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Why I voted for an academic boycott of Israel

Michael S. Roth slams the American Studies Assn. for "unfairly singling out Israel" in its vote to boycott that nation's academic institutions; he calls the action an "irresponsible attack on academic freedom."

As a 39-year member of the American Studies Assn. (ASA) and a Jewish American, I want to explain why Roth -- whose Op-Ed was published by The Times Dec. 20 -- is wrong and why I wholeheartedly support the organization's resolution.

The resolution is far from an attack on academic freedom. In fact, it is a proper response to the routine denial of such scholarly freedom to Palestinian students. Having recently returned home from a trip to Israel and Palestine with Interfaith Peace-Builders, during which I was more profoundly shaken than I could ever have imagined by the brutality I saw toward Palestinians, I feel more strongly than ever the urgency of taking a stand in solidarity with Palestinians and their beleaguered Israeli allies.

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On our first day in Bethlehem, my husband and I met a young man who had received a scholarship from George Mason University in Virginia but was not granted an exit visa by the Israeli authorities. Instead of embarking on a promising journey in academia, this young Palestinian had to resign himself to a job selling souvenirs to tourists. We learned that Palestinian students of all ages endure harassment at military checkpoints, frequent school closures, unprovoked arrests, imprisonment and sometimes death at the hands of trigger-happy soldiers.  

Within Israel proper, schools are segregated and, following the model of the Jim Crow South, the government allocates significantly less funding to Palestinian schools, which are often overcrowded and understaffed. Palestinian university professors in Gaza rarely receive permission to travel abroad for conferences, those in the West Bank also face difficulties, and international faculty have been prevented from visiting Palestinian universities. These are the true assaults on academic freedom that the ASA resolution addresses.

Here in the U.S., students and faculty who challenge the dominant view of Israel risk baseless accusations of anti-Semitism, arrest, blacklisting or denial of tenure, promotion or academic positions. There are dozens of known incidents and likely hundreds that go unreported.

Last year, members of the New York City Council sent a letter to the president of Brooklyn College threatening to cut the school’s public funding for refusing to cancel a panel on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). The incident put academic freedom in the national spotlight, with MSNBC host Chris Hayes warning that when politicians "line up to attempt to force an academic institution to cancel an event particularly when some of those politicians ...actually determine the budget of the institution. Think of the precedent being set here."

In 2011, the Orange County district attorney charged 11 students at UC Irvine and UC Riverside with "conspiring to disrupt a meeting" for peacefully protesting a talk by Michael Oren, then the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. More than 100 UC Irvine professors stood up for the Irvine 11’s right to protest. In a statement on the case, the ACLU of Southern California wrote: "We are also troubled by the unprecedented nature of the case. We are unaware of any case where the OC DA pressed criminal charges over this type of non-violent student protest, even though similar disruptions have occurred with other speakers on the very same campus. This raises the question whether the DA may have acted because of the students' message, which would clearly violate the First Amendment."

Thus, far from curtailing academic freedom, the ASA has extended it in new directions by fostering an honest discussion about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and the role of the U.S. in enabling it. In a democratic process, the ASA National Council deliberated for a week, revised the final resolution in accordance with suggestions made during the discussion, and submitted it to the entire membership for ratification.

Like most other academic associations, the ASA includes many Jewish members. Some helped draft the boycott resolution, others served on the National Council that unanimously endorsed it, a large number lobbied and voted in favor of it, and a comparable number lobbied and voted against it. It is disturbing that many critics of the resolution label it "anti-Semitic," implying that either all Jewish people take the same position on this matter, which is false, or that some of us are anti-Semitic or self-hating Jews, a deeply troubling accusation.

It is also problematic to claim that speaking out against Israeli government policies is synonymous with attacks on Jews generally. The ASA resolution does not target individuals on the basis of nationality, ethnic group or religion. The ASA resolution targets institutions that are complicit in the violation of Palestinian human rights. According to the boycott guidelines, individual Israeli scholars, students or cultural workers are able to participate in the ASA conference or to give public lectures at campuses, provided they are not expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions or of the Israeli government.

Opponents like Roth claim that the resolution singles out Israel while sparing countries with worse human rights records. They forget, however, that the U.S. not only gives far more military aid to Israel than to any other country, but has also vetoed all U.N. resolutions in recent memory that condemn Israel's abuses of human rights. The ASA resolution specifically cites the "significant role" the U.S. plays in underwriting Israel's violations of international law.

This resolution is thoroughly consistent with the ASA’s past resolutions denouncing the war against Iraq and expressing solidarity with hotel workers and the Occupy movement. I have always been proud of the ASA’s political principles, and I am prouder than ever of its historic vote for justice in Israel and Palestine and for free speech on this issue.

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Carolyn Karcher is a professor emerita of English at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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