As you know, on April 20, on the last day of its annual meeting, the Association for Asian American Studies, passed a resolution to “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions” and to encourage “research and public speaking... in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.”
While I disagree with the resolution, what struck me most at the time was that the vote, conducted by secret ballot, was unanimous, without so much as an abstention. I know that scholars like Sunaina Maira and Magid Shihadehave argued for exploring “points of convergence and divergence” between Asian-American studies and Arab-American studies, which share the “project of resisting Orientalism and imperialism within and beyond the United States.”
But Maira and Shihade, writing in 2006, concede that their proposal faces resistance from some Asian-Americanists “sympathetic to Israel,” and from others unhappy with the “expansion of the intellectual terrain and crossing of borders” involved in reaching out to Arab-American studies. Seven years later not one dissenting voice could be heard when the AAAS planted its flag in the Middle East.
Even more striking, not one of you has voiced dissent since. Early this month, I wrote this post, whose premise was that no one in your field — and there are thousands of you — had publicly criticized the resolution. I must admit I was in a sweat to get the piece out because I imagined it was only a matter of time before one of you broke the silence.
I need not have worried. Nearly a month has passed since the resolution, and your silence continues. The American Association of University Professors, in rejecting the AAAS’s call for a boycott, noted that the AAUP “neither supports nor opposes Israeli government or Palestinian policies, although many... members certainly have strong beliefs on one side or the other.” Apart from reminding us of another ground, namely opposition to academic boycotts, on which one might have expected at least one Asian-Americanist to vote against the resolution, the AAUP reminds us of a feature of every academic association I know: they include people who have strong beliefs on both sides of controversial issues.
I wonder if even those of you who consider the resolution a victory think, as I do, that the complete lack of opposition to it is eerie. But I also have questions for those of you — I hope there are some — who have not publicly disagreed with the resolution but are not ardent supporters of it either.
Do you know about the BDS movement? Are you aware that the movement stands not only for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza but also for “respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands from which they were ethnically cleansed during the 1948 Nakba”? As Eric Alterman, who decries the “brutal treatment of the Palestinian people,” argues, the demand for the reintegration of “six or seven million Palestinians” amounts to the “demand that Israel, as currently constituted, commit suicide.”
Norman Finklestein, one of Israel’s best known and harshest critics, has said that the BDS movement is dishonest on this score: "They think they're being very clever. They call it their three tiers.... We want the end of the occupation, we want the right of return, and we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel.... [T]hey know the result.... You know and I know what's the result: there's no Israel."
Finally, Noam Chomsky, a supporter of BDS tactics properly applied, nonetheless thinks the “call of Palestinian society” to which the AAAS refers is “a gift to Israeli and U.S. hardliners” not only because it implicitly calls for the “destruction of Israel” but also because it targets only Israel and lets the United States, England, and other countries “where it is a hundred times worse,” off the hook.
Why not, he suggests, boycott universities in the United States, which have been at least as complicit in imperial crimes as Israeli universities? No doubt that would be bad for AAAS business, but the call as it stands, like a 2002 call to divest from Israel in which Chomsky participated “out of solidarity,” “could be attacked... as pure anti-Semitism.”
If “you hate the Palestinians,” Chomsky snarks, "it’s a good step.” I don’t bring Chomsky up with you because I, like him, hope for the success of a properly targeted BDS movement. Rather, I want to point out that if you think the AAAS, in unanimously supporting the BDS call, was merely expressing criticism of Israel or concern about the Palestinians, you’ve been had.
The AAAS, which claims to “act as an advocate for the interests and welfare of Asian-American studies” and consequently to act as an advocate for your interests and welfare, has hitched your wagon to a single deeply controversial strand of Israel criticism. Even if you do not agree with Alterman, Finkelstein, or Chomsky, don’t you think that unanimous agreement on a matter about which even Israel critics disagree vociferously is a sign of your field’s ill health?
