Against ASA: Byerly cements opposition to boycott of Israeli scholars

Controversy struck higher education on December 16 when the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The move was made in an attempt to protest the country’s treatment of Palestinians, and subsequently provoked backlash from over 200 institutions across the country.

While many of Lafayette’s members were oblivious to the announcement, some wondered where the school stood on the matter. On December 28, President Alison Byerly emailed a statement that denounced the boycott.

“Lafayette’s distinctive combination of liberal arts and engineering demands that students master the intellectual challenges of open-ended inquiry,” Byerly’s email read. “We would not be modeling those qualities very effectively if we supported a strategy of cutting off dialogue about difficult issues. The world’s problems will not be solved that way.”

The boycott denounced “Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions,” according to a statement released by ASA editors on their website. Efforts to boycott Israel are gaining traction in Europe but haven’t gained much ground in the United States.

While Byerly maintained that is her official stance on the matter, she also acknowledged that faculty may have other opinions, but she is supportive of dissention.

“I do not know if any Lafayette faculty supported the ASA boycott, and I do not intend to ask,” the email continued. “Academic freedom means that individual faculty are entitled to hold their own views.”

“I hope that many members of the community will feel that the personal perspective I have expressed here is consistent with the spirit of Lafayette College.”

The message was also published on Lafayette College’s official website, and some commenters expressed disappointment that Byerly’s statement wasn’t clear or aggressive enough.

“I am disappointed in your equivocal, easily mis-read statement regarding [the] ASA boycott of Israel academics,” reads a comment from Deborah A. DeRose. “I…respectfully request you strengthen your statement.”

DeRose called for a statement similar to the one that former Lafayette president Daniel H. Weiss made for Haverford College.

“We write to express our opposition to their proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions because such an action is antithetical to the full expression of academic freedom,” read the succinct, 100-word message from Weiss.

Like Haverford, Lafayette is not a member of the ASA, but President Byerly felt it was necessary to make a statement.

“It was clear to me that something that infringes on the sense of academic freedom that is integral to an institution, that there really was a need to say, ‘I stand with these other presidents who want to formally note that we object to this.,’” she said in a Wednesday interview. “I feel really strongly about that.”

The ASA was recently targeted by New York legislation in an effort to prohibit colleges and universities from spending taxpayer funds on academic groups that support boycotting Israel.

“I do think that it sets a very dangerous precedent when you think you can address political problems by cutting off discourse,” Byerly continued. “That’s the thing most likely to solve political problems and it seems so short-sighted and unreasonable to say, ‘Our response to behavior we don’t like is to tell scholars they can’t communicate with each other.’”

“It seemed very clear that that was a very odd stance for an academic institution to make.”

Byerly said that while she would respect all other opinions within the faculty and administration, the response from faculty has been wholly supportive.

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