More Than the Boycott

A year after it voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, American Studies Association is sticking to its guns. But it wants to broaden its public image, and demonstrate involvement in activism beyond Middle East.

November 10, 2014
Desiree Rowe, left, and Steven Salaita, middle, talk to supporters after an American Studies Association meeting panel called "Scholars Under Attack" Friday in Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES – To Lisa Duggan, professor of modern U.S. social, culture and political history at New York University and president of the American Studies Association, this weekend's annual ASA conference wasn’t “supposed to be all about the boycott.” And indeed, it wasn’t all about the association's year-old endorsement of the Israeli academic boycott. There were hundreds of non-boycott-centered sessions, many with a focus on queer, gender and ethnic studies, according to the conference’s theme, “The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain in the Post-American Century.”

But the boycott still loomed large over the conference, with more than a dozen sessions dedicated to the topic, such as one called “Encountering Zionism: From Academia to Queer Activism and [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions]." It featured a critique of Israel’s so-called “pinkwashing” campaign, in which it seeks to attract support because gay rights are more established in the country than they are elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as a study of anthropologists suggesting widespread fear in the field of negative professional consequences for studying Palestinians. There was boycott creep even in sessions that weren’t boycott-specific, too: a pair of professors on one panel high-fived each other for having been labeled “self-hating Jews” for their support of the ASA position, for example. And there was an unusual amount of media interest in the conference, including from national and Israeli news outlets, that – safe to say – probably wouldn’t have been here apart from the boycott.

It’s a dynamic that Duggan and ASA leaders want to change – or at least broaden.

In an interview, Duggan said she’s personally and professionally “proud” of the boycott, which she said has been far more controversial outside of the association than within. She described it as a kind of done deal that will remain in place – despite ongoing internal and external criticism – until Palestinians achieve equality as defined by the boycott resolution. Duggan also denied reports that the boycott had hurt the association. Some 1,000 new members have joined since December, she said, and this year the ASA saw record-level fund-raising and near-record-level attendance at its conference. She also laughed off claims that the ASA recently had backed down on its boycott terms because of a legal threat that the site of the conference, the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, would be party to discrimination if any Israeli academics were blocked from participation, calling the tactic a "joke." (Duggan said she admitted, however, that the terms are “confusing,” in that they apply only to the national ASA and Israeli academics who seek specifically to represent their institutions, not their own research. Individual scholars, institutions and regional ASA groups may do what they like.)

But while the ASA isn't "running away" from the boycott, Duggan said, it doesn’t want to be known as “the” boycott organization.

What to do? The ASA’s answer is Scholars Under Attack, a new initiative designed to highlight the various threats to American studies research nationwide, as a result of administrative or political interference, or budget cuts, or all three. Duggan said the project seeks to thematically and visually connect – literally, via an online map – the various challenges to American studies, academic activism and labor, and to higher education more broadly.

“The effort here is about putting into context the boycott vote with all of the other kinds of social justice work we do,” Duggan said, citing various other ASA resolutions, such as those against the Vietnam and Iraq wars and in support of women’s reproductive rights. “There’s a very long list. The boycott is not the only thing about us.”

Duggan said scholars and students are increasingly “under attack,” including through the elimination of tenure, expansion of adjunct faculty employment, growth of student debt and privatization efforts, all of which the map seeks to track, case by case. So far, for example, it’s got “pins” for proposed large-scale faculty and program cuts at the University of Southern Maine and for James Kilgore, the adjunct professor of global studies and urban planning who was not rehired last year after a local newspaper wrote about his criminal record as part of the Symbionese Liberation Army, despite the fact that the university already knew and had hired him anyway. (See today’s article on Kilgore’s case in Inside Higher Ed.)

Scholars Under Attack

In conjunction with the release of the map, ASA organized a conference panel called “Scholars Under Attack.” Desiree Rowe, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of South Carolina Upstate, said the university had closed its Center for Women’s and Gender Studies this year, following the planned – and canceled – appearance of a lesbian comic and subsequent criticism from the state legislature. Rowe said the closure was an offense not only to academic freedom but to the queer faculty members who worked at the center, and said they “will not stop fighting” for it to reopen. The university, meanwhile, has blamed the closure on budget issues, not the recent controversy.

