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The virtues of engagement [Editorial]

Universities are supposed to be places where the search for truth is carried out through a free-wheeling process of vigorous, open debate and the unfettered exchange of opposing views. But that's not what the American Studies Association apparently had in mind last month when its members voted to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions to protest the Jewish state's treatment of Palestinians. It wants to cut off dialogue between Israeli and American scholars until the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.

University officials in Maryland and elsewhere are right to speak out against such pressures. To do otherwise would be to abandon a bedrock principle underlying the concept of academic freedom and weaken America's ability to exert a moderating influence over Israeli government policies. Moreover, it would deny students the chance to talk to and learn about their Israeli counterparts first-hand through student exchanges and other programs that encourage a frank airing of views.

The ASA, the country's oldest scholarly group devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American history and culture, charges that Israeli universities bear responsibility for the policies of their government that "violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students." In claiming that Israel has violated Palestinians' human rights, the association implicitly compares it to South Africa's oppression of blacks during the Apartheid era, despite the differences between the two situations.

Nevertheless, the association wants U.S. schools to cut what in many cases are long-standing ties with Israeli institutions that participate in undergraduate student exchange programs, visiting scholar appointments, joint research projects and other collaborative efforts. The boycott's goal is to isolate Israeli academics and institutions in order to force Israel's leaders to move more quickly toward recognizing Palestinians' right to self-determination and claim to lands both sides regard as their own. But refusing to engage with those who see things differently is just as likely to stall progress on the issue as it is to speed a resolution of the dispute.

That is why one can empathize with the Palestinians' struggle for self-determination and justice and still agree with University of Maryland College Park President Wallace D. Loh that cutting off relations between American and Israeli academic institutions is likely to be counterproductive — a view even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has endorsed. Instead, Mr. Loh affirmed his intention to "continue and deepen those relationships" because the best way to resolve conflicts "is by engagement, not by estrangement through boycotts." His comment echoed a similar statement by George Mason University President Angel Cabrera, who insisted that "universities exist to build bridges of understanding, not to blow them up."

The ASA has every right to ask institutions to participate in a boycott of Israel, but those institutions are also perfectly entitled to reject that request if they believe it hurts rather than helps the prospects for any eventual reconciliation between Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors. They're not going to achieve that by stuffing a gag in each others' mouths, and we're not going to help them by stuffing one in ours. Whether or not Secretary of State John Kerry succeeds in forging an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement through the frantic shuttle diplomacy he has been conducting in recent weeks, he has at least shown that getting the leaders of both sides talking to each other is essential to making the process work.

Building bridges of trust and mutual understanding is hard work under the best of circumstances and not something to be dismissed out of hand in favor of a stubborn silence in hopes the other side will eventually give up and give in. The history of the Mideast suggests one could end up waiting an awfully long time before that happens, if it ever does, and that the wiser course may be to keep as many channels of communication open as possible. If the U.S. really wants to help Israelis and Palestinians reach an agreement each can live with, it's got to be able to reach out to both sides wherever it can, and universities ought to be one of those places.

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To respond to this letter, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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