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Israeli boycott raises questions of academic freedom

Published: Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, January 22, 2014 11:01


Resolutions passed by major professional academic associations calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions have brought a generation spanning crisis from across the globe to the center of several U.S. campuses, as academics and administrators split over the issue and call into question the role universities play in solving social and political problems. 

A resolution passed last month by the American Studies Association (ASA), a professional association of about 4,0000 American Studies scholars and academics, sparked the debate, calling for an academic boycott of Israeli universities. 

According to the ASA website, the boycott is intended to be a response to “Palestinian civil society” as part of the larger Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which uses nonviolent tactics to try to exert financial pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territory and better its treatment of Palestinian civilians. 

“Israeli academic institutions function as a central part of a system that has denied Palestinians their basic rights,” the ASA website said. “Palestinian students face ongoing discrimination, including the suppression of Palestinian cultural events, and there is sanctioning and ongoing surveillance of Palestinian students and faculty who protest Israeli policies. Israeli universities have been a direct party to the annexation of Palestinian land. Armed soldiers patrol Israeli university campuses, and some have been trained at Israeli universities in techniques to suppress protestors.” 

Earlier this month, the Modern Language Association (MLA), a 30,000 member-body that annually meets to discuss issues in higher education and revise the rules for scholarly writing, voted to condemn Israel for prohibiting some scholars from entering the West Bank and Gaza to work with Palestinian universities. 

But the stances taken on the Middle Eastern crisis have caused a rift among public and private universities across the U.S. 

While proponents of the boycott include academics at prominent universities, such as Stanford, Yale, New York University, UT Austin, UC Berkley and Northwestern, more than 80 university presidents — including USF President Judy Genshaft — the Association of American Universities (AAU) and the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) have expressed strong sentiments against the boycott. 

“The boycott recently proposed by the (ASA) is antithetical to the core values of academic freedom and the open exchange of knowledge and ideas across institutions of higher education,” a statement issued from Genshaft’s office earlier this month read. 

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But not all at USF were happy with Genshaft’s stance.

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a student organization that has been working to bring the BDS movement to USF since last year, issued a statement on its website.

“As students at USF, we are disappointed that she has ignored the student voice and the plight of the Palestinian people,” the statement reads.  “…It is surprising that Genshaft would take a radical decision in favor of sponsors of racial segregation. Genshaft should have consulted USF students, staff and faculty before she made a statement on behalf of USF … We call upon Genshaft to retract her statement and stand in solidarity with academic freedom and equality.”

During the last Student Government (SG) election cycle, the group petitioned to have questions placed on the ballot asking students if they supported “boycotting, divesting and sanctioning corporations affiliated with human rights violations by replacing them with ethical alternatives.” 

The group called for USF to divest, or withdraw investments, from three corporations: Strass Group Ltd., Wellington Small Cap Value and Hewlett Packard, companies they stated were “affiliated with the oppression, occupation and apartheid of the Palestinian people.” 

Strauss Group Ltd., which co-owns Sabra hummus, a food product sold in some locations on campus but not in dining halls and is contracted via Aramark Dining services, provides financial support and supplies to the Golani Brigades, an infantry brigade in the Israel Defense Forces that has participated in most of Israel’s wars and operations since the beginning of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, and has been boycotted by activist groups from Princeton, the UC Berkley and DePaul University, according to a 2010 article from the New York Times. 

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