The ASA wake-up call

The ASA wake-up call

After years of watching efforts to academically boycott Israel gather momentum in Europe — particularly Great Britain — apparently this weapon for demonizing the Jewish state by targeting its professors and schools is now taking root on these shores.

The members of the American Studies Association (ASA), an academic organization devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, recently voted to call for a boycott of Israeli universities.

The vote, which passed by a two-thirds majority, followed a unanimous vote by the ASA’s 20-member governing council to endorse such a boycott, and it comes despite a call from the much larger American Association of University Professors to reject such a proposal.

The AAUP branded such boycotts as violations of “academic freedom,” but the ASA said the vote does not boycott individual Israeli scholars, merely their institutions, and that Israelis may still take part in ASA activities while its members, for the most part, may work with Israelis.

“The academic boycott does not seek to curtail dialogue between U.S. and Israeli scholars,” according to a statement on the ASA website. “Collaboration on research and publications between individual scholars does not fall under the ASA boycott. However, the boycott does oppose participation in conferences or events officially sponsored by Israeli universities.”

The ASA is not the first American organization to take this step. The Association for Asian American Studies also endorsed a boycott in April.

The votes by these organizations are not binding on their individual members, many of whom didn’t even bother to vote. In the ASA’s case, 1,252 of the organization’s 3,853 eligible voters cast ballots. That means two-thirds of its voting members, for whatever reason, didn’t take part in the referendum.

Nationally, ASA is already taking some public black eyes for this action. Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University, has condemned the measure as “anti-Semitic” in its effect “if not in intent.”

The vote might well split the ASA itself. Eight past presidents of the organization have already come out against it.

Meanwhile, its current president, Curtis Marez, in an interview with The New York Times, made a surprisingly dumb defense of the boycott call.

“He [Marez] did not dispute that many nations, including many of Israel’s neighbors, are generally judged to have human rights records that are worse than Israel’s, or comparable,” the Times reported, “but he said, ‘one has to start somewhere.’ ”

That’s right. ASA has never before preached boycott of the universities of any nation — ever. Not apartheid South Africa, the Soviet Union or its Eastern Bloc states, China, North Korea, Iran or those Arab states where women have few, if any, rights.

Only Israel.

That speaks volumes about the ASA’s commitment to justice around the globe.     

Still, to dismiss this vote as minor and irrelevant would be a mistake. The ASA votes should be treated as wake-up calls by American Jewry, examples of what anti-Israel elements can accomplish with enough complacency and carefully selected facts (to the exclusion of all others). There’s a battle on America’s campuses for the hearts and minds of students. If the professors join that fight on the other side, as many of them are doing, then the outcome is very much in doubt.