The president and executive board of AAAS in a recent official statement about the resolution, seeks to shield itself from the charge of selectively targeting Israel. “Many other countries,” they concede, "are, of course, human rights abusers and violators of international law.”
However, “there is active debate on and criticism of their actions at the levels of government and civil society,” whereas Israel enjoys “special status” in the United States and is “immune from government criticism.” This argument puts you in a bad position because to accept it without comment is to suggest that you do not know that Israel comes in for harsh criticism in The New York Times and in Israel’s own newspapers.
It also suggests you are unaware that President Obama, like President Bush before him, has explicitly criticized Israel’s settlement policy. You are also put in a bad position by the argument that “U.S. academics who speak out against the Israeli government’s policies are subject to intimidation and retribution.” To accept that claim, one has to pretend not to know that such speaking out is mainstream, so much so that John Mearsheimer, co-author of the Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, got to suffer his intimidation and retribution on "The Colbert Report."
Perhaps more tellingly, one has to ignore the fact that not one person in your field has thought the resolution controversial enough to question. Do you want to associate yourself with the argument that human rights abuses in the West Bank are more worthy of comment than human rights abuses in Sri Lanka because the latter are more often discussed?
There is one more reason the AAAS’s support for the BDS call puts Asian-American studies in a bad position. Read this post by Byron Wong, a blogger whose subject is “Asian American intellectualism, activism, and literature.” Wong, explaining to me why Asian-American intellectuals are not more disturbed by the BDS resolution, proposes that many of them think the AAAS irrelevant: “Asian Americans outside of academia don’t care what the AAAS does, since most of us are hardly affected by them at all (since they’re often deadlocked on issues that matter).”
While Wong thinks that Asian-American studies professors are silent on the resolution because they are “just ecstatic that the AAAS finally can agree on something,” it is hard to see how taking a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to interest people like Wong, who support Asian American activism but do not think that taking such a position does anything to help Asian-Americans.
In closing, I cannot resist asking: Are you at all embarrassed?
I grant that Eric Alterman, Norman Finklestein, and Noam Chomsky, not to speak of BDS’s critics outside of the left, may be wrong about the BDS movement. I also grant that bloggers like Byron Wong may be wrong about the AAAS. Reasonable people disagree about the Middle East, about the advisability of academic boycotts, and about how the AAAS can best serve Asian Americans.
But that is precisely what makes the complete absence of a public conversation about these matters among Asian Americanists, a conversation with at least two sides, so peculiar. How can a group purporting to stand for the “highest professional standard of excellence in teaching and research” permit itself to appear so close-minded?
I look forward to hearing from you.
Associate Professor of Politics
Jonathan Marks, author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Cambridge University Press, 2005), is associate professor of politics at Ursinus College. He tweets at twitter.com/marksjo1.
Supreme Court rejects U. of Oregon appeal on suit by former graduate student. Higher ed groups believe ruling left standing endangers academic freedom in doctoral education, but ex-student's lawyer disagrees.
It seems that whenever a university administration issues a statement undermining academic freedom it begins by reaffirming its undying commitment to exactly the principle it is about to damage. While such doublespeak, as Orwell famously demonstrated, is common to bureaucracies, that does not much help the cause of higher education when our own administrations once again prove his point. The administrative conundrum — how to appease angry stakeholders with contempt for academic freedom, while covering yourself with a ritual incantation supporting that very principle — was very much in evidence in Florida Atlantic University’s public statements about its "Step on Jesus" controversy. Unfortunately, the ultimate effect of the kind of disingenuous rhetoric the university used is to disable a principle by turning it into a hollow piety.
The context, for those who may not have read earlier stories, is that an FAU student was about to be investigated for allegedly threatening a faculty member who followed a textbook exercise to teach the power of symbols. A class was asked to write "Jesus" on a sheet of paper, then step on it. When students hesitated, they were given the opportunity to explain why, and the instructor pointed out that a symbol — the word "Jesus" — can be so identified with the idea of Jesus that stepping on it is offensive. In a viral frenzy, bloggers and press stories echoed the student’s inflammatory change of diction from "step" to "stomp," and petitions calling for faculty member Deandre Poole to be fired began to circulate. Florida’s Republican governor chimed in with calls for a state investigation of the incident and with a demand that the classroom exercise never be repeated.
