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Column: Academic Boycott Is a Warning to Israel

The growing movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israeli universities has struck a chord in Israel. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said recently that the boycott campaign, which drew new attention when it was joined last month by the American Studies Association (ASA), “is moving and advancing uniformly and exponentially.” If Israel does not respond, Livni said, it will turn itself into “a lone settlement in the world.”

Livni meant that criticism of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands should be taken seriously. Finance Minister Yair Lapid concurred, writing, “The world seems to be losing patience with us. . . . If we don’t make progress with the Palestinians, we will lose the support of the world and our legitimacy.”

The boycott movement is a caution to Israel that it must be less obdurate in its relations with the Palestinians — a position far removed from the toxic response to the ASA within the United States, where many groups long have opposed any discussion of the reality of Israel’s occupation. In 2010, the collegiate group Hillel informed its members that its branches were not permitted to invite speakers who “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”

After Swarthmore College’s Hillel club decided to allow open discussion on various matters — including on inviting critics of Israel to campus — the national president of Hillel, Eric Fingerhut, reiterated that “ ‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.” Swarthmore students plan to defy these guidelines. Their action is a piece of the changed climate among young people, many of whom want a serious debate on the occupation.

The boycott developed in 2005, when 171 civil society organizations in Palestine called on the international community to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Among other tactics, these organizations called for the boycott of Israeli institutions that colluded with the occupation, including Hebrew University, which illegally built parts of its campus in the occupied territories. Supporters were asked to raise awareness of Palestinians’ lack of academic freedom, not only in the occupied territories but also within Israel’s 1948 boundaries. Within the Israeli academy, there has been little care for this lack of freedom: In 2008, a petition on behalf of Palestinian academics was sent to 9,000 Israeli academics; only 407 signed it. One reason Western academics have invested in the movement is to offer our fellowship with Palestinian academics whose voices have been drowned out.

The overreaction to the ASA resolution stems from a simple truth: The movement is having a major impact in the West. This impact comes, as Peter Beinart wrote last fall, because the movement is fueled by “interactions with Palestinians living under Israeli control. American Jewish leaders don’t understand the power of such interactions because they rarely have them themselves.” Such interactions, seldom reported in the media, include Palestinian civil society activists on tour in the United States, International Solidarity Movement activists and religious groups in the West Bank and Gaza, conversations at international gatherings such as the World Social Forum and discussions among Palestinian and Western musicians on the difficulty Palestinians face in their everyday lives.

U.S. academics are not in the lead here. Matters are far more developed in Europe, where faculties have fought to divest and boycott Israel and where the European Union is moving toward labeling products from illegal Israeli settlements. But U.S. academics recognize a special mission: Israeli institutions that benefit from the occupation do so with impunity granted by U.S. financial, military and diplomatic support. If the United States underwrites the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lives, then U.S. scholars have a responsibility to call that support to account. That is why the ASA acted. I, for one, am glad it did.

Vijay Prashad holds the Edward Said chair of American studies at the American University of Beirut and is on leave from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.