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Round-up on lobbying over American studies vote on Israel boycott

On the Eve of a Vote
December 12, 2013

The letters and op-eds for and against the American Studies Association’s proposed resolution endorsing the academic boycott of Israel continue streaming in. The membership of the association is voting on whether to approve the resolution, which was endorsed by the association’s elected National Council earlier this month. If approved by the membership, the American Studies Association would be the second American scholarly association, after the Association for Asian American Studies, to endorse the boycott of Israeli universities.

On Wednesday, eight past presidents of the ASA wrote a letter opposing the boycott as being "antithetical to the mission of free and open inquiry for which a scholarly organization stands” and taking issue with the association's leaders for refusing to present a range of perspectives on the boycott to their members. “ASA Members were provided only the resolution and a link to a website supporting it. Despite explicit requests, the National Council refused to circulate or post to the ASA’s website alternative perspectives,” the eight past presidents wrote.

A similar complaint is raised in an op-ed by Henry Reichman, the chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, published today by Inside Higher Ed. Reichman wrote that the ASA refused to post the AAUP’s open letter opposing boycotts for academic freedom reasons, and criticized the “one-sided and disingenuous presentations sadly offered on ASA's website.”

Curtis Marez, the ASA’s president, wrote in an email that while the National Council considered the requests to post an anti-boycott petition and the AAUP open letter to the website, members chose not to partly because he said the documents misrepresent the current version of the resolution and the process by which it has been put forward.  “For example,” Marez wrote, “the AAUP letter states: ‘No scholar should be required to participate in any academic activity that violates his or her own principles.’ This is an incorrect and inflammatory characterization, bearing no relationship to the resolution up for a vote. Unfortunately, that falsehood is anticipated in the anti-boycott petition, which claims that the Council’s resolution represents ‘the attempt of a vocal minority amongst the ASA’s membership to force the entire association to enact a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.’ Similarly, the preamble to the petition argues that dissent was ‘stifled’ at the [association’s national] convention. We cannot in good faith reproduce on the ASA website a document claiming that free speech was stifled at a convention which included an open discussion of the membership, or that describes an election as a form of force.”

“Second, we respectfully but in the strongest terms disagree with the claim that by not posting the anti-boycott petition and AAUP letter the Council has in some way compromised the democratic nature of the process,” Marez continued, arguing that the association has taken every step openly and in accordance with ASA bylaws.

“Moreover, rather than simply adopting the resolution, the Council has taken the exceptional step of bringing it to a member vote," he said.

At an open discussion at the association’s recent annual convention in Washington, speakers in favor of a boycott outnumbered those against by a large majority. Among the scholars who have publicly endorsed the boycott are Judith Butler, of the University of California at Berkeley, Virginia Tech’s Steven Salaita, the University of California at Riverside’s David Lloyd, Stanford University’s David Palumbo-Liu and, in a reversal of her position, Claire Potter, a professor of history at the New School for Public Engagement and author of the Tenured Radical blog. To give a sampling of just one of the articles above, Butler, writing in The Nation of the larger boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement of which the academic boycott is a part, said, "The upshot is this: if major professional organizations and major universities endorse BDS, even if only one part of the platform, the pressure on Israeli cultural and academic institutions to take a stand against the occupation is increased. The Israeli state may well be compelled to see that the international objection to the continuing colonization of Palestine and its own manifest abrogation of international laws and norms, is no longer sustainable.” 

Mark Rice, chair of the Department of American Studies at upstate New York’s St. John Fisher College, and Jonathan Marks, a politics professor at Ursinus College, offer anti-boycott perspectives, in The Huffington Post and Commentary, respectively. Roberta Seid, a historian and adjunct professor at the University of California at Irvine and education/research director of the Israel advocacy organization, StandWithUs, has written an extended, heavily footnoted rebuttal to the resolution. And Judea Pearl, a computer scientist and father of the slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, sent an email to his colleagues at the University of California at Los Angeles on Wednesday, in which he wrote that ASA members should be “deeply concerned with the reputation of their organization if allowed to be hijacked by the rhetoric of the BDS movement and its extreme anti-Israel trumpeteers.”

Voting by ASA members continues through Dec. 15.

 

 

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