This week, the American Studies Association, a group with nearly 4,000 U.S. members, voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. “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 ASA explained in a statement.
The move has been broadly and passionately condemned, and rightly so. By banning interaction with fellow scholars, the ASA is undermining the very academic freedom it purportedly represents. Moreover, by singling out Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East and a country renowned for its liberal universities, by ignoring the Palestinian Authority's opposition to such a boycott, and overlooking vast human rights abuses in many other countries, the ASA is guilty of prejudice. ASA President Curtis Marez, who defended the selection of the Jewish state for his organization's first-ever boycott by saying “one has to start somewhere," has been especially denounced as anti-Semitic in effect if not intention.
Such outrage sounds notes of moral clarity, even sanity, in a biased and dysfunctional academic environment. It is inconceivable that the ASA would sanction scholars in any black African or South American state the way it has Israelis. Under a similar ban, Amos Oz—internationally acclaimed author, peace activist and literature professor at Ben-Gurion University—could not attend a seminar on conflict resolution in the United States. Out of the more than 193 countries in the world, the ASA has selected one, Israel, for special treatment.
A successful precedent for that fight already exists in the defeat of the Arab economic boycott of Israel. That embargo began in 1945, before Israel's creation, when the Arab League voted to ban "Jewish products." Over the next 30 years, this boycott damaged Israel's economy—until America stood up.
In 1977, Congress passed a series of laws making it illegal for U.S. companies to cooperate with any boycott of Israel and imposing stiff penalties on those that did. The boycott, Congress concluded, was not only racist against Israelis but all Jews. In signing the legislation, President Jimmy Carter, though a frequent critic of Israel, pledged to “end the divisive effects on American life of foreign boycotts aimed at Jewish members of our society.” Subsequent bills further underscored America's commitment to safeguard Israel from prejudicial bans.
Michael B. Oren is the Abba Eban chair in international diplomacy in the Lauder School of Government at IDC, Herzliya. He was formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
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Israeli-American Oren, who served as Israeli ambassador to the US from 2009-2013, a position for which he gave up his US citizenship, is also a noted historian and author. In 2010, while giving a speech at the University of California at Irvine, anti-Israel protesters attempted to disrupt the event and squash the ”right to discourse,” Oren recalled, but the speech went on and “11 of those demonstrators were arrested, tried and found guilty of disrupting free speech.”