An End to Academic Prejudice against Israel

Alas, the question has to be repeated over and over again. Will the politically ignorant American academics in our midst, so eager to attack Israel, ever accept the principle that truth is transmitted by academic freedom? Will those academics at colleges throughout the United States, usually uninformed about the realities and complexities of the Middle East, ever learn enough to resist the relentless pressure of Palestinian groups or "Palestinian civil society" and their fallacious Palestinian narrative of victimhood?

It is disgraceful that American academic organizations, supposedly dedicated to and essentially based on free exchange of ideas, call for punishing Israeli universities, and therefore the individual scholars working there, simply because of their nationality. Boycott of an institution affects everyone connected with it. Moreover, it is outrageous that the political horizon of these groups, purportedly concerned with non-political issues, is limited to criticism of only one country -- Israel -- and not to any of the other 192 member states in the world. Political behavior by those others -- dictatorships, autocracies, theocracies, countries based on gender discrimination and abuse of women -- do not appear in the biased, and possibly anti-Semitic, gyroscope of the slanted politically correct views of academic attackers of Israel.

This year, members of two academic organizations, the Association for American Asian Studies, (AAS) and the American Studies Association, (ASA) have both called for a boycott of Israeli universities. By doing so both have contravened the purposes for which they were established, though the zealots in them do not appear to have recognized this.

The constitution of the AAS clearly states its main objectives: forming a scholarly, nonpolitical association of all persons interested in Asian studies; and facilitating contact and exchange of information between scholars and scholarly organizations in North America interested in Asian studies and those in other countries.

It says nothing about expertise in the complexities of Middle East history and politics being a requirement for membership of the AAS. Nevertheless in April 2013, the general membership unanimously voted for a resolution endorsing the boycott of Israeli universities, the first scholarly association in the U.S. to do so. Apparently the AAS, unaware of the existence and problems in China, Japan, and South Korea, believes that Israel is the major power in Asia. The AAS resolved that it will honor the "call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions."

The former president of AAS, Rajini Srikanth, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, spoke of the "discriminatory practices of Israeli institutions." Apparently those practices in 2013 included winning Nobel Prizes. The 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went jointly to Arieh Warshel who had studied at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and at the Weizmann Institute of Science at Rehovat, and to Michael Levitt who is visiting professor at Weizmann. The Nobel Prize for Physics went to François Englert, a professor at Tel Aviv University.

Not to be outdone in this competition of arrogant ignorance, a group of the American Studies Association, named the Academic and Community Activism Caucus, in November 2013 proposed a resolution, in the same language as the AAS, that the whole ASA "honor the call of Palestinian society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions." Twice therefore we have the bizarre case of individuals, presumably paid to teach American studies, honoring instructions from unknown foreign Palestinians. Is there an Arab lobby at work within the ASA and the AAS?

The constitution of the ASA was chartered in 1951. Its object is "the promotion of the study of American culture ...through the strengthening of relations among persons in this country and abroad devoted to such studies, and the broadening of knowledge among the general public about American culture in all of its diversity and complexity."

These are desirable objectives, but there is a double problem. The first is that the ASA Caucus is preventing, not strengthening, relations with foreign countries, though it is only Israel that is affected. The other is that, in spite of the claim of "viewing America as a whole" a disproportionate number of the panels on the ASA agenda concentrate on issues of American imperialism and colonialism, and the "diversity" called for in the constitution is largely limited to critical comments on mainstream American behavior and life.

At the ASA meeting a petition in favor of the boycott of Israel received 850 signatures; one opposing the boycott was signed by about 50. Two sessions of these people in American studies were devoted to a "Town Hall Meeting on Palestine," and to "Open Discussion on Palestine."

The boycott resolution was endorsed by the current president and by the president-elect. The current president is Curtis Marez, an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the UC San Diego. His main focus seems to be on U.S. Latinos. Mr. Marez's only published book is Drug Wars: the Political Economy of Narcotics, issued in 2004. It is unclear what expertise he now has enabling him to endorse a statement that Israeli universities are involved in complicity of occupation.

The forthcoming president is Lisa Duggan, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU. Her stated interests are mainly in the history of gender and sexuality and in gay and lesbian studies. She has published in 2003 one book under her own name, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. Does she know that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and that gay rights are protected in Israel as they are not in the other Middle East countries? When will these people honoring "Palestinian civil society" recognize that academic boycotts against Israel are flawed, that they impose a test of national or religious, essentially Jewish, identification or opinions that as the American Association of University Professors has suggested have nothing to do with eligibility for participation in the academic community. Moreover, the boycotters fail to recognize that Israeli academics do not necessarily agree with the political decisions of their government, and that they may share with the boycotters some of their views about the Palestinians.

It is time for the AAS, the ASA, and all academic and professional bodies, to recognize that academic freedom is precious. Institutions and individuals within them should be judged on the basis of their ideas and work, not on their nationality or religion. If they truly care for "Palestinian civil society" the critics should be building bridges, not boycotts. They ought to remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., "don't use solutions that don't solve."

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.