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US officials, Ivy League universities slam academic group’s Israel ‘boycott’

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Dec. 16, 2013: Israeli soldiers stand guard in Rosh Hanikra, Israel, near the border between northern Israel and Lebanon.AP

An American academic group's "boycott" of Israeli institutions is facing mounting opposition from all corners, as prestigious universities as well as U.S. officials say the organization is unfairly singling out Israel while ignoring major human-rights abusers. 

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was the latest to get involved, firing off a letter to the American Studies Association on Monday. 

Engel called it "another example of the unfair double standard Israel is regularly and unfairly subjected to by organizations such as yours." 

The 5,000-member academic group announced the boycott of Israeli academic institutions earlier this month, in protest of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. 

The move immediately drew objections from Jewish advocacy groups. But top American universities, including Harvard and Yale, have also pushed back. 

Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust called it a "direct threat" to the ideals universities defend. 

"Academic boycotts subvert the academic freedoms and values necessary to the free flow of ideas, which is the lifeblood of the worldwide community of scholars," Faust said in a statement. Other universities withdrew their ACA membership. 

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro applauded those universities, and stated Sunday on his Facebook page that the U.S. government "rejects" the boycott push. 

Engel added his voice in the letter to ASA President Curtis Marez. He noted this is the first time the association has boycotted a country and questioned -- why Israel? 

He noted the group "has chosen to stay silent on China's suppression of independent academic voices critical of the Communist Party, the Venezuelan government's retaliation against opposition-oriented universities, [and] Zimbabwe's denial of foreign academics from countries critical of Robert Mugabe's dictatorial government from assuming academic residencies at the University of Zimbabwe." 

And he questioned whether such venerable Israeli institutions as the Walter Lebach Institute for Jewish-Arab Coexistence Through Education at the Tel Aviv University really "contribute to the purported Israeli assault on human rights and academic freedoms." 

It's unclear what practical impact the boycott will have. A lengthy explanation from the ACA said Israeli scholars would still be permitted to lecture at member campuses, and ACA members could in many circumstances continue to work with Israeli scholars. The boycott was aimed more at cutting ties between the ASA "as an association" and Israeli institutions. 

But the association has defended the decision, arguing that Israeli institutions are "complicit" in a "multi-tiered system of oppression" against the Palestinians. The group noted that all major Israeli universities are governmental organizations, and claimed "many are directly involved in furnishing the ideological justification and technical means" for Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. 

The Washington Post's editorial board called the approach "terrible misguided." A recent editorial questioned why the group focused its criticism exclusively on Israel. 

"Did they give any thought to what's happened lately to freedom in Russia, won at enormous cost in a Cold War that lasted more than four decades?" the board wrote. "Have the scholars overlooked the cries for help from Cuban dissidents bravely standing up to the Castro brothers, demanding freedoms -- and suffering beatings and arrest almost every week? Do they condone the decision of a judge in Saudi Arabia who has just sentenced a political activist to 300 lashes and four years in prison for calling for a constitutional monarchy?" 

The ACA boycott is part of a broader international campaign against Israeli institutions. It has divided American colleges and universities. 

A fraction of the ACA's members ended up voting on the resolution which formalized the boycott, following a similar stance by the Association for Asian American Studies. But the American Association of University Professors took the opposite stance, saying it rejects academic boycotts "as a matter of principle."