Keeping the Arts Liberal, Here and Abroad

I was pleasantly surprised to learn last December that the American Studies Association (ASA) had voted to adopt a boycott of Israeli universities. But it was with equal surprise that I learned just a few weeks later that Pomona College chose to refuse to participate in that boycott, an apparent knee-jerk reaction taken without any consideration of the rationale behind the ASA’s movement.

Pomona’s response reveals a greater culture of confusion at the 5Cs. Many students, generally through no fault of their own, are heavily steeped in a pro-Israel rhetoric as a result of living in a country whose media has a strong pro-Israel bias. This makes it hard for many students to see how Israel could ever be in the wrong, and why it would ever need to be sanctioned, academically or otherwise.

Such steadfast support for Israel clouds the deeper policy implications of the ASA boycott. I find it worthwhile to consider a dialogue that moves beyond accusations of anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism to tackle the question of real importance: Why boycott Israel?

Pomona President David Oxtoby can tell us why we should not. In explaining his reason for distancing the college from ASA’s position, he wrote the following in an online statement: “The study of the liberal arts involves … engaging freely with scholars and students across the globe. The ASA boycott of Israeli academic institutions is an affront to the principles of academic freedom.”

This is curious. If the college’s true goal is preserving the integrity of the liberal arts, supporting a country that has one of the most illiberal systems of education is a strange way to go about it.

Israel is well known for its strict restrictions on the mobility of Palestinian students: Between 2003 and 2009, Israeli forces arrested more than 400 students attending Birzeit University, a Palestinian school in the West Bank. More than 9,000 students at An-Najah University have to cross multiple checkpoints every day to get from their homes to the school, hampered by ID card laws. And in 2003, Israel’s unlawful construction of a security wall around Jerusalem conveniently cut through the middle of Al-Quds University’s Abu Dis campus, leaving 6,000 Palestinians trapped on one side, unable to simply get across the yard to go to class.

As Israel continues its pursuit of Zionism, I begin to wonder why American universities should extend the ethos of a liberal academic dialogue to Israel when Israel refuses to secure that prerogative for Palestine. By denying Palestinian scholars the right to move about freely, Israel smothers the circulation of a nation’s intellectual thought.

To be sure, a boycott doesn’t solve this problem directly. But it is one way of reminding Israel that the liberal arts are, after all, based on liberty. Pomona must fight for liberty for all, not just Israeli Jews.

Yet infringements on the academic life of Palestinians are only one part of Israel’s current illiberal political actions. In recent months Israel has proceeded with the construction of even more settlements in the Jordan Valley, construction that is illegal under international law. Recall that this is a country that has violated more U.N. resolutions than any other. This is a country whose power-maintenance tactics and territorial expansion have been likened to those of the South African apartheid. This is a country whose policies are currently tacitly condoned by the United States, and the country that receives the most U.S. foreign aid—more than $3 billion of it in 2012 alone.

Israel relies heavily on the United States for this military and humanitarian aid, as well as U.S. support in the United Nations. And this is precisely why an American boycott could be particularly effective in forcing Israel to negotiate a two-state solution in good faith, something Israel seems reluctant to do.

Targeting Israeli universities in a boycott is not an unreasonable place to start. Israeli educational institutions, unlike most of their American counterparts, are closely tied to the state: They help provide the intellectual backing for Israel’s continued rights violations. Halting official U.S. university affiliation would be the first step in signaling to Israel that the United States no longer approves.

This boycott embodies exactly what Oxtoby champions: the true liberty of the liberal arts. The real affront taking place today is Israel’s disgraceful treatment of the Palestinians and the West’s unspoken consent. We must overlook a short-term decrease in intercollegiate discourse for the long-term result of increased liberty for all. Let’s regard this academic boycott as a serious and reasonable move toward checking Israeli dominance and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Matt Dahl PO '17 hails from Newton, MA and is a member of the mock trial team.