University reacts to Israel academic boycott

By Steffie Drucker

Members of the American Studies Association, an organization devoted to the studies of American culture and history, voted to endorse participation in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions in late December. But Chancellor Phyllis Wise, University President Robert Easter and other University officials have expressed their opposition of the academic boycott.

The University is an institutional member of a different academic organization, the Association of American Universities, which opposes the ASA boycott. 

In a statement released Dec. 27, leaders of the University of Illinois said they endorse the statement released by the AAU, which states, “Any such boycott of academic institutions directly violates academic freedom … It is a principle that should not be abridged by political considerations. American colleges and universities, as well as like institutions elsewhere, must stand as the first line of defense against attacks on academic freedom.” 

Illini Hillel was quick to release a statement in support of the University’s stance. 

“We see ourselves as a partner of the University, and academic freedom is crucial for the University to function,” said Erez Cohen, executive director of Illini Hillel. “No one is allowed to tell academic institutions which universities they can and can’t work with.”

Cohen said Hillel will definitely be dealing with the subject during the spring semester but that no programs had been planned yet, as the programs coordinator was still in Israel.

Ahmad Hamdan, president of the University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine and junior in LAS, said the campus organization has not yet taken a stance condemning or condoning the ASA boycott. 

“We’re more interested in what our government is doing and what our government is supporting over there,” he said. “I think it’s healthy to have opposing viewpoints on such boycotts so it can stimulate conversation … and so people can draw their own conclusions. Our primary focus is to inform the campus of our government’s intervention in the issue, or lack thereof, and their role in spreading oppression in the middle east and Palestine.”

The ASA Executive Committee was asked to consider a resolution from the Academic and Community Activism Caucus of the association about a year ago. The resolution was then forwarded to the National Council and was endorsed by 66 percent of the 1,200 Association members in early December. 

According to a statement on its website, “The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.” 

The American Association of University Professors, another organization of higher education, also released a statement opposing the ASA’s boycott. 

“The AAUP, as an organization, neither supports nor opposes Israeli government or Palestinian policies, although many of our members certainly have strong beliefs on one side or the other,” according to the statement. “However, the AAUP does stand in opposition to academic boycotts as a matter of principle.”

Despite the reaction that the ASA boycott is receiving, Lonnie Nasatir, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, doesn’t foresee the boycott having great ripple effects; the ASA only has approximately 5,000 members, and only around two-thirds of 1,200 of them voted in favor of the resolution calling for a boycott. 

“We’ve been very encouraged by the university presidents that have spoken out,” he said. “It has not gotten the momentum that the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement is hoping for, which is good from our (the ADL’s) perspective.”

Nasatir said the ADL is more concerned about why the organization is focusing on Israeli institutions in particular and leaving other countries out of the discussion. “It strikes us as a severe double standard and dangerously one-sided in an attempt to delegitimize Israel,” he said. “It’s appalling that a group would focus on a country that is fiercely democratic, promotes religious and racial diversity within its own universities while there are several other countries that crack down on anyone with a different opinion and there’s no academic freedom.”

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