In Support of Biddy: Why We Shouldn’t Boycott Academia

A few weeks ago, President Biddy Martin and Amherst College joined a list of 245 schools that have formally opposed the American Studies Association’s (ASA) boycott on academic institutions in Israel. Every NESCAC school, institution which holds many similar values as Amherst, joins us on that list.

It is ironic and illogical that the ASA, an organization which focuses on scholarship and academia, has decided to boycott Israeli institutions of higher learning. The ASA disapproves of Israeli settlements, its treatment of Palestinians, and condemns Israel for human rights violations. The ASA is now being largely condemned for using political bias instead of academic reasons as the catalyst for its decision. In fact, the President of the Palestinian University in Jerusalem, Al-Quds, objects to the ASA’s boycott [1].

If individuals or ASA members wish to pressure Israel to make changes in its policy, they should be free to do so. However, this should not be done at the expense of education. Sure, there are many ways to apply pressure on a country, but this is not the right type of pressure to be coming from the ASA. It is antithetical to the principles of education. Biddy Martin said it well in her email to the student body that: “Such boycotts threaten academic freedom and exchange, which it is our solemn duty as academic institutions to protect. They prohibit potential collaborations among the very institutions whose purpose is to promote critical thought and the free exchange of ideas.” Last semester, I had an amazing opportunity of attending Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But whether or not a student attends school in Israel is not going to affect Israel’s political decisions, it is simply going to harm progressive discourse and prevent students from going to Israel to learn more about the situation.

The ASA certainly cannot agree with many of the political stances of countries where students study. Yet, it hasn’t boycotted institutions in China or North Korea, where there actually is academic censorship and human rights violations. Why is Israel subject to a double standard and such scrutiny from the international community? Last month 65 Republicans and 69 Democrats in Congress signed a letter denouncing the ASA’s boycott of Israel. The letter that the Congressmen signed says that the ASA is holding Israel to a “morally dishonest double standard” and that, “Even more concerning is the singular targeting of Israel for boycott. Like all democracies, Israel is not perfect. But to single out Israel, while leaving relationships with universities in autocratic and repressive countries intact, suggests thinly veiled bigotry and bias against the Jewish state” [2].

Studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem was an amazing and transformative experience. Being able to live there for four months challenged and broadened my understanding of the issues. By no means do I agree with everything that Israel does politically, but I understand the issues much deeper now. I respect how hard Israel is working to better the situation for all of the people living in the region while fostering a peaceful, instead of hateful, mentality. My semester abroad was the epitome of education: learning firsthand about the serious, relevant issues in the world. Israel is supported and committed to the most basic freedoms that we as Americans support.

I was exposed first-hand to the honest discourse that was taking place in the classrooms both critiquing and praising Israeli actions past and present. The discourse and disagreement in Israel both in academia and in the public sphere are enormous. That phenomena does not occur in many countries of the Middle East, or even other countries all around the world. Being able to learn in an environment surrounded by people from all different races, religions, and countries exposed me to a new level of diversity. In fact, three of my roommates were enrolled in the Arabic and language immersion program. They all had very different reasons for studying the language and varied in their views towards Israel; but that did not stop Israel from teaching them or allowing us to have the opportunity to live with and learn from one another.

The exchange of academia between Palestine and Israel may not be as free as it could or should be. However, the reasoning behind why few Palestinians attend Israeli universities and vice versa is due to valid security concerns, a reason frequently overlooked when trying to understand the issue at hand. The physical barriers Israel has constructed which limit academic exchanges are a direct consequence of the terrorist attacks the Palestinians initiated. These security measures strengthened after the Second Intifada because terrorists launched tens of thousands of rockets into Israel in a five-year period leaving 1,098 Israelis dead, 69 percent of whom were innocent civilians. The military situation in the West Bank, the security fence [3], and the checkpoints are preventative measures [3]. In fact, it was Israel who allowed for the opening of universities in the West Bank after the War of 1967; Jordan had controlled the West Bank prior and did not allow for Palestinians to attend university (for proof, look up the dates of when Palestinian universities were founded). Yet, despite all of these necessary precautions, Israel still allows for more academic freedom than most countries in the world.

When Biddy Martin issued her thinking on why she rejected the ASA’s boycott, it was on academic and not political grounds. As students, certainly we understand the value of education and why it would be dangerous for political motivations to hinder our access to it.

1 “Palestinians Divided Over Boycott of Israeli Universities.” The New York Times. 19 Jan. 2014.
2 “134 Members of Congress Condemn the Academic Boycott of Israel.” Congressman Brad Schneider. 17 Jan. 2014.