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UI professor speaks out against Israeli university boycott

BY DANIEL SEIDL | DECEMBER 17, 2013 5:00 AM

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The American Studies Association announced on Monday the approval of an academic boycott of Israel, and at least two members of the University of Iowa community with ties to the organization say the move could have a negative effect on Israeli and U.S. universities alike.

“The discriminatory policy that seeks to punish another nation’s universities and scholars would also punish us,” said Linda Kerber, a UI retired professor of women’s studies. “I also believe that … our own university would not permit a boycott of this sort. We don’t engage in academic boycotts, we encourage academic exchange.”

Kerber, who was the national president of the organization from 1988-89, was one of eight past presidents of the organization who disagreed with the boycott, writing a letter to the organization’s current members asking them to vote against the then-proposal.

“We believe academic boycotts to be antithetical to the mission of free and open inquiry for which a scholarly organization stands,” the letter said. “We urge … members to vote to reject this divisive and discriminatory resolution.”

The American Studies Association — its website states it is dedicated to improving studies of American culture and history — announced Monday that members voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israel with 66 percent in favor. 

The boycott means anyone representing or associated with an Israeli university will not be able to attend association conferences, the group said in a press release on its website. This will not affect individual Israeli scholars who are unassociated with an institution.

The group’s National Council contended that human-rights violations by the Israeli government, which limits Palestinian scholars, as the main reason for this boycott.

“The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians,” the National Council said in a statement.

Former association member and UI Professor Emeritus Richard Horwitz said while he partially agrees with the organization’s views, a boycott isn’t justified.

“It’s about academic freedom,” he said. “Even though I as an individual am opposed to many Israeli policies … I don’t think nationality should [limit people academically].”

Others, including Hillel Director Gerald Sorokin, don’t think the boycott will be as effective as the association hopes. Sorokin said the boycott is unfair to Israel, though it may be more of a statement than action.

“Irrespective of your beliefs about Israeli policies … its hard to see why an academic boycott is justified,” he said. “There are lots and lots of important countries with much worse human-rights records, that the [association] doesn’t care about at all. This is clearly a power play by people who just want to use their position as a platform to publicize their views.”

UI Visiting Associate Professor of political science and former U.S. Ambassador to Eritrea Ron McMullen, who has worked in the Middle East region, said the boycott will have minimal impact and won’t change the views of U.S. government.

“Israel does what it does that seems to [serve] its own self-interests,” he said. “[The United States] remain[s] one of Israel’s closest friends and biggest supporters.”

Despite his opposition to the boycott, Sorokin said these issues should continue be discussed.

“I don’t have any problem with people questioning the policies of any countries,” he said. “I personally have beliefs about the wisdom and efficacy of the current Israeli government’s approach. I think that those are valid and legitimate topics for debate.”

Mark Hollander, a UI senior and member of the Hillel House, said the American Studies Association shouldn’t ignore America’s connection with Israel.

“If the United States is supporting Israel … then clearly, America has a dedication to Israel as a state,” he said.

Americans and Palestinians for Peace President John Dabeet said the human-rights abuses by the Israeli government necessitate some kind of a response.

“Basically, when the state of Israel continues its policy … you can not call it anything but an apartheid,” he said. “Every small thing can make a difference. We have to change, we should change, and we have to work step by step to make that happen.”


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