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Massachusetts Academic Institutions React to the American Studies Association Boycott of Israel

By Abigail Adams

On December 16, after a week of on-line voting, members of the American Studies Association, a professional organization of 5,000 scholars and 2,200 academic institutions, libraries and museums focused on American history and culture, approved a boycott of Israeli academic institutions by a 2 to 1 margin. The vote was a major victory for Palestine’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which equates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to apartheid South Africa and has pressured businesses, governments, and social institutions to take punitive actions against Israel in the name of human rights.
The ASA was the second scholarly association to officially join the BDS movement – the Association for Asian American Studies joined the boycott in April. On December 15th, the Council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association also released a statement of support for the boycott of Israeli academics, although its membership did not vote on the issue.
The decision has evoked outrage from ASA’s membership and the academic community. Brandeis University, Penn State Harrison, Indiana University and Kenyon College have officially withdrawn their institutional membership with the ASA and over 60 colleges and universities, the Association of American University Professors and the Association of American Universities have released statements rejecting the boycott. MA Colleges and Universities – including Boston University, Tufts University, MIT, Harvard and Northeastern University – were among the academic institutions to decry the boycott as a violation of the principles of scholarship.
The following is a look at how the academic institutions of Western and Central MA responded…

UMass Amherst
UMass Amherst has been targeted as a potential source of support by the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), the arm of the BDS movement responsible for promoting the academic boycott, since 2009. USACBI created a blog post congratulating UMass Amherst Student Government Association’s March 25, 2009 resolution that called for the University to divest from companies that profit from war and occupation. The resolution, however, did not mention Israel, and UMass Amherst is home to the Israel Investment Group, a student-run organization that connects undergraduates to Israeli business leaders.
Robert Caret, President of the UMass System, has yet to comment on the academic boycott; however, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy issued a statement opposing the boycott on January 7, 2014:
The University of Massachusetts Amherst is opposed to academic boycotts of any kind.
The current boycott of academic institutions in Israel by several academic associations is no exception. While individuals have the right to express their views, we believe that academic boycotts undermine the fundamental principles of free expression and inquiry that are central to our mission of teaching, research and service.

Smith College
Smith College is one of the few academic establishments in MA that are institutional members of the ASA. They have not yet made any decisions regarding the status of their membership, however; on December 24, 2013 Smith College issued a statement opposing the boycott.
Smith College President Kathleen McCartney: Smith College upholds the ideals of academic freedom and engagement with global scholarship, scholars, research and ideas. The college rejects the American Studies Association’s proposed boycott of Israeli universities and will continue to support our students and faculty in pursuing opportunities in Israel and with their Israeli counterparts. In recent years, such opportunities have included hosting Israeli scholars on our campus for residencies in the U.S.; hosting summer Global Engagement Seminars for our students in Jerusalem; and running a thriving Jewish Studies program. Additionally, we are actively exploring the possibility of faculty and student exchanges with Israel.

Amherst College
The following statement was released on December 30, 2013 by Amherst College President Biddy Martin:
I join my colleague presidents in the American Association of Universities (AAU) and many among liberal arts colleges who oppose the boycott of Israeli academic institutions that was recently passed by a majority of the American Studies Association (ASA) members, as well as by two other academic associations.
Amherst College is not an institutional member of the ASA nor is our Department of American Studies. Individual members of the association on our campus are obviously free to vote as they wish. On behalf of the College,
I express opposition to this academic boycott for several related reasons. 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. In their public statement, the members of the executive committee of the AAU emphasize what I consider to be the most compelling reason to oppose the boycott: “[Academic freedom] is a principle that should not be abridged by political considerations.” Indeed, it is the very definition of academic freedom that freedom of inquiry should not be constrained by political pressures. In its explanation of the importance of academic freedom and tenure, the American Association of University Professors has emphasized, throughout its history, that its benefits go well beyond the protection of individual scholars and academic institutions. Perhaps its most important benefit is to the society that depends for its own well-being on freedom of thought and exchange and those institutions whose mission it is to promote them. I call on the community to consider for us all the far-reaching implications of political gestures that limit or have the potential to limit the pursuit and exchange of ideas.

Clark University
The following statement was released on December 30, 2013 by Clark University President David P. Angel:
Clark University rejects the call for an academic boycott of Israel made by the American Studies Association. Academic boycotts, whether of Israel or any other country, undermine the free exchange of thoughts and ideas that are central to academic freedom. Clark University fully supports the statement of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) against academic boycotts.

Hampshire College
In 2009, Hampshire College’s Students for Justice in Palestine circulated a press release that announced Hampshire College had become the first college in the U.S. to join the BDS movement. Hampshire College, however, quickly clarified that the Board of Trustees’ decision to transfer assets in its State Street Fund, which held stock in over 200 companies, to another fund was not an endorsement of the BDS movement or a divestment from Israel. Review of the State Street Fund was requested by Students for Justice in Palestine, however; the Board of Trustees found many of the companies supported by the fund in violation of their socially responsible investment policy –
the findings made no reference to Israel.
Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash, however, was unavailable to comment on the ASA boycott.

Mt. Holyoke College
Mt. Holyoke’s current President Lynn Pasquerella issued a no comment on the
ASA boycott; however, in 2007, Mt. Holyoke President Joanne Creighton denounced the decision of Britain’s University and College Union, which represents British professors, to promote the academic boycott of Israel. Creighton was one of over 300 signatories to a letter written by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger that stated, “as a university professor and president, I find this idea utterly antithetical to the fundamental values of the academy, where we will not hold intellectual exchange hostage to the political disagreements of the moment. In seeking to quarantine Israeli universities and scholars this vote threatens every university fostering scholarly and cultural exchanges that lead to enlightenment, empathy, and a much-needed international marketplace of ideas…if the British UCU is intent on pursuing its deeply misguided policy…Boycott us, then, for we gladly stand together with our many colleagues in British, American and Israeli universities against such intellectually shoddy and politically biased attempts to hijack the central mission of higher education.”

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