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Backing the Israel Boycott

December 17, 2013

Members of the American Studies Association have voted in favor of endorsing the academic boycott of Israel by a two-to-one margin, making it the second major U.S. scholarly association, after the Association for Asian American Studies, to do so.

Of the 1,252 votes cast, 66.1 percent of members endorsed the boycott, 30.5 percent rejected it and 3.4 percent abstained. Slightly less than a third of the association’s 3,853 eligible voting members participated in the 10-day online referendum. The association’s elected National Council had previously endorsed the resolution, which was approved by the membership despite concerns by some that it is discriminatory in unfairly singling out Israel, and over and above opposition on the part of the American Association of University Professors to academic boycotts in general. The AAUP holds that academic boycotts violate principles of academic freedom and open exchange, while those in support of the ASA boycott argue that they are seeking to increase the academic freedom of Palestinians.

The resolution approved by a plurality of ASA members cites as a rationale the lack of “effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation” and calls for the association to boycott Israeli higher education institutions, which are described as being “a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students.” 

“I think what the vote indicates is that people recognize the illegal occupation of Palestine as one of the major civil rights issues of our time globally,” said Bill Mullen, a professor of English and American studies at Purdue University and a member of the ASA’s Caucus on Academic and Community Activism, which first put forward the boycott resolution. “American scholars now understand the physical violence that’s part of the Israeli occupation; they understand the massive restrictions on academic freedom for Palestinian scholars that is part of living under an illegal occupation. These facts are now irrefutable to so many people that the vote indicates a kind of coming to consensus around the illegitimacy of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.”

“We are on the cusp of a turning point on this issue,” said David Lloyd, a distinguished professor of English at the University of California at Riverside and a member of the organizing collective for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (and an ASA member). “Once the blockade on open and free discussion of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is lifted, as it has been in the ASA, then people begin to listen to actual arguments rather than rhetoric and accusation.”

“I think you’ll see over the next year more and more academic associations taking up this issue,” Lloyd said.

From the anti-boycott perspective, 72 ASA members had signed a petition objecting to the boycott, as did 74 Americanists who are not members of the association. Eight past ASA presidents sent a letter last week 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 post the anti-boycott petition and an open letter from the AAUP opposing boycotts on its website. 

“I hope that people will remember that many more members did not vote than did vote,” said Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the president of the association in 2004-5 and the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities and director of American studies at Stanford University. “The views that were expressed in this flawed process should not be taken as representative of the views of the majority of scholars in the field.”

“I’m disappointed and outraged,” said Simon J. Bronner, a distinguished professor of American studies and folklore and chair of the American Studies Program at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg. Bronner, who’s also an affiliated faculty member at the University of Haifa, in Israel, said that he was worried that the boycott vote would be a stain on the reputation of the field.

He cited as a cause for concern a Charlie Rose interview with Lawrence Summers about the ASA boycott in which the former Harvard University president described boycotts that single out Israel as “anti-Semitic in their effect, if not necessarily in their intent” and said his hope is that “responsible university leaders will become very reluctant to see their universities' funds used to finance faculty membership and faculty travel to an association that is showing itself not to be a scholarly association but really more of a political tool.”

Bronner said the vote demonstrates "how a political agenda can take over an organization that is supposedly devoted to scholarship."

“This is not just a family feud," he said. "It’s a crossroads for talking about the role of academics and academe in public culture.”

The Reasons for the Boycott

In its press release approving the resolution the ASA included statements from prominent scholars endorsing the boycott in light of their personal histories and areas of professional scholarship. Among the scholars who endorsed the resolution was Eric Cheyfitz, the Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters at Cornell University, who wrote, “I am a Jew with a daughter and three grandchildren who are citizens of Israel. I am a scholar of American Indian and Indigenous studies, who has in published word and action opposed settler colonialism wherever it exists, including of course the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It is worth noting in this respect that just as the myth of American exceptionalism seeks to erase the genocide and ongoing settler colonialism of Indigenous peoples here in the United States so the myth of Israeli exceptionalism seeks to erase Israeli colonialism in Palestine and claim original rights to Palestinian lands.”

Angela Y. Davis, a distinguished professor emerita at the University of California at Santa Cruz, wrote that “[t]he similarities between historical Jim Crow practices and contemporary regimes of segregation in Occupied Palestine make this resolution an ethical imperative for the ASA.” And Robin D.G. Kelley, the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at the University of California at Los Angeles, asserted that “[t[he ASA Resolution supporting a boycott of Israeli academic institutions has been grossly mischaracterized as an assault on academic freedom. On the contrary, it is one of the most significant affirmative acts any scholarly organization has proposed in defense of academic freedom since the anti-apartheid movement. Palestinian students and faculty living under occupation do not enjoy academic freedom, let alone the full range of basic human rights.”

