/By Rabbi Russ Shulkes Executive Director at Emory Hillel/ //SPECIAL FOR THE AJT//

 

This month, the American Studies Association (ASA), a scholarly organization devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, joined the Association for Asian American Studies in passing a resolution to boycott all Israeli academic institutions.

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This boycott singles out Israel for censure with the justification that Israel deprives “effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation,” and as Israeli academic institutions are “party to Israel state policies that violate Palestinian human rights,” they must be punished as well.

This vote has been both a boon and a sting for the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement.

On the one hand, as one of the primary goals of the BDS movement is to vilify Israel, the ASA’s resolution has to be viewed as a victory. Even if the ASA stands as one of the smaller scholarly organizations, with approximately 5,000 members, the boycott will be perceived internationally as another robust step towards hurting the international standing of Israel.

On the other hand, the response from U.S. universities has been palpable. So far, four universities have resigned from the ASA, almost 100 university presidents have condemned the boycott, and quite surprisingly, eight universities have contested the fact that they were ever members of the ASA in the first place.

Also, the American Association of University Professors, the nation’s largest professors’ group, also said it opposed the boycott and condemned the move. The galvanization of U.S. academic institutions against the ASA boycott has been nothing short of amazing.

Yet, when one reads the academic condemnations of the ASA’s boycott that are floating about the internet, there is one issue that constantly emerges at the forefront: the values of academic freedom. It is the belief of most scholarly associations and places of higher education that academic freedom cannot be limited, no matter what the circumstances.

In other words, it might well be the case that Israel deserves condemnation, boycotting, and international interference in its domestic policy, but an assault on its academic institutions is not the place that this ought to take place. With this focus on the violation of academic freedom, it appears that most presidential statements are omitting another, and arguably more important, issue underlying this boycott: anti-Semitism.

This narrow-minded focus on Israel, while ignoring the gross injustices in other countries is a clear example of anti-Semitism. Of course, there are many definitions of anti-Semitism, but several include the notion of singling out the Jewish State or Jews in general for their actions, when scores of other countries and groups carry out identical or far worse acts. In an email correspondence with Norm Radow, he aptly highlighted this issue:

“It should be pointed out that North Korea is not subject to any such resolution, nor is China, which is debasing the culture of Tibet; Saudi Arabia which doesn’t allow Christians or Jews to worship in its country and allow women to drive or vote; or Iran, of whom we could recite a book long list of its human rights violations.

“So you may say the ASA is all over Syria, with 130,000 civilians dead, many of whom were gassed, and hundreds of other innocents in Aleppo who are being bombed to death as we speak. Actually not. No mention, discussion, or concern was expressed about these human rights violations. I guess mass murder is not the moral equivalent of something so heinous as Israel’s mere existence. No, Israel is the sole focus of this group’s ire and I cannot reach any other conclusion than that Israel is simply a metaphor for their enmity of Jews in general.”

Indeed, the president of the American Studies Association, Curtis Marez even acknowledged that the ASA singled out Israel for an academic boycott even though there are a veritable plethora of countries with far worse human rights track records, and definitely countries that limit academic freedoms far more than Israel.

Marez’s responded simply by saying, “We have to start somewhere.”

This type of answer is juvenile, anti-Semitic and unacceptable. Even if the ASA has to start their boycott of countries somewhere, one would be hard-pressed to justify Israel being that starting place. Even if the ASA has to “start somewhere,” there is no reason that the ASA cannot choose to boycott several countries at once, or at least begin with the country which committed the most heinous crimes.

Hillels of Georgia has taken several steps to address the ASA’s boycott. First, we sent a mass email to all our students noting Hillel rejects all attempts to boycott or delegitimize Israel and is pleased to see the vast majority of universities sharing this stance. Next, we called upon all the Georgia university presidents to condemn the ASA’s boycott and choose to sever all ties with the association.

President Wagner at Emory University has already published Israel’s condemnation on their website. Last, we have compiled a list of all the Georgian professors or graduate students that voted in favor of the boycott, listed where they work, and encouraged our student body to choose wisely when they register for classes.

We believe this last step will have the greatest impact, as it sends a clear message to university staff that they do not live in an ivory tower, and that their actions can and will have consequences on their immediate lives.

Our hope is that through these measures we will put a halt, not only to anti-Semitic actions that we are currently experiencing, but to those that will arise in Georgia’s future.

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