A lawsuit filed in a New York state court on Wednesday alleges discrimination by the American Studies Association in relation to its boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The lawsuit alleges that the plaintiff, a not-for-profit organization that was, according to the legal complaint, “recently organized to educate and promote sharing and criticism of scholarly, religious and academic books … and to advocate for acceptance of Israeli institutions worldwide,” is barred from joining the ASA as an institutional member on the basis of its Israeli national origin. The organization in question, Athenaeum Blue & White, is described in the complaint as an “Israeli not-for-profit organization with a principle [sic] place of business in New York, N.Y.”
David Abrams, the lawyer for the plaintiff and executive director of the one-person Zionist Advocacy Center, said Athenaeum has not attempted to apply for ASA membership and is inferring it would be barred based on the association’s public announcements. The complaint asserts that the ASA has "announced, in substance and effect, that Israeli organizations such as the plaintiff are not welcome."
"It’s like if there’s a bar with a big sign on it that says 'no gays allowed' -- a gay person is allowed to sue for discrimination without formally trying to get in and having himself rejected,” Abrams said. “Or at least that’s how I see the law.”
Abrams described the suit as a “test case.” He said Athenaeum -- which the complaint argues counts as a person under New York City and State Human Rights law -- was incorporated last week. “This organization, while it does have scholarly pursuits, part of its corporate purpose is to advocate for acceptance of Israeli institutions worldwide, and that is what it is doing,” Abrams said.
Robert Warrior, the president of the ASA and director of the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the association’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions wouldn’t prevent Athenaeum Blue & White, as a self-identified Israeli organization, from joining ASA as an institutional member. “If this institution had tried to join before suing us, they would have been accepted and received all the benefits of membership. I just don’t have any doubts about that,” said Warrior. (Note: This article has been updated to include ASA's response.)
Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney with Palestine Legal, described the case as "a meritless lawsuit based on a hypothetical injury that will be thrown out of court in a heartbeat."
"It's brought by an organization which did not exist prior to ASA’s [boycott] resolution, and appears to have been formed for the sole purpose of suing the ASA," she said. "Rather than engage the issue of Israel's human rights abuses on the merits, Israel advocacy groups are attempting to punish speech by enmeshing supporters of Palestinian freedom in expensive litigation. This is quintessential legal bullying."
A separate lawsuit filed by current and former ASA members alleging that the group's boycott falls outside the scope of its charter and that a membership vote on the matter was not conducted in accordance with the association's own procedures is pending in federal court.