By Michael Oren
Predictably, the Arab League dismissed these laws as a “hysterical campaign” imposed on the United States by “world Zionism.” But when confronted with American steadfastness, the boycott began to unravel. Companies such as Pepsi, Toyota and Xerox, which had formally complied with the blacklisting, began doing business with Israel. By 1994, six Gulf Arab states announced that they were backing off the embargo, and the following year, Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian leaders pledged “all efforts to end the boycott of Israel.”
A similar legislative response could prove effective in quashing the movement to boycott Israel academically. Laws could be passed withholding federal or state funding from any academic program that knowingly blacklisted Israeli scholars or institutions or cooperated with associations that did. While an organization like ASA might prefer punishing Israel to receiving government funds, other academic bodies-including universities-most likely will not. At the very least, lawmakers on the local and national level can go on record expressing their unequivocal opposition to such boycotts.
Opponents of this approach will inevitably claim that it stifles academic freedom and open debate. The contrary is true. Legislation voiding prejudicial boycotts preserves the scholarly interaction essential for academic freedom. Open debate about Israel’s-or any other country’s-policies must continue unimpeded. What must not be allowed to continue is the isolation of one member of the international community on the basis of bigotry cloaked in academic righteousness.
As Israel’s ambassador to the United States and as an historian who believes in free academic exchange, I often spoke before college audiences and welcomed even those questions critical of Israel. But at the University of California at Irvine in February 2010, protesters tried to disrupt my talk and deprive all those present-students and faculty-of the right to discourse. No other visiting lecturer was singled out, only the Israeli. But 11 of those demonstrators were arrested, tried and found guilty of disrupting free speech. Academic boycotts of Israel aim at the same objective and they, too, can be legally stopped.
If the ASA vote were merely misguided, it might be overlooked. Unfortunately, history teaches us that even small acts of prejudice can multiply and become commonplace. But just as it stood up for American values in 1970s, so, too, today Congress can combat intolerance. By acting decisively now, legislators can assure that high education in American preserves its highest standards.
Michael B. Oren is the Abba Eban chair in international diplomacy in the Lauder School of Government at IDC, Herzliya. He was formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States.