PA lawmaker blasts ASA for academic boycott of Israel


By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

A Pennsylvania lawmaker this week blasted the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel, calling it an example of anti-Semitism that should be condemned by the state and educational institutions alike.

“It’s the only country that was established as a Jewish state, so they targeted them,” state Sen. Anthony H. Williams, D-Philadelphia, said. “So I can only attribute that to some level of anti-Semitic perspective.”

The ASA says its controversial boycott is a way to combat human rights violations. “Israeli academic institutions function as a central part of a system that has denied Palestinians their basic rights.” But Williams questioned why other nations with questionable records weren’t included.

SPEAKING OUT: Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony H. Williams believes an academic boycott of Israel should be denounced.

Williams this week introduced a resolution asking that the Department of Education, State System of Higher Education and all colleges and universities in Pennsylvania “reject anti-Semitism and not participate in the academic boycott.”

The state lawmaker slammed the boycott as an act of “intimidation” that undermines the ASA’s credibility. His words built upon the backlash that has swirled ever since 66 percent of ASA members who voted in a referendum approved the boycott in December.

Matthew Frye Jacobson, a past president of the ASA and a professor at Yale University, raised the possibility that Williams’ words might be more bombast than anything.

“That’s a common charge, and there may be some people who actually believe that,” he said. “My own experience is that it’s a rhetorical tactic to play the anti-Semitism card (rather) than something people actually believe.”

Israeli institutions were singled out for two reasons, Jacobson said, the first being the ASA acted upon a specific plea from the Palestinian civil rights leaders.

Secondly, Jacobson said, the United States has enabled oppressive polices by sending aide to Israel and shielding the nation’s through its “protective role” on the United Nations Security Council.

“The U.S. is complicit in these policies in ways that just aren’t the case in the other situations that are usually named,” Jacobson said.

Williams doesn’t buy the ASA’s explanations, calling it “flimsy at best” and “intellectually dishonest at worst.”

In Pennsylvania, Drexel University has already denounced the boycott, while Temple University President Neil D. Theobald said the school “strongly” opposes the boycott.

“Indeed, rather than limiting its association with other institutions, Temple University calls upon the ASA to remain true to academic inquiry by engaging with those who have divergent views,” Theobald said in a statement.

Though the firestorm that has followed the boycott hasn’t been totally unexpected, Jacobson believes the debate that has erupted over academic freedom has overshadowed the original intent of the boycott — to call attention to the abridgement of academic freedoms in Israel.

While the ASA in its official capacity cannot partner with an Israeli institution under the boycott, the measure was narrowly tailored to avoid obstructing opportunities such as research, traveling for symposia or collaboration with Israeli scholars, Jacobson said.

“It’s really mostly symbolic,” he said of the boycott.

Despite the blowback, there are no plans to revoke the boycott, Jacobson said.

There could be more debate about the ASA’s move in Pennsylvania in the coming weeks, as Williams’ resolution makes its way through the Senate. It’s now in the chamber’s Education Committee.

While the measure is non-binding, Williams believes “the substance of organized democratic bodies speaking out against this is a strong, impactful commentary.”

“I don’t think it’s simply symbolic,” Williams said.

Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

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