Many academics in region express opposition to ASA’s Israel boycott

(Editor’s Note: Updated on Jan. 8 with statements by numerous additional universities in the Deep South, including Sewanee, Auburn, Emory and Vanderbilt.)

This month’s vote by the American Studies Association to endorse an academic boycott of Israel is continuing to draw reaction far and wide, with many area colleges and universities speaking out against it.

In early December, the ACA’s 20-member national council endorsed the boycott but figured something this sensitive should be left up to the membership. After the Dec. 15 deadline, it was announced that two-thirds of the 1,252 members who voted approved the boycott.

The boycott applies to ASA organizationally and is not binding on members. It also targets Israeli institutions, not individuals, and the ASA plans to have Israeli and Palestinian academics at its 2014 national meeting.

In the wake of the boycott, six universities have dropped their membership — Penn State-Harrisburg, Brandeis, Kenyon College, Bard College, Texas-Dallas and Indiana University. Harvard and Yale also are among over 150 institutions that have reportedly rejected the boycott.

The executive committee of the much larger Association of American Universities issued a statement strongly opposing the boycott, stating “Any such boycott of academic institutions directly violates academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle of AAU universities and of American higher education in general” and “American colleges and universities, as well as like institutions elsewhere, must stand as the first line of defense against attacks on academic freedom.”

Tulane University President Scott Cowen, a past chair of the AAU, was one of the signatories, along with current chair William Powers, president of the University of Texas.

The University of Texas and Texas A&M are currently being criticized for hosting and sponsoring the May 2014 conference of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association in Austin. The NAISA announced a boycott of Israel that is more wide-ranging than the ASA boycott.

The ASA noted that the vote attracted the largest number of participants in the organization’s history. The American Association of University Professors, in its opposition to the boycott, noted that “less than a third of those eligible actually voted,” and said “Support for academic boycotts therefore remains the position of a small minority of college and university faculty.”

Chancellor Robert Witt of the University of Alabama System told the Birmingham Jewish Federation that the ASA decision “to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions is very disappointing… The core values of academia are academic freedom and open dialogue, and the American Studies Association’s endorsement (of a boycott) is antithetical to both.”

Alabama is listed by ASA as a member institution, but Lynne Adrian, chair of the Department of American Studies, stated that the membership was dropped in 2011 — well before this controversy — after the Alabama Legislature passed a law that state funds could not be used for association membership dues.

Michael Innis-Jimenez, director of graduate studies at Alabama’s Department of American Studies, has signed letters endorsing academic boycotts of Israel.

Others in the region who have also expressed support of boycotting Israel include Said Elnashaie, professor of chemical engineering at Auburn University; Jana Maria Giles, professor of English literature at Louisiana-Monroe; Scott Sorrell, mathematics instructor at Louisiana-Lafayette; Georgette Loup, who teaches linguistics at the University of New Orleans; and Daniel Vitkus, associate professor of English at Florida State.

Foad Izadi, who is listed as a graduate student at Louisiana State University, is now a professor of world studies at the University of Tehran.

Conversely, General Charles Krulak, president of Birmingham-Southern College, told the BJF “from an academic standpoint, the American Studies Association vote is a vote against academic freedom which is at the heart of every great institution of higher learning.”

The University of Mississippi is also listed by ASA as a member, but a spokesperson at Ole Miss told Southern Jewish Life he could find no evidence that the university is actually a member.

The only other listed member in the SJL coverage area is the University of Southern Mississippi. Marek Steedman, associate professor of political science at Southern Miss, said he opposes the boycott by ASA but will not advocate for withdrawal from the association.

“As a long-time critic of Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza, I sympathize with attempts to advance the economic, political, and academic rights of Palestinians, and broad-based efforts designed to pressure and cajole all actors in the region to reach a comprehensive peace consistent with those rights,” he said.

Steedman said the boycott has less to do with academics than with the politics of the organization promoting the boycott, the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. That group, he pointed out, “characterizes Zionism as ‘a program of supposed or purported racial purity and territorial acquisition’ and characterizes the position of Arab citizens of Israel (not those resident in the West Bank and Gaza) as equivalent to apartheid. These views are, at best, simply false, if not morally and politically pernicious.”

Boycotting the ASA would go against a stance against boycotts, he said. “I will advocate that we maintain our membership, exercise our autonomy in relation to the ASA boycott, and argue strongly within the organization for a reversal of policy.”

Jessica Dorman, director of publications at the Historic New Orleans Collection, was among dozens of signatories to a letter by ASA members, including seven past presidents, opposing the boycott and upset that the ASA website has no opposing viewpoint regarding the boycott.

After detailing philosophical opposition to academic boycotts, the letter reads “We must… encourage constructive efforts to bring Israeli and Palestinian academics together on joint projects, including those that foster reconciliation and promote understanding and trust — all critical factors that will enable Israelis and Palestinians to coexist in peace and security. The call for an academic boycott of Israel is a destructive attempt not only to silence, but also punish those involved in this important and potentially transformative academic work.”

John McCardell, vice-chancellor and president of Sewanee: The University of the South, said Sewanee “emphatically does not support the American Studies Association’s call for an academic boycott of Israel. In so doing we join the Association of American Universities, the American Association of University Professors, and a growing number of our sister institutions in condemning this attempt to abridge academic freedom.”

A spokesperson for Auburn University said Auburn opposes the boycott and included a Jan. 2 statement from the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities “that reflects Auburn’s position.”

The APLU president and executive committee “strongly oppose the boycott of Israeli academic institutions supported by certain U.S. scholarly organizations.”

The boycott “wrongly limits the ability of American and Israeli academic institutions and their faculty members to exchange ideas and collaborate on critical projects that advance humanity, develop new technologies, and improve health and well-being across the globe.
“Members of the academic community certainly have the right to express their views, but the call for a boycott in this case is severely misguided and wrongheaded. We urge others to express their opposition as well.”

Among the signatories on the executive committee are the presidents of Clemson and Virginia, and the chancellor of North Carolina State.

Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos issued a statement on Dec. 31 opposing the boycott, stating “We believe that shutting out an entire nation’s universities and academic organizations only stands to prolong and perpetuate the problems the framers of the boycott wish to address.”

The Miami Herald quoted University of Florida President J. Bernard Machen as stating “I believe the entire University of Florida community holds academic freedom to be a cherished principle that advances the interests of society.”

James Wagner, president of Emory University, said the university has been approached repeatedly in recent years to boycott Israel. “Emory’s own and newly-penned policy on Respect for Freedom of Expression is clear about the need to protect the rights of others. An academic boycott would clearly violate the right of university faculty to academic freedom and so cannot be supported.”