Clarifying or Waffling?

Recent statements from American Studies Association have some questioning whether the group is softening its boycott of Israeli academe.

October 20, 2014

Would Benjamin Netanyahu be welcome to show up at next month's meeting of the American Studies Association?

There are no signs to be sure that the Israeli prime minister wants to attend. But the executive director of the association told a blogger that he could, and that so could any Israeli scholar -- setting off a debate over whether the association's boycott of Israel academe is being redefined.

The statements come as the association is getting ready for its annual meeting, and as some critics of the boycott have charged that the hotel hosting the event would -- if it barred Israelis based on their nationality -- violate civil rights laws.

Some of the statements being made by association leaders -- such as that the boycott was never intended to bar all Israeli scholars -- are in fact consistent with what ASA leaders have said all along. But the Netanyahu statement (though since clarified in an email message to Inside Higher Ed) suggests a willingness to have those affiliated with the Israeli government or Israeli institutions participate in the ASA in ways that seem different from those earlier statements.

The ASA's action last year to call for a boycott of Israeli universities set off a huge debate in American higher education. While the ASA was not the first academic group in the United States to back the boycott movement, it was the first large association to do so, and its action is credited or blamed (depending on one's perspective) for giving moment to the boycott campaign, which is now the subject of discussion within other disciplines as well. The description of the boycott issued by the ASA at the time made clear that it was not to apply to all Israelis.

"The ASA understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the ASA 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 (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 statement said. "We are expressly not endorsing a boycott of Israeli scholars engaged in individual-level contacts and ordinary forms of academic exchange, including presentations at conferences, public lectures at campuses, and collaboration on research and publication."

Critics of the boycott have said that because many Israeli scholars (however critical many of them are of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians) are supported by their government-funded universities, the policy sent a less-than-welcoming message to professors in Israel.

Last week, a conservative legal group called the American Center for Law & Justice issued a letter accusing the Westin Hotel in Los Angeles, where next month's ASA meeting will take place, of violating civil rights laws by effectively denying accommodations to Israelis.

That letter was discussed in The Volokh Conspiracy, a blog that is part of The Washington Post. That prompted John Stephens, the executive director of the ASA, to protest to the blog that it was over-stating the nature of the boycott, and that Israeli scholars are in fact welcome (and some are attending) next month's meeting. In fact the ASA added that point to its website.

But Stephens went further in saying, effectively, that all Israelis were welcome -- even those affiliated with the government.

"[The ASA] does not bar Israelis, it does not bar Israeli institutions. Prime Minister Netanyahu can attend if he wants to."

The blogger -- Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law -- accused the ASA leaders of "obfuscating and retroactively recharacterizing their policy to avoid civil rights problems," and said that the statements about not barring Israeli institutions contradicted previous ASA statements, which said explicitly that they were boycotting Israeli institutions and government representatives.

Via email, Lisa Duggan, president of the ASA and professor of American studies and gender and sexuality studies at New York University, said that Stephens had been correct. "The boycott applies to collaborations between the ASA and Israeli institutions of higher education (they all receive govt support).  It does NOT apply to attendance and participation at the annual convention, which is open to everyone," she wrote.

"We realized that our original statements on the website were not clear enough, and so we clarified them as questions arose. But all along during the planning for the 2014 conference upcoming, we actively invited Jewish Israelis to participate in the conference, and we did not turn one person or panel proposal from a Jewish Israeli away. We welcome the participation of Israeli colleagues. We are not curtailing their academic freedom. We are protesting the curtailing of the academic freedom of Palestinian colleagues and students by the Israeli government, by refusing to officially collaborate, 'as an association,' with Israeli universities via their official representatives."

Stephens similarly emailed that the boycott was never about individual Israeli scholars or any who receive some form of support from Israel. He said that if Israel had an equivalent to the National Endowment for the Humanities, a scholar receiving support would be welcome at the ASA meeting.

Asked about his Netanyahu statement, he confirmed it. But later, he emailed Inside Higher Ed a clarification. He said that the prime minister was welcome, but as an individual, not a government official. "I should emphasize that the ASA will not recognize anyone who seeks to participate as an official representative" of Israel, Stephens wrote. "In other words, PM Netanyahu can come but we will write his title as Mr. Netanyahu in the program, or Benjamin Netanyahu on his name badge."


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