April 26, 2013; JTA

The general membership of the Association of Asian American Studies (AAAS) resolved in a recent vote to boycott Israeli academic institutions, making it the first U.S. scholarly organization to do so. The secret ballot, which included 10 percent of the group’s membership, took place during its annual conference in Seattle this month.

The resolution explains that as an “organization dedicated to the preservation and support of academic freedom and of the right to education for students and scholars in the U.S. and globally,” AAAS stood in solidarity with Palestinian students and academics who have faced “restrictions on movement and travel that limit their ability to attend and work at universities, travel to conferences and to study abroad, and thereby obstruct their right to education.”

Moreover, the association claims that “Israeli institutions of higher education have not condemned or taken measures to oppose the occupation and racial discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, but have, rather, been directly and indirectly complicit in the systematic maintenance of the occupation and of policies and practices that discriminate against Palestinian students and scholars throughout Palestine and in Israel.” This complicity in “Israel’s violations of international law and human rights and in its denial of the right to education and academic freedom to Palestinians, in addition to their basic rights as guaranteed by international law” prompted AAAS members to endorse “the call of Palestinian civil society” for a boycott.

Rajini Srikanth, the group’s former president, drew parallels to boycotts against South African universities during apartheid and stressed that AAAS was protesting institutions, not individual academics.

“The reason that we’re very clear that this is a boycott of Israeli institutions and not Israeli scholars is that we are very aware that there are Israeli scholars who understand the difficulties that Palestinian academics and students have and speak up in support of Palestinian rights,” Srikanth told Inside Higher Ed. “So we would absolutely be working with them, and providing them whatever support they need to challenge their institutions.” Nonetheless, she stressed that AAAS discourages partnerships with Israeli academic institutions so as to avoid “becoming complicit with the discriminatory practices of Israeli institutions.”

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), a pro-Israel organization, condemned the AAAS action. “SPME deplores the AAAS resolution as it is counter to any acceptable academic discourse and is contrary to the search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” the group’s statement read. “Additionally, by focusing exclusively and obsessively on Israel, and not on many other countries in the world where actual human and civil rights abuses exist, the actions of those supporting academic boycotts, as well as calls for divestment, are, according to former Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers, ‘anti-Semitic in their effect if not in their intent.’”

SPME added that “the world academic community frowns upon academic boycotts which it regards as antithetical to the fundamental principles of academic freedom. Whatever their feelings, academics cannot say they support academic freedom and exchange if they boycott, censor, or otherwise interrupt the exchange of ideas, research and information.”

Will other organizations follow suit, or will AAAS be a voice in the wilderness?—Erwin de Leon