Jewish Studies Scholars Rue 'Misguided' Boycott of Israeli Academia

As American Studies Association stands behind symbolic boycott, some of their colleagues worry that Israel-bashing has become trendy in U.S. academia.

Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft
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Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft

As the American Studies Association endorsed a boycott of Israeli universities and academic institutions Monday, colleagues at the Association for Jewish Studies gathered in Boston for their annual conference where several called the boycott "misguided" and even "offensive".

The ASA boycott, which is effectively more a symbolic than practical blow to Israel, was waged in protest of what the organization termed Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians and its occupation of Palestinian lands.

“The boycott targets the wrong group within Israel. Its academia (Israel's) is behind human rights activism, so why boycott them?” said Jody Myers, professor of Jewish and religious studies at California State University, Northridge.

“But I am dismayed by the occupation and stance of the Israeli government toward the territories,” she added, reflecting the sentiments among several of those interviewed at the conference.

“Israeli academics are willing to engage in conversations about what is going on in Israel and are themselves often critical of the Israeli government policies. (The boycott) seems very short-sighted,” said Drorah Setel, a reform Rabbi who heads the Jewish Studies faculty at The American Hebrew Academy in Greensborough, North Carolina.

Setel, echoing other critics of the boycott, also questioned why Israel was singled out for censure, citing repressive regimes around the world who do not draw the same attention as Israel.

Israel advocates are concerned the boycott is a possible sign that Israel’s growing international isolation is spreading to the United States.

Earlier in the day, a panel was held on the impact of the BDS movement on U.S. campuses.

Len Saxe, who directs a center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, and chaired the session said, “It was clear to everybody this is not about opening conversations. It’s the opposite. It’s about delegitimizing Israel and doing so in a way that is counter to the norms we share as scholars.”

Speaking between sessions about the boycott vote, Saxe reacted with anger.

“That they are choosing to focus on the issue of Israel rather than the serious problems in America of violence, prisons and violation of the human rights of immigrants is to me, despicable,” he said.

Samuel M. Edelman agreed with Saxe as he stood listening on. A professor emeritus of Jewish Studies at California State University, Chico, Edelman is currently the executive director for the Center of Academic Engagement of the Israel on Campus Coalition. Among the center’s missions is to create a network of academics who support Israel and who can mentor pro-Israel students and faculty.

He said of the ASA boycott: “It’s not just an attack on Israel, it’s an attack on (…) academic freedom in universities,” he said. “They are not concerned with peace, if they were they would be fostering discourse and dialogue and bringing Israelis into the discussion. Rather, they are censoring, they are closing the door.”

The ASA boycott is getting a fair amount of attention in the United States because the vote marks the first time a relatively sizable American academic group has called for a boycott. The vote has also stirred calls among some critics that the association singled Israel out because of anti-Semitism.

Robert Harris, associate professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary said such protests appear to be a growing trend.

“But the Muslims and Christians with whom I’ve been in dialogue with know that is not the way to bring peace. It’s engagement that ought to be the key,” he said.

Boycott Israel sign (illustration)Credit: Dreamstime

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