Pinto: ASA boycott will probably backfire
January 13, 2014
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While we were away for Winter Break, President Morton Schapiro and Provost Dan Linzer surprised us with an email about Northwestern rejecting the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The ASA was boycotting the institutions on the grounds that they do not grant academic freedom to Palestinians but contribute to the oppression of the Palestinian people through their involvement with Israeli military forces. With the announcement of the acceptance of the resolution by the ASA, many American institutions that are a part of the ASA made statements rejecting the ASA’s course of action. Currently, more than 180 universities, including NU, have rejected this boycott.
So what prompted this widespread rejection of the boycott?
The question of why Israel is boycotted while other countries with egregious violations of academic freedom are left untouched, draws attention to whether there are any anti-Israeli motives involved. Are Israeli universities being boycotted because of an underlying anti-Israeli sentiment that exists in the academic community, by any chance? In this case, it is completely understandable why many universities wouldn’t want to be associated with a boycott against discrimination that is based on discrimination. That’s not exactly “good press.”
Then again, the existence of an underlying motive for singling Israel out would not exonerate these institutions of their alleged crimes against academic freedom. These institutions might still be guilty.
In that case, maybe these American universities are rejecting the boycott because they do not want to sacrifice connections to Israel’s academic contributions to science and technological development. These American universities probably don’t want the valuable work done by Israeli academia to fade away from scientific circles.
The truth is there are many well-supported claims of infringement on Palestinians’ rights. There are definitely things that could be done to better the situation of the Palestinian people. The thing is, a boycott against educational institutions is not the way to go.
First, this boycott is not and will not be strong enough to actually guarantee improvements for the human rights of Palestinians. The widespread rejection of the boycott shows that it won’t be able to get the strong support it needs to succeed. A weakly supported boycott will not succeed in actually achieving its aim of garnering support and raising awareness for the Palestinian people and will only further reduce the freedom of Israeli academic institutions. That’s not the main reason why the boycott is misguided, though.
The principle reason the boycott is the wrong course of action is that boycotting academic institutions actually does not contribute to the aims of the boycott. In his Jan. 9 column, Pierre Atlas of the Indianapolis Star put it beautifully: “The university should be a place for vigorous debate, critical inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge without constraint from ideological blinders or prejudices. Last month, the American Studies Association violated these most basic tenets of academic freedom by instituting a boycott of Israeli universities.”
According to a 2013 Freedom House report, “Israel’s universities are open to all students based on merit, and have long been centers of dissent.” Israeli academic institutions greatly contribute to criticism of governmental policies and have been instrumental in voicing concerns and raising awareness for many issues.
In any country in the world, almost all higher education institutions serve as such platforms. When there is any oppression or lack of freedom, higher education institutions contribute to more liberty and free thought. They serve as the first front against oppressive actions by ruling bodies and take action to make the oppressed heard. The boycott against any educational institution around the world undermines the chance for universities to work to help the oppressed. In countries such as Israel where higher education actually functions this way, a boycott does not help solve the problems at hand. It only weakens the movement for equality and freedom.
Boycotting is everybody’s right. It is an expression of free thought. It is a form of civil activism and a valid method to raise awareness. The question is, even if a boycott of academic institutions is legitimate, does it ever work? Will it really make a difference here?
Probably not. Most likely, the boycott will be weak and ineffective and die down quickly. Most likely, the only thing it will achieve will be a contribution to the limitations of academic freedom by separating Israeli academics from some American institutions. Most likely, the boycott will completely backfire and weaken the movement for equality and freedom.