Rebecca Self, Religion & Ethics editor
Recently, Curtis Merez, president of the American Studies Association (ASA), assured its members that “boycotts called to end human rights violations are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.”
According to Merez, that the ASA’s actions are constitutional is evidenced by the “landmark civil rights case,” NAACP v. Clairbone Hardware Co., in which the hardware merchants lost a suit against boycotters from the Mississippi National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But the ASA is not refusing to do business with merchants; it is refusing to collaborate on academic endeavors with any institutes of higher education in Israel.
This decision raises questions about the role of universities in international relations and the responsibilities of academic institutions to take a stand on matters of social justice. What does the field of American Studies have to do with Israel?
The ASA Council Resolution to boycott Israeli colleges and universities reads: “…the United States plays a significant role in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the expansion of illegal settlements and the Wall in violation of international law, as well as in supporting the systematic discrimination against Palestinians, which has had documented devastating impact on the overall well-being, the exercise of political and human rights, the freedom of movement, and the educational opportunities of Palestinians.”
It is not within the scope of this article to explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but US support for Israel is undeniable. The ASA Council, made up of professors from Stanford, UT Austin, Yale, Northwestern, NYU and several other schools, expressed that the ideas behind the boycott extend to the US for its backing of Israel. ASA hopes to “encourage a non-violent response to US, as well as Israeli, intransigence” on the issue of the occupation.
A Notre Dame sophomore who would prefer to not be named agrees that the boycott “is a logical move,” claiming that “the ethnic cleansing practices of Israel target Palestinians by attempting to drive them into a cultural extinction. The crux of this entire conflict is culture… the influence that Israel exerts on the US only exacerbates the polemical rhetoric establishing the dichotomy of ‘us and them.’ Thus, American government and educational institutions have become vehicles for such teachings, which, from an intellectual’s standpoint, is unacceptable.”
The presidents of at least 55 colleges and universities issued statements condemning the boycott. Notre Dame’s President John Jenkins, CSC, is among them.
He said, “The [boycott] is an infringement on academic freedom, and I join with other university presidents in condemning it….Notre Dame’s Institute for Ecumenical Studies has been for decades a place where scholars and students of all faiths the world over have gathered to better understand religious traditions, including relationships among Christians, Jews and Muslims. However intractable the conflict among Israelis and Palestinians may appear, dialogue—not boycott—is more likely to produce understanding. Institutions of higher education, in particular, as well as those associated with them, should champion the free exchange of ideas, and not seek to impede it.”
The ASA is boycotting Israel for infringing on the freedoms of Palestinians, but in doing so, are they infringing on the rights of Israelis and Americans to engage in dialogue? Jenkins says yes, and he is not alone. Not many other presidents in opposition to the boycott, however, can point to institutions connected to their universities that can actually foster dialogue among Israelis and Palestinians.
The Institute for Ecumenical Studies, also known as Tantur Ecumenical Institute, is located on the “seam between Jerusalem and Bethlehem,” a short walk away from the Wall between Israel and the West Bank. According to the Institute’s website, Tantur is an “oasis of learning, prayer and hospitality amidst the immense geo-political complexity of this part of the world.” Since its opening in the 1970s, over 5,000 people of different faiths have spent time at the Ecumenical Institute to study, pray and learn about the Holy Land. Tony Pohlen, program director at Tantur, agreed with President Jenkins’ statement about the ASA’s academic boycott.
Two Notre Dame professors of American Studies, one of history, and two of Arabic, did not respond to requests for their comments.
Rebecca Self is a sophomore studying Political Science and Education. She has been fortunate to spend some time at Tantur Ecumenical Institute and cares deeply about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Email her with comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.