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The ASA, NYU, and the Shame of Academia

The vote last month by the American Studies Association to join a boycott of Israel’s colleges and universities generated a firestorm of criticism of the group, and justifiably so. The willingness of an academic organization to participate in an effort to single out the Jewish state in this manner is an appalling instance of prejudice. The vote illustrated the way the far left has seized control of such scholarly groups and the insidious nature of a campaign which is not designed so much to help the Palestinians—the alleged objects of the ASA’s concern—but to aid an economic war on Israel that is rooted in a desire to wipe the one Jewish state on the planet off the map. But in addressing the efforts of the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement, it isn’t enough merely to scrutinize this and other groups of pseudo-scholars bent on politicizing their fields of study. The time has come to hold their enablers accountable, as well.

That’s the thrust behind a lengthy piece published in Forbes this week by journalist Richard Behar in which he lets loose with a cri de coeur directed at his alma mater New York University, and its president, John Sexton, for his indifferent response to the ASA.

As Behar makes clear, responsibility for this disgrace doesn’t belong solely to the radicals intent on demonizing Israel. It also should be placed on those institutions that are supporting these hatemongers as well as resisting efforts to hold them accountable. As Behar notes, NYU falls into both categories.

While Sextonhas stated his disagreement with the ASA’s vote, as Behar rightly notes, the NYU president’s statement was perfunctory, especially when compared to more passionate denunciations of this subversion of academic integrity made by the presidents of other universities–such as the University of Connecticut, Wesleyan, Middlebury College, or the University of Indiana–that Behar cited. But if that sounds like nitpicking, it isn’t. NYU has a special responsibility to speak up about this issue because its faculty is neck-deep in the ASA’s decision-making process. The incoming head of the group is NYU’s Lisa Duggan and fully 25 percent of the national council that first promulgated the anti-Israel resolution is based at the school. Moreover, as the home to what Hillel International reports is the largest number of Jewish students at any American institution of higher learning, NYU should also be mindful that giving platforms to scholars that promote an ideology that is indistinguishable from classic anti-Semitism places them under a particular obligation to avoid creating a hostile environment for Jews.

A key element of this controversy is the fact that many schools are themselves institutional members of the ASA and are thus compromised by its participation in the boycott. NYU is one such university. But unlike other schools that have moved to sever their connections with the ASA and thus remove this taint from themselves, it has neither done so nor clarified the nature of its connection with the group.

As Behar also notes, NYU bears a special responsibility for speaking about discrimination against Israel, because of its decision to open a campus in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. While that principality has welcomed business with the West and its leaders have been showering NYU and other American partners with generous donations, it has also been notorious for its discrimination against Israel, Israelis and Jews. Just this past a month a Dutch soccer team invited to play in the country was forced to leave one of its members at home because he was an Israeli citizen if the team was to be permitted to play in Abu Dhabi.

The need to raise money may be offered as an excuse for an institution like NYU getting into bed with a nation that boycotts Israel. But even if we are to grant them a pass on that egregious connection, that should make Sexton and NYU even more eager to distance the univeristy from the ASA’s attack on academic freedom.

Also discouraging is NYU’s public opposition to the proposal in the New York State legislature, by its Speaker Sheldon Silver, that would block colleges and universities from using state aid money to fund groups that promote discriminatory boycotts like the ASA. While more a symbolic measure than anything else, it is still a way for the state of New York to register its disgust at the ASA. Yet rather than sever its ties with the ASA, NYU to condemn the proposal as an affront to academic freedom.

Behar, whose piece contains a lengthy defense of Israel against the specious charge that is an apartheid state, understands the realities of the conflict and the plight of Palestinians better than the ASA’s members. In a Forbes cover story published last August, he wrote about the way Israel’s growing high-tech industry was seeking Palestinian partners. But as he reported in a follow-up article, the Arab businessmen who were working with Israelis in partnerships that stood to benefit the Palestinian economy were subsequently forced to disavow any interest in working with the Jews. The dynamic of the conflict is such that anyone who seeks to create common ground with Israelis is branded a collaborator. Rather than working to promote peace, groups like the ASA are, instead, backing those forces that are intent on perpetuating and worsening the situation.

Behar is to be applauded for speaking out in this manner. But he should not be alone. It is time for alumni of other schools that are also implicated in the ASA scandal to pressure them to draw a line in the sand against anti-Israel hate. A good place to start would be by withholding contributions that alumni are endlessly asked to make from universities that foster anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli sentiment on their campuses under the spurious guise of academic freedom.



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