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Editorial: Academic boycott no solution

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | DECEMBER 19, 2013 5:00 AM

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Earlier this week, members of the American Studies Association voted to impose an academic boycott on Israeli universities to protest the Isreali government’s discriminatory policies against Palestinians.

The organization, which focuses on scholarship related to American history and culture, explained in a press release that it will not formally work with Israeli academic institutions or their representatives. The American Studies Association explicitly stated that under the boycott, scholars from Israel and the United States may still work together. Israeli academics can even attend and present at American Studies Association conferences “provided they are not expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions or of the Israeli government.”

Israel’s ongoing discriminatory actions against the Palestinians is indeed, nothing short of inhumane. Israel has continued constructing settlements in Palestinian territory despite international condemnation, killed civilians in illegal attacks in Gaza, and harassed nonviolent demonstrators.

In September, Human Rights Watch reported that Israel had intentionally displaced residents of a community in the West Bank with no apparent legal justification.

“The military demolished all homes in the community on Sept. 16, 2013, and blocked four attempts by humanitarian groups to provide shelters, with soldiers using force against residents, humanitarian workers, and foreign diplomats on Sept. 20. Under international humanitarian law in effect in the occupied West Bank, the deliberate unlawful forced transfer of a population is a war crime,” the human-rights advocacy group stated.

Nonetheless, discriminating against academia is not the way to bring about change in Israel. We trust that the American Studies Association has good intentions and is legitimately concerned about the rights of Palestinians. However carefully the boycott was worded, an academic boycott sends the wrong message. It stymies the free flow of ideas and information, which is absolutely critical for research and discovery. An academic boycott undermines the very purpose of academia.

Furthermore, this boycott not only punishes the Israeli researchers but American ones as well, Linda Kerber, a retired UI professor, told The Daily Iowan. She cowrote a letter to the American Studies Association against the boycott before it passed.

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

More dangerous yet is that the boycott is based on political grounds. For scholarship to truly thrive, it has to be independent of political squabbles and influence as much as possible. Even if researchers feel few practical effects from the Americans Studies Association’s recent actions, the resolution sets a dangerous precedent. Science and scholarship benefit everyone; it is the primary way that human civilization has progressed for millennia and remains central to the booming revolution in technology and information we are experiencing now. That scholars can work together in spite of political and religious differences is something of an anomaly, considering most of human history. To go back on this progress would be a huge mistake.

By any measure, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is terrible. If the American Studies Association wants to advocate against Israeli oppression, by all means, it can and should. But if it wants to avoid a chilling effect on scholarly research, it would be well advised to rescind the academic boycott against Israeli academic institutions.


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