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Israel, the American Studies Association, Stanford, and Us: Why We Should Care

September 7, 2014

[At the request of some of my classmates, I am posting here the comments I made at a TED-style talk at our recent reunion.]

I am here to talk about Israel, the American Studies Association boycott, and the role of Stanford University.  First, let’s make sure that everyone who’s here wants to be here. If you don’t want to hear about this subject, this is your chance to leave. Even if you never found the “Delete” function of your email system, you can still opt out of the discussion.

For those still here: Thank you for your interest, or at least willingness to listen. I would have preferred to have a dialog, an interactive discussion. I welcome your thoughts and feedback later, in person, by email, or in the Comments section below.

Second, a disclaimer: I was born and raised in Israel, but I am not a spokesperson or apologist for the Israeli government. I have plenty of criticism of various Israeli policies. I also have criticism of some American policies. But I’m still a proud American, and a proud Israeli.

In December 2013, the American Studies Association adopted a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The ASA is the professional organization for scholars and professors in the field of American Studies. Basically, they decided that they will no longer invite Israeli colleagues to their conferences, review their papers, or collaborate with them in any way. Stanford University issued a statement “rejecting” the boycott, but maintained its institutional membership in the ASA.

The American Studies Association boycott is anti-academic, discriminatory, and anti-peace.

A boycott, any boycott, is inherently anti-academic. A university is supposed to be a place for an open exchange of ideas. The original Latin word means “a community of masters and scholars.” Its very essence is intellectual interchange that is free from political or other external pressures. Rejecting or refusing to work with some scholars because of their politics, or because of their geographic origin or ethnic identity, is the antithesis of academia. It is an affront to the very notions of scholarly discourse and academic liberty.

The boycott is also biased and bigoted. Obviously, the organization is hypocritical in singling out Israel while being completely silent about massive atrocities and human rights abuses from Nigeria to Crimea and from the Islamic State to Tibet.

But even if they only wanted to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, believing—as some do—that it’s the most pressing geopolitical issue of our time, it’s still unfair. The American Studies Association puts the entire blame for a decades-old conflict on one side. It condemns only Israel, absolving the Palestinians from any responsibility whatsoever.

Does this even pass the smell test? Have you ever encountered a dispute, in any arena, where one side is completely right and the other completely wrong? What kind of fair-minded or impartial observer would uncritically accept such a position?

By the way, boycotting Israeli academics and condemning Israel is not pro-Palestinian. It’s just anti-Israel. There are many valid, useful ways to support the Palestinian people; shutting down discourse is not one of them. This should not be a zero-sum game, just as being pro-American does not require you to be anti-Canada.

This brings me to the biggest reason that the ASA boycott is wrong, as is Stanford’s complicity in it. They are anti-peace. Like most Israelis, I was raised on the hope for peace. The founding document of the modern-day State of Israel, its Declaration of Independence, “extend[s a] hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal[s] to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help.”

The simple truth is that peace requires a willingness to cooperate, to coexist, to live side by side in peace and security. It requires mutual understanding, mutual respect, mutual recognition, and mutual effort. It requires people living together, working together, studying and researching together. It requires engagement and open dialog, not isolation. We need more conversations, more listening, not less. Boycotts are the opposite of dialog and coexistence; they are an obstacle to peace.

The ASA boycott has even hurt our own community. It has alienated me from our alma mater, an otherwise proud association. It has driven a wedge between some of our classmates who found themselves on different sides in this debate, or debating whether this is even a legitimate debate at all.

Please choose peace. Reject academic boycotts. Fight discriminatory, one-sided, politically driven condemnation of Israel. Reject efforts to isolate scholars by those who disagree with a country’s policies. Please join me in asking Stanford University to support dialog and engagement, not boycotts. Ask Stanford to end its affiliation with the American Studies Association for its bigoted, shortsighted, and anti-peace position. Let’s work toward a future that is defined by peace, engagement, and dialog rather than conflict and boycotts.


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