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At American Studies Association meeting, scholars debate proposed academic boycott of Israel

American Studies and Israel
November 25, 2013

WASHINGTON – The National Council of the American Studies Association is deliberating a proposed resolution to endorse a boycott of Israeli universities, and a decision is expected before Thanksgiving, according to the executive director of the association, John F. Stephens. The council had a long meeting on Sunday morning, at which many thought there would be a decision, but the meeting is still technically considered to be in session. 

The resolution, which was proposed by the ASA’s Academic and Community Activism Caucus, has been endorsed by the current president and president-elect of the association, and attracted strong support from members during an open forum at the association’s annual conference on Saturday. A letter opposing the resolution on academic freedom grounds was signed by more than 50 members, including seven past presidents. Comments on the resolution continue to pour in.

The National Council, which is a body of about 20 elected representatives within the ASA, may choose to endorse or reject the resolution as is, to rewrite or revise it, or to refer it to the general membership for a vote, among other options.  If the council were to vote to endorse the academic boycott of Israel the ASA would become the second major American scholarly association to do so, after the Association for Asian American Studies, which passed a pro-boycott resolution in April.

Academic boycotts are deeply controversial in the U.S.: the American Association of University Professors reiterated its longstanding opposition to the tactic in May, writing that an organized boycott “threatens the principles of free expression and communication on which we collectively depend” and urging academic associations to “seek alternative means, less inimical to the principle of academic freedom, to pursue their concerns.” Critics of the boycott idea also regularly note that punishing Israeli universities (at which many academics routinely speak out for Palestinian rights) makes as much sense to them as an academic boycott of U.S. universities over Bush administration policies that were widely condemned by scholars.

However, sentiment at Saturday's open forum for ASA members skewed pro-boycott by a huge margin. Speakers -- randomly selected from those who threw their names in a hat -- repeatedly argued that as an association of scholars who critique issues of American imperialism and colonialism, it is well within their mandate to endorse the call of Palestinian civil society organizations for a boycott. Several argued for the insertion of language in the resolution stating the United States’ complicity in the occupation of Palestinian territories in order to make clear why the ASA has a stake in the issue.

Both pro- and anti-boycott scholars claim the mantle of academic freedom. Opponents of the boycott cite the AAUP's stance that boycotts cut off free exchange between scholars, while those in favor describe a desire to increase academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars specifically. The resolution presented to the National Council outlines concerns about the closure or destruction of schools as a result of Israeli military strikes and restrictions on the ability of Palestinian students and scholars to travel.

“It’s very important that when we think about this issue, if we’re going to think about it, as well we should, in the context and framework of academic freedom, that we keep primarily in mind the freedom and ability for Palestinians to study free of a military occupation,” said Steven Salaita, an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech.

In an interview, Sunaina Maira, one of the organizers of the resolution and a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California at Davis, described what she observed while teaching at the Al-Quds Bard Honors College, in the West Bank, including systems of checkpoints and travel permits that extended Palestinian students’ commutes to campus, and Israeli military incursions on the Al-Quds campus (the latter being an issue that the Middle East Studies Association recently wrote a letter about). “Seeing what Palestinian scholars and students go through on a daily basis just to get to school, as they navigate these checkpoints…. the many conditions that obstruct their access to education, I think that’s what moved many of us to think about this resolution as a very small way that there could be a kind of civil society response here,” said Maira, who’s a member of the ASA's National Council.

Supporters of the boycott also described a desire to open up space for American scholars who are critical of Israeli policies. "Because the open discussion about Palestinian human rights that happened [Saturday] rarely happens in the U.S., people called the meeting historic," Nadine Naber, an associate professor of gender and women's studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago wrote in a letter to the council. "This is just one way the resolution creates new openings for academic freedom and the perspectives that dominant U.S. and Israeli discourses systematically ignore, crush, and silence."

Yet Simon J. Bronner, a distinguished professor of American studies and folklore and chair of the American Studies Program at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, criticized what he described as “the curtailing of academic freedom in the name of somehow guaranteeing academic freedom.” The letter opposing the boycott, which Bronner signed, states that the adoption of a boycott resolution would “do violence to this bedrock principle of academic freedom."

“Scholars would be punished not because of what they believe – which would be bad enough – but simply because of who they are based on their nationality. In no other context does the ASA discriminate on the basis of national origin – and for good reason. This is discrimination, pure and simple."

The letter goes on to state that “The ASA should not set policies that would impose on or restrict our academic right to research, and collaborate with colleagues as we see fit.”

The issue of the effect of a boycott of Israeli universities on individual scholars -- several Israeli universities have departments dedicated to American Studies -- goes to the heart of the debate. Boycott supporters emphasize that the tactic is aimed against Israeli higher education institutions, not individuals. While, for example, participation in conferences held at or sponsored by Israeli universities would be discouraged, individual Israeli scholars would still be free to participate in the ASA conference and to collaborate with their international colleagues, except in cases in which there was Israeli government or university funding. But Bronner and other anti-boycott advocates aren’t swayed by the institutions versus individuals distinction. “It’s naive to think that if you boycott an institution, individuals are not affected,” he said.

No matter what the ASA decides it's likely to be controversial. Speakers on Saturday overwhelmingly urged the council to immediately act and approve the resolution -- any delay, they argued, was a tactic for defeat -- while others expressed the need for something this divisive to go to the whole membership for a vote. “Many of us have learned about this only over the last few days," said Michael Frisch, an ASA past president and a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. (Although the resolution was first floated at the ASA conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico a year ago, many who oppose it say they only just learned of it.) One speaker, Michael A. Rockland, a professor of American studies at Rutgers University, said he would resign from the association after 45 years if the resolution were passed. (Rockland was also hissed by some attendees after he quoted the political views of "a Palestinian friend of mine."

In an opinion piece published on the website of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a pro-Israel organization, Roberta Seid, a historian and lecturer at the University of California at Irvine, opposed the resolution both because she said it violates principles of academic freedom and because "it is based on false or disputed accusations against Israel" (which she subsequently details).

“I’m afraid that the resolution makes a very simplistic statement of one side is evil and the other is not,” Bronner said on Saturday. “Having been in that part of the world I’m afraid it’s not that simple.”

 

 

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