Speak Out! Some Additional Thoughts on the ASA Boycott

This a text version of my sermon from yesterday, 12/27/13 – 

      The Jewish community has been following over the last couple of weeks the story of the American Studies Association boycott of Israeli academic institutions.  The association – called the ASA – is an organization made up of academics from around the country, most of whom teach at the university level in the fields of history or the social sciences.  It is about 60 years old at this point, and has close to 5000 thousand members – so it is a prominent academic organization.  Just about 3 weeks ago the membership was asked to vote on on whether it would support an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.  That is to say, the members of the ASA would cut off all formal contacts with Israeli universities.  The boycott was approved by the ASA membership – about %60 voted in favor of it – and the rational behind it, as explained by the organization, is that the boycott will help to draw attention to the plight of the Palestinian population under Israeli control.

     This is not by any means the first time a prominent organization has shown a deeply misguided understanding of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict – you can look at a number of statements that have come out of the United Nations for examples, among others.  What is particularly disappointing about the ASA boycott is that these are people who are supposed to be first of all intellectually sophisticated, so you would think they would be able to look at the situation in terms of its depth and complexity, but also these are academicians, they are supposed to do their homework!  I doubt any of them would put their names onto a paper that was going to be published without thoroughly researching the material, yet that is exactly what an entire group of academicians has done here. 

     What has been interesting, and also gratifying over the last 10 days has been the response to the ASA boycott from within the academic community.  I am proud to say that Brandeis University, where Becky and I both went to college, was one of the first institutions to speak out against the boycott, and they have since withdrawn their membership from the ASA.  Since then the presidents of Harvard and Wesleyan have both spoken out against the boycott, the Association of American Universities, which is an organization comprised of the most prestigious research schools in the country, has publicly opposed the boycott, and Brandeis has been joined by Penn State University (Harrisburg), and just a couple of days ago by Kenyon College and Indiana University in terms of schools that have withdrawn from the ASA entirely.  

     Now to us this might seem like a no brainer, but the truth of the matter is with these issues it is much easier for individuals and institutions to remain silent and just let things happen than it is to step up, to speak out, and to take a stand.  Rabbi Loeb used to often say there are sins of commission, actually participating in doing something wrong, and then there are sins of omission, not actively doing anything but just stepping back and letting things unfold.  And the truth is, whether we like it or not, Israel is not particularly popular in academic circles these days, so it took some courage and moral rectitude for the individuals and the institutions to publicly take the pro-Israel position that they did and to call out the ASA for its misguided judgement.

     How that happens – how an individual, or how an organization, an institution, is able to make that choice, to do what is right, to say what needs to be said even if it is not popular, even if it is a singular voice – how that happens has always been something that is fascinating to me.  Obviously you need a certain amount of courage and confidence.  But I think more than anything else it has to do with a moral sensitivity, a simple understanding that some things are right, some things are wrong, and that when something is wrong you have a responsibility to speak out, to do something about it.

     To me that has always been one of the defining qualities in the character of Moses, about whom we read in this morning’s Torah portion.  Consider for a moment the position that Moses finds himself in.  Here he is, appointed by God, to be a spokesperson for God to the Israelites, and also to Pharaoh.  We already know he doesn’t want this job.  Remember in last week’s portion when God first asks him, Moses’ immediate response is לא איש דברים אנכי – I am not a man of words!  I can not do what you are asking me to do.  And then in this morning’s Torah portion it is clear Moses hasn’t changed his mind, reminding God that he has already tried once, and it didn’t go well – “the Israelites wouldn’t even listen to me, so how are the Egyptians going to listen to me, ואיך ישמיעני פרעה how will Pharaoh listen to me?!”

     But God does not take no for an answer, and despite his protests Moses finds himself, standing with Aaron, outside of Pharaoh’s throne room.  Put yourself in Moses’ shoes at that moment.  The door is about to open, he will be ushered into Pharaoh’s presence, he is going to have to say something to Pharaoh that Pharaoh doesn’t want to hear, and he himself doesn’t believe he has the ability to say.  But he does it!  He opens the door, he walks towards Pharaoh, and he delivers God’s message – “Slavery is wrong.  You Pharaoh, are not a god, you are a man, just like me.  You cannot keep my people in slavery.  They must be set free.”

     It was a powerful message, and it expresses values that are so familiar that we take them for granted.  But I will tell you that was not a message that Pharaoh had heard before.  In fact it may be that Moses was the first person in human history – ever – to stand up, to speak out, and to proclaim that message of human dignity and freedom.

     You know in the Jewish community we tend to be straight shooters.  We say what we mean, and we tell it like it is.  That is why 5 minutes after meeting an Israeli they will ask you what your salary is.  That is also why your bubbe will tell you that she doesn’t like what you are wearing and she doesn’t like your girlfriend.  It is why meetings in Jewish organizations can make you crazy.

     But it is also why, I think, Judaism has produced so many visionaries in so many fields over the years.  You couldn’t have had an Einstein, or Herzl, or a Ben Gurion, without that impulse that when you think you know what needs to be done, or said – you do it, or you say it, even if everyone else disagrees, even if everyone else thinks you have lost your mind – you still have a responsibility to say the words that need to be said, and to do the things that need to be done.  

     Most of us in our lives will not need to worry about walking into a Pharaoh’s throne room, preparing to deliver a message that a King does not want to hear.  But by opening that door Moses created a path that we can all walk on, in fact I would argue that we are all responsible for walking on.  It is not an easy path, but it is a sacred one.  And a very Jewish one.  When we are on it our steps should not falter our convictions should not waver, our determination should not wane, and perhaps most importantly of all, our voices should not be silent. 

Author: Steve Schwartz

Husband, father of three, Deadhead, and rabbi. I am now in my 22nd year of serving a large congregation in the Baltimore area.

2 thoughts

  1. Amen! BTW, being confined to home with a nasty cold and cough, it is a blessing to be connected thru your blog/sermon.

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