It took Palestinians 56 years living under brutal Israeli military repression to reach the point of calling for a boycott of Israel. However, it took practically nothing, just an endorsement of the academic boycott against Israel — a non-violent measure supported by a non-binding resolution — for some U.S. elites to call for a boycott of the American Studies Association.
In 2004 and 2005, Palestinian civil society issued calls for the international community to stand in solidarity with its struggle by boycotting Israeli academic, cultural, and economic institutions until they end their complicity with Israel's violations of international law.
Academic boycott is arguably the most contentious component of the boycott call, touching on institutions that many believe are the bedrock of society. Universities are seen as places where debate flourishes, where young minds are sculpted, and where students learn the value system of their society.
The reality, however, is that Israeli academic institutions, which are predominantly state-owned, provide the technology, research, and ethical rationale for Israel's 65-year-old colonization. These institutions are complicit in Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, including the widespread denial of Palestinians' academic freedom, which I witnessed working at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
Decades of being subjected to land confiscation, settlement building, the construction of a land-grabbing wall, home demolition, the killing, injuring and imprisonment of thousands, led Palestinians, inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, to call on the international community to hold Israel accountable through boycott, divestment and sanctions.
Many faith-based and community organizations, unions, and student groups — from Europe, to Africa, to Asia — have since launched boycott and divestment initiatives against Israeli institutions, and against multinational companies profiting from Israel's occupation. It was inevitable that this would reach U.S. academia.
After a yearlong discussion on the question of academic boycott, the ASA, at its 2013 conference, held panels, a town hall and an open membership meeting to discuss the proposed boycott resolution. The resolution passed only after the general membership voted overwhelmingly in favor. The resolution noted Israel's denial of Palestinian academic freedom, the need to respond to a call for solidarity from Palestinians, and highlighted the U.S. government's role in enabling Israel's rights violations by providing aid and political cover.
Rather than addressing this rationale, U.S. academic and political elites began attacking the ASA. Responses from university presidents, union leaders and lawmakers ranged from condemnation to calling for a boycott of the ASA and threatening to cut off funding to universities, departments or individuals affiliated with the association. Paradoxically, the rationale advanced for a boycott of the association is that academic boycott curtails academic freedom.
The vitriolic attacks on the ASA show that these academic and political elites are not concerned with the academic freedom of all. They have never demanded the academic freedom of Palestinians; nor are they interested in protecting the academic freedom of those who stand in solidarity with Palestinians.
Statements made by these individuals represent no one but themselves. None of the institutions they head debated the boycott and divestment movement against Israel, a sharp contrast with the ASA's democratic, participatory decision-making process. As a teacher, I was disconcerted to learn that the American Federation of Teachers "strongly disagrees with the decision" of the ASA, knowing that no vote took place within the federation. In addition, Indiana University, Purdue and Trinity College faculty members criticized their respective presidents for condemning the ASA resolution without consulting their university communities.
If this political and academic elite were concerned with upholding the academic freedom, democracy and transparency they profess to value, it would behoove them to invite discussions within their institutions to see where their constituents stand before attacking an organization for taking a position that reflects the values of its members.
Thankfully, the movement, like other social justice movements, does not depend on the elite. Rather, its strength is derived from the ever-increasing number of morally conscientious individuals and grass-roots organizations that refuse to remain silent in the face of the denial of Palestinian human rights.
Riham Barghouti is a New York City teacher, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and a co-founder of Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel.