What the ASA’s Boycott Taught (Reminded) Me

by Rabbi Akiva Males

In the closing months of 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to boycott Israeli universities. This move is part of a much larger effort in the ongoing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement intended to isolate Israel. In the aftermath of this academic boycott, many of Israel’s supporters rightfully voiced our hurt feelings, disappointment, and/or strong disagreement with the ASA’s offensive maneuver.

In January, before my wife and I traveled to visit family in Israel, I read an important article in The NY Jewish Week by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin which reminded me of a crucial yet simple concept. As supporters of Israel, we need to find responsible ways to express our outrage with the ASA. At the same time, we also need to recognize the many American universities who found the strength to resist joining in this boycott.

It is not enough to scream “gevalt” when we have been wounded. We also have to call out “thank you” to those who are our friends, to those who stood up for truth, to those who have refused to have their educational institutions seduced by the all too common siren song of anti-Israeli behavior. We need to thank those institutions, especially if we are alumni of them, and/or our children or grandchildren attend them. Because the best way to induce people to continue doing good is to thank them for what they have already done.

The article went on to list the first 27 universities courageous enough to oppose the ASA’s academic boycott. Prior to leaving for Israel, I wrote to the Presidents of those 27 universities, and on behalf of my Harrisburg, Pennsylvania synagogue, I thanked each of them for withstanding the incredible pressures from the academic community and for strongly standing in support of Israel.

By the time we returned from Israel, I had received personal e-mails and hand-written notes from many of the university Presidents I had written to. They told me how much they appreciated my letter, and how they have resolved to remain committed to academic freedom — while resisting the ASA’s boycott of Israel.

This incident reminded me of an important lesson – which is too easily forgotten. As human beings, we are rather quick to criticize others when they do wrong. However, all too often, we fail to recognize, compliment, and/or thank people when they have behaved well. Yet we all know just how nice it feels to be on the receiving end of such a positive remark. Let’s all make a stronger effort to share our ‘Hakaras Hatov’ (appreciation) with those deserving of it.

Akiva Males is the rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at [email protected]

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9 Responses

  1. Raymond says:

    Perhaps one of the best ways with dealing with this problem, is through the pocketbook. As much as we can, we should attend those universities and buy those products that are not part of such blatantly antisemitic movements as the Divestment from Israel movement. And we, in turn, should not attend those universities nor buy products of those who do participate in the various forms of antisemitism out there. We may be small in number, but we do, thank G-d, have many wealthy people among us, who could have a real impact on things if we would respond to all this in the way that is being suggested here.

  2. cvmay says:

    Thank you, Reb Akiva!!!

    You are a light in a dark tunnel of criticism, mud-slinging, harsh rhetoric and angry accusations. When your shul opened their doors to the police and firemen of Harrisburg on Thanksgiving day to show “Hakaras Hatov/gratitude”…once again the ‘pleasantness & menschlikeit” of Toras Hashem shone brightly. Thank you for paving a path for all of us to follow.

  3. DF says:

    The correct and appropriate response to this preposterous boycott proposal is an aggressive counterpunch. As one academic noted, it doesn’t take much courage to oppose the boycott, it takes common sense. At least 80 university presidents have already come out against it, a bunch have withdrawn their membership, and some areas have proposed legislation against it. [I oppose the latter form of opposition.] [Small government guy.] A short note of thanks is always appreciated, but to avoid inflation, the real heartfelt thank-yous should be reserved for cases or real courage

  4. Micah Segelman says:

    Yasher Koach. Many of us have affiliations with particular institutions and it’s probably especially meaningful if University leaders hear from their own constituents. Also, it makes sense to express appreciation to the Association of American Universities (AAU) which represents many Universities and opposed the boycott.

  5. hindy frishman says:

    I also wrote emails and got personal responses thanking me from several university presidents. Yes, it is important to recognize good. Here is the letter I wrote:

    Dear ….

    I wish to express my deep appreciation for your principled stance in opposing organizations that seek to boycott the State of Israel, the one true democracy in the entire Middle East, where scholars are truly free to criticize the government and speak their conscience.

    I do not believe that it is the proper role for an academic organization to engage in political actions, but if an organization would be committed to political action in the name of a noble cause, such as free speech or academic freedom, I would accept that – but only if they began their political campaign by boycotting the countries in this world that deny these freedoms to their peoples, in the order of “the worst first”, rather than selecting the only Jewish state in the world as their one and only target.

    Your school is standing on the right side of this moral issue, and I am sure your students have learned an important lesson from this.

  6. dr. bill says:

    thank you. excellent advice.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    As of now, how many ASA-affiliated institutions have not expressed opposition at all?

  8. Y. Ben-David says:

    As an Israeli, I want to thank Rav Males for his avodat kodesh in the struggle to support Israel.
    Elements high up in the United States are working mightly to divide American Jewry, including parts of the
    Orthodox community, away from Israel. It has gotten to the point that a prominent Orthodox educationsl institution was
    considering inving Rashid Khalidi, a bitter enemy of Israel and supporter of terrorism, in the name of
    “freedom of speech” and “open education”. It seems that all the lessons that were supposedly learned
    after the Holocaust in which America’s Jewsish community largely sat on its hands during the supreme crisis
    of European Jewry are being rapidly forgotten, and that some American Jews are prepared to to their backs on us
    for the sake of convenience or finding favor in the eyes of antisemitic elements in the US.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    Y, Ben David proposed reasons for American Jewish indifference to the current threats to Israel. A key reason is that contemporary liberalism as zealously promoted by the secular American educational system, media and political establishment has become many Jews’ primary religion. From the stupid “global” perspective of this liberalism, Israel looks like a nuisance at best, certainly not like the hope of mankind. For that matter, America itself is viewed in much the same negative way.

    Also note how beholden Jewish politicians often are to the decadent Democratic Party, especially in one-party zones like the Northeastern US.

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