s “perfectly fine for people on college campuses to comfortably express their views,” regardless of their positions on Israel, but he described the boycott as “intellectual punishment that just reeks of hypocrisy.”

“Why would they not choose Chinese universities or Russian universities or any one of a number of possibilities? They choose Israel because they think innately they should expect more of Israel and/or they’re anti-Semitic. There’s probably a little bit of both,” said Katz, who authored a letter to the American Studies association directly.

Miles Orvell, a professor of English and American studies at Temple University and a former editor of the ASA’s encyclopedia, said he opposes the Jewish settlements in the West Bank but does not support the boycott. He and Bronner sent a letter to association members in opposition to the boycott before it was approved.

Those who pushed for the measure, which started in the organization’s Caucus on Academic and Community Activism, “tainted the field in some ways because the field has a very rich, broad intellectual tradition in the United States, and now it’s being portrayed, at least by some people, as a slightly lunatic association, which it hasn’t been in the past,” said Orvell.

Bronner said there has been discussion among ASA members opposed to the boycott about starting an alternative organization that would be devoted to “cultural analysis, not politicization.”

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