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Boycott the ASA, Not Israel

By Sara K. Greenberg and Yoav Schaefer

Dear President Faust,

We applaud you for your statement over Winter Break, condemning the American Studies Association’s proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In making this statement, you have signaled that Harvard University upholds the ideals of academic freedom and the open pursuit of ideas central to the role of scholarship and academic institutions. We urge you, however, to go further and cancel Harvard’s institutional membership with the ASA.

As you wrote, “the recent resolution of the ASA proposing to boycott Israeli universities represents a direct threat to these ideals, ideals which universities and scholarly associations should be dedicated to defend.” After the boycott resolution was announced, the Executive Committee of the Association of American Universities, an association of 62 leading research universities including Harvard, condemned the move as a direct violation of academic freedom: “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 boycott, however, is not only an attack upon academic freedom. It is part of a global campaign to undermine the moral and political foundations of the State of Israel.

The academic boycott is not aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a complex territorial conflict between competing national groups that can only be solved through bilateral negotiations between the parties themselves. Instead, by singling out Israeli scholars and students, the boycott agenda places the responsibility for ending the conflict entirely on Israel’s shoulders, ignores systemic obstacles to peace within Palestinian society, and paints Israeli society with a wide brush. This, in turn, undermines the efforts of the many individuals and organizations working on the ground in Israel to change the status quo.

Furthermore, many Israeli academics are publically engaged in efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israeli academic community is made up of professors and students who represent Israel’s cultural, religious and national diversity. On university campuses across Israel, Jews, Muslims, and Christians join together in their common pursuit of academic scholarship. The ASA resolution, then, targets the very institutions working to promote the ideals of understanding and mutual respect that the boycott itself allegedly champions.

Even more, the ASA boycott resolution calls for students and scholars to “engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.” BDS is at the forefront of efforts to delegitimize and demonize the State of Israel by branding Israel as a pariah state. Many BDS leaders openly assert their opposition to State of Israel’s very existence—they oppose a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and promote an agenda that they hope will lead to the collapse of the state itself. BDS activities therefore do not merely seek to change the actions of Israel’s government. They seek to eliminate the state and its vital democracy. By condoning and participating in the BDS movement, the ASA academic boycott threatens not only the future of the State of Israel, but also the best hopes for peace in the region.

Finally, we find it upsetting that the ASA has chosen to single out Israel for condemnation. Not only is this focus on the sole state in the Middle East that affords civil rights to all of its citizens hypocritical and wrong. The singular and exclusive focus on Israel is also deeply worrying insofar as the ASA has never before called for an academic boycott of any country’s universities.  The current resolution, then, in both theory and effect, exhibits an all too frequent, widespread, and ominous prejudice against one particular state.

While we thank you for your strong and important message denouncing the ASA boycott resolution, we urge you, as the leader of Harvard University, to demonstrate moral leadership and immediately withdraw Harvard’s institutional membership from the ASA. Other universities, including Kenyon College, Indiana University, Brandeis University and Penn State Harrisburg, have already announced their intention to sever ties with the ASA as a result of the boycott. We ask that Harvard immediately join this group of universities to uphold its values and set an example for other universities around the country, showing that organizations promoting such boycotts will not only be denounced, but will also lose support from America’s leading academic institutions.

Thank you in advance for your attention to this grave and important matter.

Sara K. Greenberg HBS’15 HKS’15 is pursuing her MBA and MPP. Yoav Schaefer ’15 is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House.

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