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Big Win for Boycott Movement

December 5, 2013

The National Council of the American Studies Association announced Wednesday that it has unanimously endorsed a boycott of Israeli universities and other Israeli institutions -- and urged its members to vote to make the boycott official policy of the association.

The move by the council, even if awaiting approval by the membership, is seen as a major victory for the movement for an academic boycott of Israel. The academic movement to boycott Israel has considerable support in Europe, but has been largely opposed by major academic associations in the United States, citing longstanding objections to countrywide boycotts as antithetical to academic freedom. But in April, the Association for Asian American Studies became the first disciplinary group to endorse the academic boycott of Israel, and the American Studies Association now appears to be the second.

Supporters of the boycott have argued that just the discussion of the idea at a meeting as large as the American Studies Association marks a significant departure for American academe. A post on the pro-Palestinian site The Electronic Intifada said that the debate over the proposal indicated that "the taboo on boycotting Israel has been broken." And a piece on the same site shortly after the American Studies Association announced its decision Wednesday declared victory, saying that "the energy, the devotion, the compassion, the vitality [of the boycott movement] – all were palpable and invigorating, as was the sense that Zionist functionaries are now whistling past the cemetery."

Academics who support the boycott movement have been working for several years to build support within the American Studies Association to make such a move. At the group's annual meeting last month, there was heated debate on the boycott proposal -- with supporters arguing that the council should not hand the decision to the full membership for a vote. But at the time, the assumption was that setting up a vote would basically involve the association's leaders avoiding taking a stand on the issue.

Since the council called for a vote, but also urged members to endorse the boycott, the boycott supporters generally applauded the move. Most of those who spoke at the annual meeting were in favor of the boycott, but the council -- which met on the issue the Sunday before Thanksgiving -- held off on making a decision.

When it announced its decision Wednesday, the council offered strong support for the boycott. "The council voted for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions as an ethical stance, a form of material and symbolic action. It represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians," said the statement issued by the association.

"Our resolution understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law," the association added.

The voting will begin immediately and runs through Dec. 15. While the association's statements noted that some members disagree with the boycott, and that no member would be forced to honor it, the materials distributed Wednesday strongly urged a vote in favor of the boycott. The association followed its announcement by distributing quotes from leading scholars backing the boycott.

Curtis Marez, president of the association and a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at San Diego, was quoted as saying: "The boycott is the best way to protect and expand academic freedom and access to education. Palestinian academics are frequently impeded by Israeli occupation authorities, schools and universities have been bombed by U.S.-supported Israeli military forces, and the Wall blocks educational access for thousands of students. As an association of scholars and educators, the ASA has an ethical responsibility to act."

J. Kehaulani Kauanui, a council member who is associate professor of American studies and anthropology at Wesleyan University, was quoted as saying: “The American perception that Israel is ‘exceptional’ is bolstered and bankrolled by U.S. policy and military aid, while also secured through the persistent myth of American exceptionalism that denies the colonization of indigenous peoples here. In other words, the connection between Israeli and U.S. settler colonialism is not merely analogous, but is shaped from many of the same material and symbolic forces.”

Many critics of the boycott have questioned why the association has taken a stand against Israel and not other countries that lack anything even close to academic freedom or free speech rights. Boycott supporters have noted that the association did honor the boycott against apartheid South Africa, and has condemned anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona and elsewhere. But asked why the association did not boycott, for example, North Korea or Syria, Marez said via email that Palestinian leaders have called for such a boycott of Israel, while there have not been calls from those other nations for boycotts of their countries. "Whereas the current resolution answers the call of Palestinian civil society, to my knowledge there has never been a similar call for boycott from the civil society in another country," he said.

Generally, supporters of the boycott (and not just from those in American studies) have argued that the only way to take a stand against Israeli treatment of Palestinians is to draw a line, and to cut off ties to various parts of Israeli society. The pro-boycott movement stresses reports of Israeli denial of rights to Palestinians, including students and faculty members.

Many critics of the movement also criticize Israel's government. But they say that countrywide boycotts essentially assume that all academics reflect the views of their government, that Israel is being held to a higher standard than many other countries, and that Israeli academe is home to many of the country's outspoken defenders of the Palestinian cause.

In the wake of the council's announcement, critics of the boycott also questioned why the association was calling for a vote but endorsing one outcome, and many criticized the speed with which the vote will be held as giving an advantage to the well-organized pro-boycott group with the ASA.

Simon Bronner, professor of American studies and folklore at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, said via email that the ASA council has "chosen to endorse a resolution for a pernicious boycott that undermines the principles of intellectual freedom and free inquiry." He noted that the association states that it is committed in its mission to "the strengthening of relations among persons and institutions in this country and abroad." But he said that "the council's endorsement is clearly a move toward the weakening of those relations and to the integrity of American studies as a scholarly pursuit. In contrast to the council's statement, the public repeatedly has rejected blacklisting and the exclusion of institutions, people and points of view as destructive to finding the path to peace and reconciliation. Impeding dialogue and free inquiry, making a mockery of democratic process, and issuing one-sided attacks based on falsehoods should shame proponents of this resolution and the American Studies Association."

Sharon Ann Musher, associate professor of history and director of the master's in American studies at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, said via email that the discussions of the boycott at the recent annual meeting were lopsided pro-boycott and amounted to "a virtual one-sided rally for the de-legitimization of the State of Israel."

She said she saw the council's move as a significant shift for the association. "The acceptance of this resolution indicates the ASA’s commitment to ideology over intellectual exchange and complexity, which were at the heart of the organization’s original aims," she said. "It, furthermore, sets a dangerous precedent. Instead of opening conversations and advancing peace, it stifles debate and punishes one nation’s universities and scholars."

What's Next?

Supporters of the boycott movement have talked about taking the proposal to other disciplinary associations -- and both the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association (both of which share some members with the American Studies Association) have meetings coming up in January.

At the MLA meeting, the association's Delegate Assembly has been asked to vote on a resolution that criticizes Israel's government, but that does not call for a boycott. The resolution states that "Israel has arbitrarily denied academics of Palestinian ethnicity entry into the West Bank and Gaza" in violation of "an occupying power’s obligation to protect the right to education." The resolution would have the MLA urge the U.S. State Department to "contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U. S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities." If the Delegate Assembly approves the measure, it would then be reviewed by the MLA's Executive Council and then sent to the membership for ratification.

The deadline has passed for standard resolutions to be submitted to the MLA for the January 2014 meeting, but association members may seek to have "emergency" resolutions added up to 24 hours before the meeting.

Even if the boycott is not discussed at the Delegate Assembly, there is an MLA session on academic boycotts. The description of the session: "This roundtable addresses the political movement Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, seen by its defenders as a viable means to end the Palestinian occupation. Many academics face questions about how to respond to this boycott or how to evaluate academic boycotts more generally. This roundtable is intended to promote discussion of strategy, ethics, and academic work in larger world contexts through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

The American Historical Association has not received proposals related to the boycott. And the only mentions of "boycott" that turn up in a search of its meeting program are sessions dealing with the grape boycott led by the United Farm Workers, and 1920s boycotts by the Ku Klux Klan against Greek-American merchants.

 

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