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Suit Over Academic Boycott of Israel Advances

A federal judge has advanced claims by members of the American Studies Association over the group’s backing of an academic boycott of Israel.

WASHINGTON (CN) - A federal judge has advanced claims by members of the American Studies Association over the group’s backing of an academic boycott of Israel.

“It seems based on the complaint — which contains the text of the boycott resolution itself, including the preamble — that the purportedly oppressive practices by Israel do not ‘directly’ affect the scholarly work or teaching of current ASA members,” the March 31 ruling states, abbreviating the American Studies Association.

“As a result, it is plausible that the ASA was not entitled to speak for the ASA on this issue.”

Four American Studies professors led by Simon Bronner brought the complaint last year, after the ASA heeded the call of Palestinian civil society to boycott Israeli academic institutions "on the grounds that Israel restricted academic activity in formerly Jordanian-occupied territory that came under Israeli control after the Six Day War in 1967."

Though pro-Israel advocates say the movement is anti-Semitic, Palestinian activists see it as a viable avenue through which to pursue justice in the absence of a meaningful peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.

The 2013 resolution at the heart of the lawsuit states: "ASA is devoted to 'the struggle against all forms of racism,' that the United States helps enable Israel to illegally occupy Palestine, that there is 'no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation,' and that the ASA is dedicated to the rights of students and scholars in Israeli institutions."

Just last month, Israel passed a law that allows it to bar foreign activists who support the boycott movement from entering the country.

Citing allegations that the ASA’s disputed resolution passed without the two-third’s vote required by its bylaws, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras denied the association’s motion to dismiss Friday.

Contreras devoted the bulk of the 39-page ruling to explaining why he advanced the contract claim but tossed allegations that the nonprofit violated the D.C. Nonprofit Corporation Act.

He said that, even though the plaintiffs had alleged a plausible contract claim, "their failure to adequately demand that the nonprofit corporation remedy the situation internally makes them ineligible to proceed derivatively under District of Columbia law."

The plaintiffs made such a demand two days prior to filing the lawsuit, rather than 90 days or more, as the law requires. They failed to persuade Contreras to excuse that requirement on the basis that such a demand would prove futile.

"Their argument confuses bias with support for the actions underlying the suit," the opinion says. "Plaintiffs, in essence, argue that Defendants have shown that they could not independently evaluate a demand because of their passion for the boycott resolution."

As outlined in the ruling, the plaintiffs had accused Curtis Marez of turning the nonprofit ASA "into a 'social justice' organization" after he was elected to serve as its president in 2013.

The plaintiffs accused the association of presenting no evidence to justify its support of a boycott. In addition to having "actively prevented" a methodical discussion about the resolution, the defendants also allegedly failed to provide a platform for opposing voices on the issue.

Contreras rejected the members’ claims that the boycott resolution violated the association's bylaws, including a ban on propaganda.

"As shown by the preamble of the resolution, the ASA passed the boycott resolution because, in its view, Israel suppresses the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students, and the United States 'plays a significant role in enabling' that suppression," the ruling states.

"The boycott resolution was aimed both at encouraging academic freedom for Palestinians and strengthening relations between American institutions and Palestinians," Contreras added. Such academic goals are not contrary to the association's express purposes, according to the ruling.

Contreras also determined that the association's restriction on propaganda applies only to influencing legislation.

"The boycott resolution was not an attempt to influence legislation in any meaningful sense of the term," the ruling states.

"Although one may be able to draw an indirect link between any resolution and some potential piece of legislation in that it calls attention to a public issue, that connection is far too attenuated to make the boycott resolution 'expressly prohibited' by the by law," Contreras added.

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