University of California President Janet Napolitano spoke out Monday against an academic boycott of Israel.
The American Studies Association recently became the largest group of U.S. scholars to call for a boycott as a protest against Israeli government policies and as a way to press for Palestinian rights.
“The University of California prides itself on a rich tradition of free speech and diversity of thought,” Napolitano said in a statement. “Universities depend on the unrestrained exchange of ideas, and it is our role to defend academic freedom and our scholars’ ability to pursue research of their choice.
“An academic boycott goes against the spirit of the University of California, which has long championed open dialogue and collaboration with international scholars.”
About one-third of the more than 3,800 American Studies Association’s members voted, approving the boycott by 66 percent.
“The ASA condemns the United States’ significant role in aiding and abetting Israel’s violations of human rights against Palestinians and its occupation of Palestinian lands through its use of the veto in the U.N. Security Council,” said a statement explaining the endorsement.
Last April, the smaller Association for Asian American Studies, which has about 800 members, became the first scholarly group in the United States to support an academic boycott of Israel.
The American Studies Association is asking U.S. universities and academic groups to not work with Israeli institutions, but said that does not violate academic freedom, because it includes individual American scholars who collaborate with Israeli colleagues, “provided they are not engaged in a formal partnership with or sponsorship by Israeli academic institutions.”
University of Michigan leaders issued a statement echoing Napolitano’s on Monday. A prominent scholarly group, the American Association of University Professors, condemns boycotts as a violation of academic freedom.
Napolitano’s statement draws the new UC president into an ongoing, often heated debate on the system’s campuses that has led to accusations of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and free speech rights being trampled.
In 2012, UC decided not to support a nonbinding Assembly resolution that called for public universities to ban activity that could be viewed as anti-Semitic. UC did so over concerns it would be limiting free-speech rights.
That followed the release of a UC report that found Jewish students were concerned that their campuses did not condemn offensive symbols and speech as strongly as they might if other groups were targeted. A second reporter found that Muslim students felt marginalized and alienated.
Invitations to pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian speakers to campuses by student groups have repeatedly ignited tensions.
In a case that received wide attention, for example, 10 Muslim students were convicted of misdemeanors for interrupting the 2010 speech of the Israeli ambassador at UC Irvine.
At UCD, former Israeli soldiers were heckled at a 2012 event before police and staff stepped in and one student left the event.
A low point on the Davis campus came in 2009, involving incidences of hate vandalism that included the painting and carving of swastikas on campus and the spray-painting of derogatory messages outside the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center.
That led UCD leaders to symbolically re-sign the campus’ Principles of Community document, which dedicates the campus to promoting diversity, free expression and mutual respect.
The ASA vote, which was largely symbolic, was nonetheless a sign of the increasing momentum of the international boycott movement against Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians. While the movement — which presses for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel — has scored some successes in Europe and elsewhere, it has had far less influence in the United States, Israel’s closest and most important ally.
“The reason this is so significant is that it’s a victory within the United States within a mainstream academic association and it was overwhelmingly supported,” said Noura Erakat, a Palestinian-American human rights attorney who is a member of the American Studies Association.
Israeli officials have denounced the campaign as an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state. They also argue that companies with ties to countries with horrendous human rights records are not similarly targeted.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.