False ‘start’

False ‘start’

Speaking to The New York Times about the decision by the American Studies Association to call for an academic boycott of Israel, the group’s president acknowledged that the move was unprecedented. No, the group hasn’t targeted any other nation’s universities, said Curtis Marez, and yes, many of Israel’s neighbors have human rights records that are worse than Israel’s. So why Israel?

“One has to start somewhere,” he said.

Marez’s blithe comment captures all that is hypocritical, one-sided, and queasily bigoted about the 5,000-member ASA’s decision to isolate Israeli scholars. At a time when Chinese academics face persecution for their views inside their own country, when the university system in Iran is little more than an arm of the theocracy, and when Russia is considering a move to reduce its Academy of Sciences to a branch office of the government, the country most deserving of ASA’s scorn is Israel. Never mind that Israel’s universities are themselves hotbeds of dissent, where Jews and Arabs are free to criticize their government with no fear of reprisal. Or that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas himself is opposed to boycotts of Israel. No, ASA has its priorities, and they happen to reflect its voting members’ concerns with the world’s only Jewish majority state. As former Harvard president Lawrence Summers told Charlie Rose this week, academic boycotts of Israel are “anti-Semitic in their effect if not necessarily in their intent.”

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement has struggled for a foothold in the United States, and the ASA vote represents a rare but troubling setback for those battling efforts to delegitimize Israel. Ironically, if members of the ASA are seeking a wider, more open discussion of Palestinian statehood and the flaws of the current Israeli government, they have probably achieved the very opposite. Within Israel and among its supporters in the United States, there is willingness to discuss the steps that must be taken, on all sides, to reach a just and secure peace in the region. But when Israel and its supporters feel under siege and singled out, that conversation grinds to a halt. Obstructionists rejoice.

A scholarly association worth its salt should know this. By “starting” with Israel, the ASA has proven itself merely a political tool.

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