The American Studies Association, a group of scholars on American culture and history, recently decided to honor the call of Palestinian civil society to boycott Israeli institutions. This academic and cultural boycott aims to bring under scrutiny the actions of the Israeli government and to put pressure on Israeli institutions to end the oppressive occupation and racist policies within both Israel and occupied Palestine.
For those who understand that the struggle for rights is global, this is an important academic boycott—which is why Bowdoin should join it.
To date, Israeli academic institutions have been notoriously silent with regards to the daily oppression of their Palestinian counterparts. No Israeli university has actively or publicly opposed the occupation. Israeli universities give priority admission to soldiers, discriminate against Palestinian students, and have developed remote-controlled bulldozers for the Israeli Army's home demolitions. Israeli universities conduct research for the Israeli military, and several of them operate out of illegal settlements built on Palestinian land occupied since 1967.
Therefore, in their current state, Israeli universities are both actively and passively complicit in the crimes of both the Israeli military and the Israeli government in all its settler-colonial forms.
In their resolution, the ASA emphasized that the boycott is decidedly not aimed at individual persons. The boycott is aimed at institutions that condone and perpetuate state practices of discrimination and deny academic freedom to others. The boycott refuses to discriminate based on citizenship, race or nationality and merely asks that institutional ties be severed with those institutions complicit in the Israeli occupation.
In other words, a professor from the University of Tel Aviv can still present research at an ASA conference, provided that he or she does so as an individual scholar and not expressly as a representative of Israeli academic institutions or of the Israeli government. Representatives include deans, rectors and presidents of an institution.
Since the ASA declared its support for Palestinians in their struggle for human rights and academic freedom, the association has come under intense criticism, including from Bowdoin College President Barry Mills.
We respect Mills’ right to express his views. However, his rejection of the boycott does not speak for the Bowdoin community because it ignores the plurality of viewpoints at Bowdoin, the rights of Palestinians and the voices of those in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom and human rights.
Furthermore, Mills' statement fundamentally misrepresents the essence of the boycott. He falsely categorizes the boycott as “stifling discussion and the free exchange of ideas,” ignoring how the boycott has instead served as the catalyst for greater discussion of Israel’s human rights abuses. Questions are now being raised even in the previously silent corners of the mainstream media. His categorization also overlooks that it is Israel that has “stifled discussion,” having passed a law in 2011 that bans Israelis from even proposing a boycott of anything Israeli, be it a consumer, academic or cultural boycott.
As reported in The Guardian, in Israel, “an individual or organization proposing a boycott may be sued for compensation by any individual or institution facing possible damage as a result. Evidence of actual damage will not be required.”
Mills also states that Bowdoin cannot support an academic boycott of Israeli institutions since the College, as per its foundational values, “seeks to serve the common good through direct and open engagement with and collaboration between researchers, scientists, teachers, and artists across the globe.”
The boycott, as outlined earlier, does nothing to impede these aims and instead shines a light on American institutions’ inability to engage similarly with Palestinian researchers, scientists, teachers and artists due to the actions and policies of the Israeli state and it’s accomplices.
Lastly, Mills regrettably makes no mention of Palestinians or Palestine. The call for the boycott comes in response to more than 60 years of Israeli colonial occupation of Palestine. When Mills speaks of the "free exchange of knowledge, ideas, and research, and open discourse" in academia, he does so while privileging partnerships with Israeli institutions over basic freedoms for Palestinians, including the rights to food, water, shelter and education, which many Palestinians are denied under Israeli rule.
Some Bowdoin professors did sign the ASA resolution, and we stand in solidarity with these community members' courageous decision to support Palestinian academic and human rights, despite the overwhelming pressure to do otherwise.
We laud the ASA for its refusal to be complicit in normalizing Israel's human rights violations. We also support the Asian American Studies Association and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association for having likewise stood for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.
We urge all students, faculty, staff, alumni, and members of the Bowdoin community to join us in our support of the ASA by signing our petition here.
This op-ed speaks for all members of Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as additional members of the Bowdoin community who took issue with President Mills' statement and have since signed the petition.