Steven Salaita, an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, said in an interview that the main reasons he supported the ASA boycott boiled down to “the need for people in the U.S. to become more proactive about the brutality of Israel’s occupation and the need to act somehow against it, and boycott provides us with an opportunity to engage in a form of nonviolent resistance against Israel’s occupation. Also, American studies as a discipline is really preoccupied with issues of race and racism and colonization and with matters of American foreign policy and so I feel like the resolution is very much in keeping with the sorts of things that a large number of American studies scholars focus on in their research.”

"This is what the ASA is about," said Malini Johar Schueller, a professor of English at the University of Florida. "The ASA has been interested in work on imperialism, settler colonialism, and it just seems logical that they supported this.”

Cynthia Franklin, a professor of English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a member of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel's organizing collective, added that she also thinks that the endorsement of the boycott on the part of the ASA is important in countering what she described as "a culture of fear" in speaking up about Israeli-Palestinian issues.

"A lot of junior faculty and graduate students who support the academic and cultural boycott are fearful of putting their names forward because there are reprisals that can take the form of not getting tenure or not getting jobs," she said, while something like the ASA's resolution "opens up a space for people to be able to voice their support without fear of reprisal or censorship."

Impact and Import

The decision on the part of the ASA membership to boycott Israeli universities was big news -- it was the leading story on the website for the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, on Monday afternoon -- but its impact may be largely symbolic in nature. The practical effect, as the association describes it on its website, is that the ASA will refuse "to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others), or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law."  

The association is explicit about the fact that the boycott is against Israeli institutions, not individual scholars who, for example, could still come to ASA conferences or collaborate on research with ASA colleagues. The individuals versus institutions distinction fails to impress many opponents of the boycott, however, who argue that, well, institutions are made up of individuals.

Henry Reichman, the first vice president of the AAUP and chair of its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said he was disappointed in the decision but nonetheless thought it would have limited impact. "For one thing the ASA did attempt -- I didn’t think it was adequate -- but they did attempt to water down their notion of what a boycott would be," said Reichman, a professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay.

In a written statement released in the aftermath of the vote, the AAUP noted that the resolution “limited the boycott to ASA's own organizational contacts with Israeli institutions, exempting individual scholars. Since these contacts are surely limited, the resolution may have less effect than some supporters claim.” 

The AAUP statement also warned that “[t]he broader impact of this vote should not be exaggerated. Since the AAUP adopted its position opposing academic boycotts over eight years ago, only two scholarly associations, the Association for Asian American Studies and the ASA, have endorsed an academic boycott of Israel. The ASA has fewer than 4,000 members and the AAAS is even smaller. No other disciplinary association, including the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, the American Economic Association, the American Mathematical Society, the American Political Science Association nor any other area studies association or similar professional organization, including no union of academic employees, has endorsed or even considered endorsing this boycott. Support for academic boycotts therefore remains the position of a small minority of college and university faculty.”

Yet, minority or not, as Asaf Romirowsky, the executive director of the pro-Israel organization, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, said of the boycott campaign, "Unfortunately I do see it as a growing movement." Sharon Ann Musher, an opponent of the boycott and an associate professor of history and director of the M.A. program in American studies at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, wrote, "This experience (along with the passage of a similar resolution by the Asian American Studies Association) should serve as a wake-up call regarding the organization of those advocating for academic boycotts and the need of those of us who oppose such actions – on any grounds – to organize to preserve academic freedom for all."

Emily Budick is a former member of the ASA and the Ann and Joseph Edelman chair in American studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The boycott likely won’t have much of a practical effect for her, she said – she’d let her membership in ASA lapse in favor of joining American studies organizations in Europe, closer to home – but in an interview she said she found the move by her former disciplinary association to be “painful” and “wrongheaded.”

“It’s just very painful, because what you’re dealing with is educated people who have some bizarre notion that this is the major site of moral turpitude in the world, and even that is so misguided; it’s so distorted," said Budick, who's also chair of Hebrew University's English department. "But also to attack other academics, most of whom are probably dispositionally closer to them than not and who are also involved in teaching Arabs, Palestinians, Jews, Ethiopians: we teach everyone....Half of my American literature course last year was [made up of] Arab students. Not all of them were Palestinians. Some of them were Israeli Arabs, but some of them were Palestinians.”

“I don’t see what the practical implications are," she said of the ASA boycott. "It seems to me a rather cowardly way of taking a moral stand, quite frankly."

 

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