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UMBC response to Israel boycott is inadequate [Commentary]

Over 200 years ago, political theorist and philosopher Edmund Burke memorably remarked: "The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing." This truism comes to mind when assessing the reaction of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to the recent vote by the American Studies Association (ASA) in favor of an academic boycott of Israel.

The ASA, of which UMBC is an institutional member, is the nation's oldest and largest association dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of American history and culture. The boycott bars the ASA from entering into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions; with scholars who represent those institutions, such as deans, rectors, presidents and others; and with scholars who serve as representatives of the Israeli government.

Boycotts of the sort endorsed by the ASA are part of the "BDS movement", which is a global network of individuals and organizations who aim to isolate Israel politically, culturally and economically through "boycotts, divestment and sanctions." BDS models itself on the boycott of South Africa, claiming that imitating this boycott will similarly force Israel to rid itself of its un-just "Apartheid" character. While cloaked as a human rights movement, the overall objective of BDS advocates is to challenge Israel's right to exist as the homeland of the Jewish people.

The venality of the ASA boycott is multi-faceted. It is discriminatory, since it applies only to Jewish academics and business people in Israel, and not to Muslims. It is counter-productive, because it makes it more difficult for Palestinian leaders to accept a reasonable peace offer. Worst of all, it is hypocritical because it singles out the nation state of the Jewish people for BDS, while ignoring other occupations and far worse violators of human rights and academic freedom. It is for this reason that former Harvard president Larry Summers correctly labeled the ASA boycott and similar BDS efforts as "being anti-Semitic in their effect if not necessarily in their intent."

To their credit, UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski and Provost Philip Rous responded to the ASA boycott by issuing a brief statement declaring their general opposition to academic boycotts because they are "antithetical to academic freedom." Similarly, University of Maryland President Wallace Loh and his provost publicly rejected the boycott, stating that "to restrict the free flow of people and ideas with some universities because of their national identity is unwise, unnecessary, and irreconcilable with our core academic values."

However, much more is required from our public universities than issuing press statements. As the only educational institution in Maryland that is a member of ASA, UMBC should take firm action against the ASA boycott of Israel by immediately withdrawing its ASA membership. In so doing, UMBC will join Indiana University, Penn State Harrisburg, Brandeis University and Kenyon College, which have all withdrawn their ASA membership in the aftermath of the boycott vote. More importantly, UMBC will be acting in accordance with its mission statement, which proudly proclaims UMBC's commitment to social responsibility.

In addition to withdrawing from the ASA, the leadership of UMBC, as well as the leaders of every publicly-financed institution that forms the University System of Maryland, should take appropriate measures to ensure that as long as the academic boycott of Israel remains in place, not one penny of university funds is used to finance any ASA activities, such as faculty membership in the ASA or faculty travel to ASA events.

Since the ASA announced its boycott, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association has voted to do the same, and boycotting Israel is on the agenda of the Modern Language Association's upcoming annual meeting. To prevent this virus from spreading further, President Hrabowski, Provost Raus and their colleagues at colleges and universities throughout the State of Maryland must exhibit moral courage by cutting all ties with the ASA, and with any other academic group that boycotts Israel. By so doing, they will send a message that when faced with the evil of anti-Israel boycotts, the good men and women of Maryland heed Edmund Burke's words and take appropriate action.

Jay Bernstein is host of Baltimore's weekly Jewish radio program, Shalom USA. His email is shalomusaradio@yahoo.com.

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

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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