Penn State Harrisburg is looking at options with regards to joining an academic organization after it withdrew its membership from another group that has issued a boycott of Israeli universities and institutions.
The Middletown campus in December withdrew its membership from the American Studies Association after that group endorsed a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as a show of support for Palestinian civil society. Palestinian civic groups launched the boycott in 2005 to put political and economic pressure on Israel.
“This is one-sided, propagandistic and also inappropriate for a learned society,” said Simon Bronner, a professor and chairman of the American Studies Program at Penn State Harrisburg.
“It hurts us, an American studies program trying to train students to be objective and gather facts. It’s more reason why we stand in distancing ourselves from the American Studies Association.”
Bronner is spearheading a committee tasked with exploring the feasibility of transforming the Eastern American Studies Association, headquartered at Penn State Harrisburg, into an alternative association to the ASA.
The ASA boycott does not bar cooperation between individual American and Israeli academics, but encourages members to avoid collaborating with Israeli academic institutions, which it considers complicit in the violation of human rights and international law.
“We think it’s inappropriate for the society to make that stand,” Bronner said. “In a sense it says this society has a foreign policy, which is not appropriate.”
Dickinson College, Franklin & Marshall and Penn State main campus also all have issued statements condemning the academic group’s decision. Penn State’s statement was issued by then-President Rodney Erickson.
The 5,000 member ASA is the third major U.S. academic association – along with the Asian American and Native American and Indigenous Studies associations – to endorse the boycott.
A request for an interview with a representative with ASA was not immediately granted on Tuesday.
In its statement endorsing its endorsement of the boycott, the ASA wrote: “It is … resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.”
The boycott was endorsed late last year before the current conflict between Israel and Hamas escalated a few weeks ago. On Tuesday morning, an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire went into effect. The death toll from the conflict stands at 64 dead Israeli soldiers; the Palestinian civilian death toll is put at 1,900, of which, Israel says, 900 were armed operatives.
On Monday, ASA reiterated its anti-Israel stance calling on the U.S. government to withdraw all support to Israel. The organization cited attacks on Palestinian universities, including Islamic University in Gaza City.
“Israel’s continued attacks on identifiable academic institutions are part of its campaign of collective punishment that has already claimed more than 1,650 lives. This goes well beyond the denial of academic freedom to further escalate Israel’s longstanding practice of denying an entire people the basic necessities of life and freedom,” the organization said in a statement.
Bronner said the statement made the boycott “even more objectionable.”
“Anybody in Middle East studies should shoot it full of holes,” he said.
Approximately 100 universities have opposed the ASA’s action. Some have withdrawn their membership.
Penn State Harrisburg was an institutional member of the organization. The main campus does not have an American studies program.
Shortly after the group’s December decision to endorse the boycott, Erickson issued a statement condemning it, saying:
“Academic freedom is a cornerstone of higher education, whereby faculty and students seek and exchange knowledge and understanding through scholarly activities, research, teaching and service without undue restraint or coercion. Academic boycotts can weaken academic freedom by restricting the ability of faculty and universities to work and interact with their colleagues, whether in this country or around the world. For this reason, we — as leaders of Penn State — support the recent stands taken by the Association of American Universities (AAU) and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) opposing such academic boycotts.”
Penn State Harrisburg’s withdrawal from the organization was done on behalf of the seven faculty members in the American Studies program. The Penn State system has other programs, in Brandywine and Abington, for instance, but they are not institutional members of ASA.
“We felt we needed to show we were going to withdraw financially as well as organizationally,” Bronner said.
Institutional members pay a fee and support the work of the organization, which includes supporting interdisciplinary studies and research among universities, secondary schools, museum directors and librarians and public officials.
On an international level, ASA supports and assists programs for teaching American Studies abroad, encourages the exchange of teachers and students, and maintains formal affiliations and scholarly relations with American Studies associations in 65 countries.
In her statement showing opposition to the boycott, Dickinson College president Nancy Roseman said: “Dickinson continues to strongly oppose all academic boycotts, and we remain committed to working with Israeli institutions of higher education, including our partner programs at Hebrew University and Ben-Gurion University. The ASA boycott silences the global dialogue in which Dickinson so actively engages. Collaboration and exchange with international universities, as well as individual scholars, is a foundational element of Dickinson’s distinctive, widely admired approach to global education. We have Israelis on our faculty, and we have hosted scholars from Israel for residencies on our campus. We will continue to do so.”
Franklin & Marshall College President Daniel R. Porterfield and Provost and Dean of the Faculty, Joseph Karlesky, said: “Boycotting colleges and universities based on national affiliation or alleged government transgressions arbitrarily and unfairly penalizes students and faculty. It limits academic freedom, scholarly inquiry and scientific research, cross-cultural discourse, political discussion, the growth of knowledge, and the free exchange of ideas in every field. Franklin & Marshall will continue to work with Israeli institutions of higher learning, including Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, where our students have recently studied abroad.”
Bronner said the decision to withdraw its membership from ASA will remain in place as long as the organization continues to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
Bronner said the university would have responded the same way had the boycott been against Palestinian academic institutions.
“Our position was that we were against academic boycotts,” he said. “It wasn’t taking the side of Palestinians or Israel or…..based on national origins or ethnicity. It’s not appropriate for a learned society.”