In December, a national debate was ignited over the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions. With a brief statement from President Morton Schapiro and Provost Dan Linzer, Northwestern jumped into the fray.
On Dec. 23, an email announced to students and faculty that the University disapproved of ASA’s boycott, citing Northwestern’s breadth of joint-degree programs, research partnerships and study abroad programs with Israeli universities.
Supporters of the boycott claim that Israeli academic institutions stifle academic freedom and enjoy numerous structural and governmental advantages compared to their Palestinian counterparts. The boycott’s opponents counter that Israel’s record of academic freedom is sterling compared to that of other countries in the Middle East, and that a boycott is counterproductive.
“Being the president of an academic institution and you’re supposed to boycott other academic institutions because of the policies of their government?” Schapiro says. “It’s just completely against everything you believe in.”
The December email echoes the sentiments of over 100 university presidents and chancellors and the American Association of Universities, who have issued similar statements. Four universities withdrew all affiliation with the ASA. Schapiro sits on the executive committee of the AAU and participated in discussions regarding the wording in the association’s official statement.
Northwestern has close ties to Israel, offering joint degrees with Tel Aviv University in both law and business.
The statement ignited controversy across campus as students rushed to either praise or condemn the administration. Nearly 20 student-group leaders published a letter to Schapiro and Linzer criticizing them for speaking on behalf of the entire University community.
“We want them to clarify that that is their view and that it doesn’t represent the whole NU community,” says Dalia Fuleihan, Weinberg junior and co-president of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
“I’m sure that nominally [Israeli] universities support academic freedom but their actions say otherwise,” Fuleihan says. “Most importantly they’re complicit with the military that significantly curtails Palestinian academic freedom.”
Others have been more supportive of the President’s letter, including Weinberg sophomore and Wildcats for Israel president Jonathan Kamel.
“By boycotting Israeli academics, you’re preventing collaboration between the US and Israel which is counterproductive to the goal of promoting academic freedom for all,” Kamel says.
Schapiro did acknowledge that the letter doesn’t speak for the entire community, including several professors who are affiliated with the ASA.
“We absolutely support the right of any of our faculty, staff and students to say what they want,” he says. “It wasn’t meant to stifle discussion. The irony is that boycotts stifle discussion.”
In January, the Modern Language Association voted to support a more limited condemnation of Israel, but it did not call for a boycott in the same way as the Association for Asian American students and the Native American Indigenous Studies Association, which have announced boycotts similar to the ASA’s.
Since December, public forums organized by SJP have sustained campus interest in the ASA boycott. If larger and more visible organizations join ASA’s stance, this episode could be the start of a larger public debate over academic freedom in Israel and around the world.