Scholars Debate Significance of American Studies Assn.’s Vote to Boycott Israel

December 16, 2013

[Updated (12/16/2013, 6:04 p.m.) with comment from the AAUP.]

Proponents of an academic boycott of Israel hailed this week's endorsement by the American Studies Association as a sign that American scholars' attitudes have shifted significantly. In an online poll that closed Sunday night, 66 percent of the 1,252 members of the association who voted chose to back a resolution put forth by the group's governing council.

The vote made the group the second disciplinary association in the United States, after the Association of Asian American Studies, to support such a boycott this year.

The boycott, which is driven by concern over Israel's treatment of Palestinians, is directed against higher-education institutions and not, supporters emphasized, individual scholars. While association members—about 4,000 in all—remain free to act as they wish, the group in its official capacity will not collaborate with Israeli academic institutions or their representatives, such as deans and presidents.

"The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom, and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians," the association said in a statement on Monday.

Critics of the decision say not only that boycotts are antithetical to the value of academic freedom, but that it is impossible to boycott institutions without harming individual scholars. And they say the victory was less indicative of a sea change than of how out of touch the American Studies Association is with most of academe.

Growth of a Movement

The movement to boycott Israel has decade-old roots in Europe but began gathering steam in the United States relatively recently. In 2009 a small group of academics created the U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel. It has since grown, with nearly 1,000 academics signing on to the campaign's boycott endorsement.

David C. Lloyd, an English professor at the University of California at Riverside and a founding member of the campaign, takes a long view of its efforts. While the American Studies Association's resolution was a major advance for the movement, he said, "people are learning that it takes several years; it doesn't happen overnight."

He and other boycott supporters have worked to keep the debate alive in academe. In the fall Mr. Lloyd participated in a panel on academic boycotts of Israel at the annual conference of the American Anthropological Association. In January he will sit on a similarly focused panel at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association. As a member of the American Studies Association, he also helped promote the resolution there.

The American campaign supports a variety of organizational efforts, such as student-led, campus-based groups calling for a boycott, but Mr. Lloyd thinks bringing the debate into academic associations offers something different.

"These are organizations with professors from many institutions and covering many disciplines," he said, suggesting that the discussions indicate a "larger, nationwide shift" in the conversation about Israel. "It's beginning to become something people recognize as an issue of justice and ceases to be something held by a vocal minority."

An opponent of the boycott says its supporters are claiming victory too soon. "This movement is not gaining steam," said Samuel M. Edelman, executive director of the Center for Academic Engagement at the Israel on Campus Coalition.

"Yes, they've had two victories," said Mr. Edelman, who is an emeritus professor of Jewish, Israel, and Holocaust studies and of rhetoric and communication studies at California State University at Chico. "But these disciplines are fairly marginal in the humanities and social sciences." He believes that the real goal of the boycott movement is to question the very right of Israel to exist.

No Neat Lines

The debate does not line up neatly with professors' views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some academics say they are critical of both academic boycotts and of Israeli policies toward Palestinians.

"The most disappointing thing of all to me is that I believe that many of those who supported this boycott would agree with many of those who opposed it in condemning current Israeli policies," wrote Alice Kessler-Harris, a history professor at Columbia University, in an email. She is one of eight past presidents of the American Studies Association who signed an open letter opposing academic boycotts.

"Could not a well-intentioned group of academics think of a less-divisive strategy—a strategy that would invite Palestinian academics in and provide opportunities for them, a strategy that would enrich and widen the conversation rather than close it down?" she wrote.

Ms. Kessler-Harris worries that the American Studies Association's action has served only to alienate a significant number of its members. "I can't fathom what the ASA membership thinks will come of this," she wrote, "or how it will advance the cause of a single Palestinian."

Critics of the association's boycott also worry that it will fuel perceptions that the group has become driven by ideology, not research, said Simon Bronner, a professor of American studies and folklore at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg and a nonvoting member of the ASA's governing council.

He cited a recent television interview of Lawrence Summers in which the former president of Harvard University called on administrators not to pay for professors to go to the association's meetings.

"My hope would be that responsible university leaders will become very reluctant to see their university 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," Mr. Summers told the interviewer, Charlie Rose of PBS. (Mr. Summers courted controversy of his own in 2002, when he called efforts to end support for Israeli researchers and disinvest in Israel "anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.")

The American Association of University Professors, which had urged members of the American Studies Association to reject the boycott resolution, said in a statement on Monday that it was disappointed in the vote, calling it a "setback for the cause of academic freedom." The organization has long opposed academic boycotts on principle.

Other major associations in the humanities and social sciences have not had members propose boycott-Israel resolutions, but two—the American Anthropological Association and the Modern Language Association—have held or will hold panels at their annual conferences on the topic.

'Bad Critical Thinking'

Some academics who are undecided about academic boycotts say they wish there were more opportunities to discuss the pros and cons. Samer M. Ali, an associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin, organized the MLA panel for that reason.

"I wanted to organically, from the ground up, promote discussion and dialogue," he said, noting that, with 30,000 members, the MLA is much larger than the American Studies Association.

Yet the way the panel discussion has been framed might well cause controversy. As Mr. Ali noted, the question that panelists will be debating is not whether Israel is violating the rights of Palestinians, but what to do about it.

"If people want to come and debate occupation, I think it will be a waste of their time, because that's not what the round table is about," he said. "What we're trying to do is balance out a broader public discourse in America," one that currently supports Israel's policies.

Mr. Edelman, of the Israel on Campus Coalition, called that argument "bad critical thinking."

The heads of the American Historical Association, the American Academy of Religion, the Modern Language Association, and the American Anthropological Association say they are not aware of any resolutions in the works similar to the one considered by the American Studies Association.

The leadership council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association is debating a resolution in support of an academic boycott of Israel, said J. Kehaulani Kauanui, an associate professor of American studies and anthropology at Wesleyan University and a co-founder of the organization, which has 749 members.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said there was always the possibility that an emergency resolution could be put before the association's meeting next month. But even so, she noted, it would need to go through several procedural hoops before coming to a vote by the membership. (Some members say the Radical Caucus, an affiliated group, would be most likely to propose such a resolution, but the group's chair, Barbara Foley of Rutgers University, said it had no plans to do so.)

One resolution that will be debated by the Modern Language Association's Delegate Assembly is a request that the MLA urge the U.S. State Department "to contest Israel's arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities."

If approved, the resolution would go to the MLA's Executive Council and eventually to the full membership for a vote. Ms. Feal said member support for such a resolution would be in keeping with the association's longstanding advocacy for the rights of scholars to travel freely across international borders.