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A foolish boycott against Israel

President Barack Obamspeaks International ConventiCenter Jerusalem Thursday March 21 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Barack Obama speaks at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, Thursday, March 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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Updated: January 23, 2014 6:33AM

Israel, for all its perceived failings, is among the most intellectually open societies in the world, where public discourse — especially about Israel’s perceived failings — is freewheeling and relentless.

Yet the American Studies Association, a group of some 3,800 scholars and professors, has joined an academic boycott against Israeli universities to protest human rights violations against Palestinians.

What foolishness.

Last we looked around the globe there was no shortage of nations — let’s begin with China — guilty of far more egregious human rights abuses and far less tolerant of free expression, open debate and academic freedom. Yet the American Studies Association singles out Israel for its self-righteous scorn, apparently oblivious to the long, convoluted and pessimistic realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ASA seems to be of the naive or deluded notion that Israel’s troubles could be resolved in short order if only Israel were more amenable. It is a shallow view of Middle East history and politics that ignores the conspicuous absence of a truly willing partner for peace — one who can deliver the goods — among Palestinian and Arab leaders.

Like many of those calling for the academic boycott, we believe the West Bank settlements are nothing but trouble. They undermine Israel’s moral stature in the world and make a necessary two-state solution to the conflict impossible. We also believe the current Israeli government should more aggressively seek negotiated, rather than military, solutions. With that in mind, we have supported the current talks in Geneva — viewed with a hostile skepticism by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

But throughout its history, Israel has been forced to fight wars to defend its very right to exist, and concessions made in the name of peace have come back to haunt. After Israel transferred civil administration of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority in 1994, Gaza was used as a staging ground to rain down missiles on Israeli neighborhoods. Forgive us, then, if we are less optimistic than the flower children of ASA that Israel is the primary impediment to peace.

The very notion of an academic boycott is an insult to American ideals. As Brandeis University stated the matter on Thursday, when announcing that its American Studies Program had quit ASA, “We can no longer support an organization that has rejected two of the core principles of American culture — freedom of association and expression.”

Penn State Harrisburg also withdrew from ASA last week — and encouraged other universities and academics to do so — saying the boycott “curtails academic freedom and undermines the reputation of American Studies as a scholarly enterprise.”

Former Harvard President Lawrence Summers says the boycott reveals the ASA to be less a “scholarly association” than “a political tool.” And the much larger and influential American Association of University Professors says it was “disappointed” by the ASA decision and rejects boycotts.

What troubles us most about the ASA boycott might be the rhetoric behind the movement, which reveals an agenda that is less anti-occupation or pro-Palestinian than simply anti-Israel. There is no other way to read such tired old Israel bashing as this: “Israeli academic institutions are part of the ideological and institutional scaffolding of the Zionist settler-colonial project.”

The ultimate irony might be this: Nowhere in the world are debates about Israeli policies and actions deeper or more questioning than in the very Israeli universities the foolish ASA is boycotting.

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