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Academia with an ax to grind

A vote to boycott Israeli universities and condemn the US shows the triumph of a political agenda over freedom of thought

At its annual conference held last month in Seattle, the Association for Asian American Studies passed a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions to protest the illegal occupation of Palestine, discrimination against Palestinian faculty and students and a multiple of other sins. What makes this resolution worth paying attention to is that it is the first American academic organization to call for a boycott of Israeli universities.

Gaza and the West Bank are a long way from Asia – South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, the Pacific Islands and the United States, the geographic areas that constitute the Association’s focus of scholarly attention. Although the Association refers to Gaza and the West Bank as “West Asia” – an interesting expression for academic empire building – the resolution has placed the Association at odds with itself: championing academic freedom for students and scholars in the U.S. and around the globe, the resolution is absolutely silent about the lack of academic freedom in Gaza and West Bank universities where what can be studied and spoken by students and teachers is severely censored.

While we are at it, why not throw in North Korea and other repressive regimes in Asia where academic freedom is nonexistent? Why isn’t the Association condemning these? At Ariel University in the West Bank, a fully accredited Israeli University, students from Arabic and Hebrew speaking homes study together. Can this be said of any Palestinian university, indeed any university in the Arab-speaking world?

Why, then, condemn Israeli universities, which by comparison to other universities in the Arab world and Asia, are models of free thought and enlightenment? The resolution was passed unanimously during the AAAS’s annual conference by 10% of the Association’s membership, showing “solidarity” with Muslim students and scholars. Clearly it is a minority expression of bias against the Jewish state, another example of how an academic association can be hijacked in the absence of an alert majority by an activist minority voice. How about a resolution expressing solidarity with Israeli students, Jew and Muslim, seeking to study in an atmosphere free from rockets, bombings and roadside attacks?

The anti-Israeli bias is one side of the coin. The other side is anti-Americanism. The purpose of the conference was to critique the American Empire. Once again we see how anti-Israel sentiment is wedded to anti-American sentiment in the minds of the left. The conference seeks to condemn. Organizations that are truly committed to academic freedom cultivate openness of thought and diversity of opinion; they don’t begin with a condemnation of the subject they have gathered to study. The call for conference papers was in part inspired by the “so-called war on terror” and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, again showing this organization cultivates a political agenda more than it does a free exchange of ideas and research.

What is good for the goose is good for the gander. If the Association discriminates against Israeli institutions today, they may find themselves the object of a boycott of another kind – members who don’t pay their dues, don’t attend their conferences and who seek other and better forums for honest and open expression for study and research.

About the Author
Dr Alfred Balitzer is Professor Emeritus, Claremont McKenna College, and a member of the Board of Trustees of Claremont Graduate University; He served in the Reagan campaign and Administration and has been an advisor to the Simon Wiesenthal Center for 25 years