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Tracking COVID-19 at UCLA2020 Racial Injustice Protests

Academic boycott of Israel denounced by UC leaders

By Jeong Park

January 6, 2014 12:00 am

The original version of this article contained multiple errors and has been changed. See the bottom of the article for additional information.

Late last month, leaders of the University of California and UCLA denounced a major academic organization’s boycott on Israeli universities and scholars.

The boycott, approved by the American Studies Association, has set off a national debate among students, faculty members and stakeholders about the merit of such sanctions as a measure to apply pressure to the Israeli government and to shape policy in the decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict.

In December, the American Studies Association, a major academic association devoted to studying American culture and history, passed a resolution urging its researchers to refrain from formally collaborating with Israeli universities and scholars who serve on behalf of Israeli universities or the country’s government. Individual contacts and academic exchanges, such as presentations and public lectures, do not violate the resolution, the Association said in a statement.

The American Studies Association said the resolution was intended as a response to U.S. support for Israel and Israel’s violations of international law and United Nations resolutions, according to the statement from the Association endorsing the boycott. Specifically, the Association said that Israeli universities are a party to Israeli policies of occupation in the Palestinian West Bank, an occupation the Association says violates the academic freedom of Palestinians.

UC President Janet Napolitano, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and leaders of several other universities, such as Harvard, Yale and five other UC campuses, claim the boycott threatens academic freedom and the exchange of ideas because it would broadly suppress collaboration with Israeli scholars.

“Limiting academic debate and research violates our principles of independent inquiry and does a disservice not only to scholars here and abroad but also to the state, nation and world,” Block said in a statement.

UCLA and many of its researchers collaborate with Israeli universities and Israeli faculties.

UCLA currently has a memorandum of understanding – a broad agreement in which universities agree to expand cooperation with each other – with Technion, also known as the Israel Institute of Technology, that will expire in 2016. Both universities have collaborated in conducting scientific studies.

The university has study abroad programs with two Israel universities. It also hosted the conference of the Association of Israel Studies last summer, which featured numerous speakers from Israeli universities and other universities around the world. UCLA often invites Israeli faculties to give talks on campus.

Maura Resnick, a deputy director for UCLA Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, said she doubts that any collaboration and Israel will be affected by the American Studies Association boycott.

Members of the UCLA community who support the boycott say it gives more voice to Palestinians and Palestinian allies, while other community members say the boycott restricts dialogue on the issue.

Agatha Palma, the director of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions for Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA, said she is not surprised by the statements from Napolitano and Block. Palma, a graduate student in anthropology, said the University’s disregard of students’ opinions on divestment shows the University is not willing to respect the American Studies Association vote either.

Proponents of the boycott also say it gives Palestinians a voice to speak out against Israeli policies that limit academic freedom and human rights for Palestinians.

“It’s a form of material and symbolic action advocating for academic freedom for Palestine scholars and students,” said Haidar Ali Anwar, a fourth-year political science student and president of the Muslim Student Association West.

Other students said they appreciate the statements from President Napolitano and Chancellor Block.

(The) UC system is founded on values of academic excellence, which includes freedom of expression of different points of academia,” said Miriam Eshaghian, the president of Bruins for Israel and a fourth-year psychobiology student.

Critics of the boycott say that cutting ties with Israeli institutions could have the unintended effect of harming Palestinian students studying at Israeli universities.

Among faculty, opinions on the boycott’s implications for academic freedom were varied.

By backing the Israeli government’s policies, Israeli universities take part in repressing the intellectual freedoms of Palestinian scholars and students, said Robin D.G. Kelley, a UCLA history professor and an American Studies Association member.

“The (Israeli) university administration … backs up state repression, participates in denying the very intellectual freedoms (proponents) hold so sacrosanct,” Kelley said. “As the resolution makes clear, Israeli institutions are complicit, and in defense of all of our colleagues they must be challenged.”

Kelley said the boycott does not necessarily mean the end to collaboration and dialogue with Israeli scholars.

“The resolution and its authors encourage collaboration and dialogue, but outside the official channels of the Israeli state-supported institutions that continue to benefit directly from or support the occupation,” Kelley said.

Steven Spiegel, a political science professor and the director of the UCLA Center for Middle East Development, said the American Studies Association’sboycott could come to restrict faculty and student freedom in expressing their opinion on the conflict.

“(The) role of the academics is to tell the truth, not to curtail debate,” said James Gelvin, a history professor specializing in the modern Middle East.

Debate at universities and in numerous academic associations over whether to boycott or divest from Israel has grown louder in recent months.

The American Studies Association, which represents about 5,000 members, is the second academic association to boycott Israel universities so far. Association for Asian American Studies was the first one to do so in April of last year; The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and Association for Humanist Sociology followed suit, making four academic organizations that have boycotted Israel.

At the end of this week, the Modern Language Association, which has nearly 30,000 members, will have a roundtable discussion on the issue during its convention in Chicago.

Bill Jacob, chair of the UC Academic Senate, which represents the faculty of the UC system, said the Senate has not yet taken an official stance on the issue because of the winter recess. He added that the issue may be discussed when the Academic Council meets at the end of January.

Correction: Haidar Ali Anwar is president of the Muslim Student Association West. The Association for Israel Studies conference at UCLA did not host any members of the Israeli government, but academics from Israel and numerous other nations. Four academic organizations have voted to boycott Israeli universities, a previous version of this article omitted the Association for Humanist Sociology.

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