But merely protesting this abhorrent decision will not succeed in reversing it or discouraging other similarly bigoted organizations from following suit. What’s needed is a way to fight back, and Congress can do it.
A successful precedent for that fight already exists in the defeat of the Arab economic boycott of Israel. That embargo began in 1945, before Israel's creation, when the Arab League voted to ban "Jewish products." Over the next 30 years, this boycott damaged Israel's economy—until America stood up.
In 1977, Congress passed a series of laws making it illegal for U.S. companies to cooperate with any boycott of Israel and imposing stiff penalties on those that did. The boycott, Congress concluded, was not only racist against Israelis but all Jews. In signing the legislation, President Jimmy Carter, though a frequent critic of Israel, pledged to “end the divisive effects on American life of foreign boycotts aimed at Jewish members of our society.” Subsequent bills further underscored America's commitment to safeguard Israel from prejudicial bans.
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.