Here, then, is FAU’s effort to eat its cake and have it too: "Florida Atlantic University is deeply sorry for any hurt that this incident may have caused the community and beyond. As an institution of higher learning, we embrace open discourse in our classrooms. Based upon the emotions brought about by this exercise it will not be used in the future and no students will be disciplined in any way related to the exercise, either inside or
outside the classroom. The university supports its faculty members in their efforts to develop [a] curriculum that will bring about learning and enhance students’ experience at FAU."
It’s hard to see how FAU could have waffled more often in a few sentences. Its leaders support academic freedom but apologize for its exercise. Academic freedom will not be permitted to be exercised in this way again. Anything that arouses strong emotions may be barred from classrooms. And, of course, if people protest your assignments — even assignments taken from a popular published textbook — FAU will not get your back. And finally, as subsequent events have shown, if fanatics phone in death threats, you will be removed from campus to protect your own safety and that of others. That most recent step is eerily reminiscent of the University of South Florida’s 2001 decision to exile engineering professor Sami Al-Arian from campus after death threats were received. Some of us wondered at the time whether phone-in threats would prove a popular way to remove faculty from campus.
FAU went still further in undermining academic freedom and the First Amendment by subjecting Poole to a gag order, making it impossible for him to defend himself. The student meanwhile was free to claim his religious beliefs had been "desecrated," and the conservative blogosphere could promote the story as part of a long-running project of discrediting godless universities.
The United Faculty of Florida did a very good job of coming to Poole’s defense, but a faculty member identified as an appropriate commentator by the National Communication Association did not do much better than the university, affirming that "a momentary feeling of discomfort or hurt by a student could contribute to a positive learning experience through discussion.” If ideas offend a student, be sure to relieve the discomfort immediately. Extended intellectual distress apparently has no place in higher education.
Devout students who cannot tolerate fundamental and continuing challenges to their beliefs may well find a campus devoted to open discussion and debate to be a hostile environment. That is one of the reasons religiously affiliated colleges and universities exist — to provide a more comfortable place to study for those preferring a more constrained speech environment. Secular universities exist in part to challenge received beliefs. That includes confronting the rather less than sympathetic statements various religions have historically made against one another. That includes confronting scientific evidence that calls religious beliefs into question or effectively demolishes them.
Indeed, religious conviction cannot be separated from all the other beliefs a university education may challenge. That is one reason why any general resolution or law passed by the Florida legislature on this incident is likely to do broader damage than politicians may realize in the opportunistic heat of the moment. We cannot confront the brutal facts of 20th-century history — from enforced mass starvation to total war to genocide --
without doubting that human nature is any better, more consistent, or reliable, than cultural pressures make it. We cannot study the history of science without learning to tolerate and understand the variable interplay between doubt and certainty in science. Students may not all enjoy discovering that their assumptions about human nature are unfounded. They may not like learning that scientific certainty is not always unshakeable.
And they may not like realizing that religious faith is not grounded in anything more than faith itself, but these are some of the challenges to pre-existing values a university must entertain. And instructors need the freedom to invent classroom assignments that test the limits of student beliefs and put them under sustained --- not just temporary — pressure. However expedient it may appear to be, universities risk doing themselves long-term damage if they cave into fear and appease those on the left or the right would limit academic freedom. We are better off standing politically and culturally where we must if we are to remain institutions devoted to open debate and free inquiry. That is where our responsibilities to a democracy lie. However the facts about the Poole case may be revised in time — and they may well be — the assignment he reports giving was well within his academic freedom rights, and the FAU administration should not have weaseled its way out of giving it an unqualified defense.
Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.