A national education association has called for an academic boycott of Israeli universities, provoking a backlash from dozens of universities around the country.
Leaders at the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College, Princeton University, Lehigh University, Temple University, and Penn State Harrisburg - the only Pennsylvania State University campus with a graduate program in American studies - are among schools to oppose the boycott approved this month by the American Studies Association.
The association identifies itself as the "nation's oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history," and cites a membership of 5,000.
"Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students," the association said.
But opponents of the boycott said it infringes on academic freedom, perhaps the most cherished principle in higher education.
"We think it's paradoxical that they're proposing an action to advance freedom by restricting academic freedom," said Daniel H. Weiss, president of Haverford.
A boycott, he said, could affect a college's ability to interact with faculty from Israel, engage in joint research, or send students there.
"It seems so intellectually clumsy and shortsighted that it's hard to understand what actually they were thinking," Weiss said. And if a boycott on Israel is approved, he said, "why not North Korea? What about countries that engage in other types of civil rights violations? In the end, the question is, what would this accomplish?"
Curtis F. Marez, American Studies Association president and chair of the ethnic studies department at the University of California at San Diego, could not be reached for comment.
The association listed as reasons for the boycott in a statement on its website "U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel's violation of international law and U.N. resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights."
The association said 66 percent of the 1,252 association members who voted approved of the measure. It added that the boycott is limited to Israeli institutions and individuals who are serving as representatives of the universities, such as deans or presidents.
"We are expressly not endorsing a boycott of Israeli scholars engaged in individual-level contacts and ordinary forms of academic exchange, including presentations at conferences, public lectures at campuses, and collaboration on research and publication," the association said. "U.S. scholars are not discouraged under the terms of the boycott from traveling to Israel for academic purposes, provided they are not engaged in a formal partnership with or sponsorship by Israeli academic institutions."
Other academic associations, including the Modern Language Association and the Eastern American Studies Association, are expected to discuss the topic at forthcoming meetings. The Association for Asian American Studies voted for a boycott last spring.
The action has stirred debate beyond academics in American studies. Weiss said he had received calls from Haverford alumni seeking his position on the boycott.
"There are lots of people who are very upset about this," he said.
Christopher Eisgruber, president of Princeton, also has heard from alumni. He has assured them that he opposes the boycott, supports continued interaction with Israel, and recently completed an article that emerged from a conference in Jerusalem sponsored by the Israel Democracy Institute.
"My personal support for scholarly engagement with Israel is enthusiastic and unequivocal," he said.
Amy Gutmann, president of Penn, signed a letter from the American Association of Universities, for which she is vice chair, saying the boycott "clearly violates the academic freedom not only of Israeli scholars but also of American scholars who might be pressured to comply with it."
Lehigh called on its faculty to oppose the measure within the association and advocate for a change.
Penn State Harrisburg withdrew its membership in the association because of the boycott. Simon J. Bronner, chair of the American studies program at Penn State Harrisburg, said the boycott had created deep division within the association and even prompted discussion by some members on potentially splitting from it and creating a new group.
Miles Orvell, a professor of English and American studies at Temple, also is opposed to the boycott. He is concerned, too, about its impact on the association.
"The only effect of this will be to divide the association," he said. "I don't know how long-lasting that division will be."