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.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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