But talk of the boycott couldn’t be avoided for long, especially by Rabab Abdulhadi, professor of ethnic studies and director of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative at San Francisco State University, who said she and a colleague were targeted by pro-Israel groups for a January visit to the West Bank, Jordan and Israel. The AMCHA Initiative accused her of traveling to the Middle East on university funds for personal advocacy and to meet with a former terrorist, but Abdulhadi said she was there for professional reasons. She said the university "really came through" and defended her trip, but that she was still subjected to public scrutiny.

Abdulhadi encouraged those concerned with AMCHA’s and other pro-Israel groups’ influence on higher education to “follow the money,” and said she is involved in the drafting of a forthcoming report on their funding structures. She encouraged those in attendance to support the boycott, and said tenured faculty members in particular have a responsibility to lend their voices and signatures so that other, more vulnerable faculty members and graduate students don’t risk professional retaliation.

“There are attacks against Palestinian people who speak up for Palestine,” she said. “The aim of the Zionist movement is not to have a debate, but to silence it completely.” That’s because “when you have a debate, things come out,” she said. “It’s very important that people can speak.”

Abdulhadi may have been the most passionate speaker, but the star of the panel – judging by the applause of the standing-room-only audience – was a late-stage addition: Steven Salaita, whose tenured faculty appointment to the American Indian studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was revoked earlier this year because of the tenor of his anti-Israel remarks on Twitter. While many condemned his tweets as unprofessional and even violent, others saw Salaita – who was already active in the BDS movement – as a poster child for academic freedom and, to a lesser extent, the Israel boycott.

Salaita is currently unemployed but has been speaking around the country about the state of higher education and the questions his case raises. At the ASA meeting, he was reserved but pulled no punches, saying that the university’s stated reasoning for its decision – that his behavior was “uncivil” – had a “profoundly violent connotation,” considering his field.

“Civility is the language of genocide,” he said, adding that the university’s decision to reject the American Indian studies’ faculty appointment without consulting program members, as well as ongoing criticism that Salaita wasn’t qualified for the job, amounted to a “tacit statement” that the “unit cannot be autonomous.”

Salaita also took aim at various critiques of the procedure by which he was hired to the department initially – such as that Robert Warrior, the Illinois program head, was on his dissertation committee (in fact he was on leave that year and never interacted with Salaita) – as well as that by which the ASA boycott resolution was passed. Procedure was airtight for those two actions, he said, and “We all know good and damn well that people don’t not get jobs because of tweets.” So critics at Illinois need to “own up to” the fact they didn’t give him a job because they “don’t like [my] politics,” Salaita said.

The only value of liberal Zionists, meanwhile, he said, “is to protect the reputation of Israel at all costs,” and only oppose “the procedure of colonization.”

What the ASA Should Know

The ASA at its meeting released the preliminary findings of an online survey of 78 respondent American Studies program and department leaders, asking what they wanted ASA to know. Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello, former chair of the ASA’s Committee on American Studies Departments, Programs and Centers, and a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Salem State University, said campus-level programs are doing the “heavy lifting” to shape and grow their programs, and all need help from the ASA.

That need is especially acute at non-research institutions, and among programs that have undergraduate majors and minors only. Many leaders – about half of whom reported having a degree in American studies, and half of whom reported having degrees mainly in English and history – said they desired more curricular support, rather than just support of research. More than one-third said they wanted ASA to focus its attentions more on non-prestigious programs. And despite concerns among some faculty members at the conference that it was difficult to make a career in American studies, 70 percent of respondents said it was possible, once hired. Hiring prospects are somewhat dim, however; more than 40 percent of respondents said they didn't expect to hire any new faculty members within the next five years in American studies. Less than 40 percent of the remaining respondents said they planned to hire one professor. 

The top five most pressing issues for departments are decline in support for liberal education, student fears about employability, administrative unfamiliarity with the field, insufficient number of faculty members, and “territoriality on the part of related disciplines.” 


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