A new law that bans entry into Israel of non-residents who publicly support a boycott of the country could jeopardize the future of the relatively new and growing academic discipline of Israel studies, the head of an organization devoted to the field has warned.
"This is not something like nuclear physics, where academics can choose to take their research elsewhere," Dr. Ilan Troen, president of the Association of Israel Studies, told Haaretz on Sunday. "It is impossible to conduct research in the field of Israel studies without visiting Israel. Since it is not clear whether all our members will be able to continue traveling to Israel, this new law poses a serious threat to the future of our discipline."
Two weeks ago, the Knesset gave its final approval to a bill that forbids granting entry visas or residency rights to foreign nationals who call for economic, cultural or academic boycotts of either Israel or the settlements.
The Association of Israel Studies, an international and interdisciplinary academic society founded in 1985, has about 2,600 members, according to Troen, more than half of them based outside of Israel. AIS holds an annual conference, which every few years takes place in Israel.
"We will not hold any more conferences in Israel if we cannot be sure that all our members will be allowed to enter the country," warned Troen, a professor emeritus from Ben-Gurion University who also holds a chair in Israel studies at Brandeis University.
Chartered in the United States, AIS has it main offices at the University of Haifa.
Troen said that Israel studies scholars typically visit Israel at least once a year to conduct research and attend conferences. The same holds true for graduate students in the discipline.
The field of Israel studies received a major boost about 20 years ago, just as the boycott movement against Israel was gaining ground. Jewish donors around the United States mobilized at the time to set up Israel studies departments and create chairs in Israel studies aimed at counteracting growing anti-Israel bias on American university campuses.
Most of the students enrolled in Israel studies courses, Troen said, are not Jewish. Many AIS members, he added, have been at the forefront of the struggle against the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign targeting Israel.
Last week, AIS published a strongly worded statement condemning the new law that seeks to bar boycott supporters from Israel.
"There should be no doubt that this law will have a chilling effect on students wishing to seek an education in Israel, colleagues anxious to engage in research, and those wanting to participate in conferences," it said. "It will create the absurdity that the Association for Israel Studies will no longer be able to hold its meetings in Israel."
Troen noted that the Middle East Studies Association, a much larger and more veteran academic society, planned to vote on a motion to boycott Israel. "How can the Israeli government expect us to fight an organization that promotes BDS when it is imposing censorship on us?" he asked.
After the Israeli law was passed, Troen reported, he received inquiries from about 15 members of AIS about whether they would be denied entry into Israel from now on because of past actions or statements.
Referring to the new law as "a self-inflicted quarantine," he said, "I can guarantee you 100 percent that it will do nothing to stop the boycott against Israel."
AIS is not the first international academic association to issue a condemnation of the law. In a letter addressed to Israeli government leaders and published on March 10, the Middle East Studies Association warned that "it violates the principles of freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and academic freedom that ought to be protected in a country that wishes to be recognized as a democracy."