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Boycott of Israel misdirected

The American Studies Association, a group of about 5,000 scholars devoted to the interdisciplinary study of U.S. culture and history, has called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The association held a vote on a resolution seeking the boycott as a way to protest Israeli “state policies that violate human rights” of Palestinians, including academic freedom. The resolution drew support of two-thirds of the 1,252 association members who voted. The boycott is largely symbolic; it’s also terribly misguided.

The most difficult thing to swallow about the resolution is how utterly narrow-minded it seems. Was the resolution written on a computer manufactured in China, one of the most repressive regimes on the planet? Did they give any thought to what’s happened lately to freedom in Russia?

Have the scholars overlooked the cries for help from Cuban dissidents bravely standing up to the Castro brothers, demanding freedoms – and suffering beatings and arrest almost every week?

Do they condone the decision of a judge in Saudi Arabia who has just sentenced a political activist to 300 lashes and four years in prison for calling for a constitutional monarchy?

To focus a resolution on Israel and ignore these injustices is puzzling at best. It is also fundamentally wrong.

For all its difficulties, including the wrenching, long conflict with the Palestinians, Israel has become a lively and durable democracy. There is more freedom to speak one’s mind and criticize the government in the Knesset than will be found in Tiananmen Square or Red Square today – and far more in Israeli universities than in academia elsewhere in the Mideast.

This is not to ignore the plight of the Palestinians. They suffer indignity and human rights violations for which Israel cannot escape responsibility. But a boycott is not the answer.

Progress toward a resolution of the conflict can be made if leaders on both sides find the willpower to negotiate with each other and accept that forceful methods – terrorism, violence and coercion – lead only to more misery. The American Studies Association would have more influence by finding a way to engage deeply with Israelis and Palestinians, perhaps with scholarly conferences and exchanges, rather than by punishing Israel with a boycott.