Citing concerns over academic freedom, University President Peter Salovey issued a statement over winter break condemning the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel.
The ASA — a national group of 5,000 scholars that promotes the study of American culture and history — passed a resolution at its Dec. 4 annual conference that bars the organization from entering into partnerships with Israeli institutions. The ASA, which counts Yale’s American Studies department as an institutional member, justified the decision by pointing to what it referred to as an illegal occupation of Palestine by Israel, infringement on Palestinian students’ rights to education and the lack of academic freedom for Palestinians. The ASA’s boycott joins the international Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions movement against Israel, which began in Palestine in 2005 but has only recently gained attention in the United States.
“As a university president, I believe that the pursuit of knowledge should not be impeded, and therefore a boycott is a strategy I cannot endorse, interfering as it does with academic freedom,” Salovey told the News in an email last week. “In this matter I am expressing my own opinion, but one informed by my position as Yale’s president.”
In a Dec. 20 statement, the Association of American Universities — an organization of leading research universities to which Yale belongs as a founding member — declared that efforts to address political issues should not infringe upon academic freedom, and that restrictions on scholars to work with fellow academics violate the principles of higher education. Salovey said his condemnation of the boycott was meant to echo the position of the AAU.
But Yale American Studies professor Zareena Grewal, who is in favor of the boycott, said she does not believe the boycott hampers academic freedom. Rather, she said it aims to increase academic freedom for scholars in Israel who are silenced by the government.
Despite protests, the boycott itself is unlikely to hold any major practical implications for either the ASA, its member departments or Israeli institutions. Yale American Studies professor Matthew Jacobson, a former president of the ASA and a defender of the ASA resolution, said the ASA plans to invite both Israeli and Palestinian scholars to the next ASA convention, in order to demonstrate that the ASA’s boycott is of Israeli institutions, not Israeli individuals.
The ASA’s decision to use the word “boycott” was not entirely accurate, and was only made in an attempt to align with words used in the larger BDS movement, Jacobson said.
Jacobson added that the ASA’s move was “99 percent symbolic,” and that he did not expect the backlash revolving around the implications of the boycott for academic freedom at American and Israeli institutions.
“We truly did envision this as a conversation starter,” he said. “It has started [a] conversation, but it wasn’t the one we expected.”
The boycott has led to outcry at other universities — including Brown, the University of Chicago, Northwestern and New York University — affiliated with the ASA. In denouncing the boycott, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust said that “academic boycotts subvert academic freedoms,” and Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber called it “indefensible” to single out Israel.
Brandeis, Penn State Harrisburg, Kenyon College and Indiana University have cancelled their ASA memberships in protest. At Middlebury College, members of the American Studies faculty sent an open letter to the ASA in which they argued that the boycott did not align with the organization’s mission statement.
Michael Newbury GRD ’92, an American Studies professor at Middlebury, said the department is concerned with the ASA’s apparent power to vote on any topic.
“We’re concerned about what it means when an organization like the ASA decides to weigh in on geopolitics, when their mission statement says nothing about geopolitics. What is that going to mean for institutions that want to have American Studies programs and then have to account for the ASA’s seemingly unlimited capacity to vote on anything they want to?” Newbury asked.
Aside from the ASA, the only other American academic organization to boycott Israel has been the Association for Asian American Studies, which began its boycott in April 2013.
Correction: Jan. 15