The American Studies Association and the Pending, Watered Down, Israel Boycott

I wrote this for the Manhattan Institute’s excellent Minding the Campus site, and figured I’d repost it here.

From the bowels of academia comes news that the National Council of the American Studies Association has voted in favor of boycotting Israeli institutions. The boycott resolution goes to the full membership for an up or down vote.

The National Council’s vote has been hailed as a huge victory for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. It’s not. As originally proposed, the boycott was to apply to individual Israeli scholars, who, for example, wished to participate in the ASA’s annual conference, if they received Israeli government or university funding. Since few Israeli scholars would have the means to travel to the U.S. without funding from their university, that would have been a meaningful means of exclusion.

Instead, the final resolution is limited to a refusal to by “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.” So there is no call for a boycott by the membership acting as individuals, and no exclusion even by the ASA of normal cooperation with Israeli scholars.

Pretty Thin Gruel

Compared to the BDS movement’s official call for a “comprehensive and consistent” boycott of anyone affiliated with an Israeli academic or cultural institution, this is pretty thin gruel, unlikely to affect almost anyone. Even then, to get the resolution through the executive committee advocates had to agree to a membership-wide vote.

So the good news is that even in the far-left reaches of American academia, in an organization proud to name one of its awards in honor of ex-Black Panther and ex-Soviet stooge Angela Davis (two-time vice-presidential candidate for the Soviet-controlled Communist Party USA), there is significant resistance to the BDS agenda.

The bad news is the absurdity of the ASA taking up the issue to begin with, much less voting in favor of even a watered-down resolution. First of all, the boycott resolution raises the obvious question: what does this have to do with American Studies?

As is often the case on the far left, hostility to Israel is a stalking horse for hostility to the United States. According to Inside Higher Ed, boycott supporter and Council member J. Khaulani Kauanui argued that “The American perception that Israel is ‘exceptional’ is bolstered and bankrolled by U.S. policy and military aid, while also secured through the persistent myth of American exceptionalism that denies the colonization of indigenous peoples here. In other words, the connection between Israeli and U.S. settler colonialism is not merely analogous, but is shaped from many of the same material and symbolic forces.” The ASA’s website claims that “a boycott is warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel” and denounces “U.S. settler colonialism” and its effect on indigenous people.

Why Not Apply It to U.S. Universities?

Well, okay then. Given that these are American Studies scholars housed overwhelmingly at American universities, why not refuse to collaborate with American universities? The answer is obvious: picking on Israeli institutions comes at no personal cost to the hypocrites of the ASA. Boycotting their own universities would, on the other hand, involve some real pain. Cowardly bullies looking for a fight prefer the equivalent of a pee-wee football player, not Stone Cold Steve Austin.

And speaking of hypocrisy, where is the call to boycott the various countries in the world with human rights records far worse than Israel’s, with no mitigating ongoing existential conflict? Surely the denizens of the ASA could spare a resolution or two for China, Saudi Arabia, and other unfree societies. The ASA’s commitment to academic freedom for Palestinians, purportedly the main rationale for the boycott, also doesn’t extend to Gaza’s Islamic University, which is under the thumb of the theocratic butchers of Hamas.

Compounding the general lunacy of the boycott resolution is the fact that several of its leading supporters, including incoming ASA president Lisa Duggan, are “queer theorists.” What bizarre psychological phenomenon or inversion of normal reason would lead such individuals to wish to boycott Israel on behalf of the Palestinian cause, when Palestinian society is so hostile to homosexuals that hundreds of them have fled to Israel to avoid persecution, and leading Palestinian gay rights organizations must base themselves in Tel Aviv rather than in the Palestinian territories?

One might also note the apparent historical illiteracy of boycott supporters in general, and the ASA in particular. The calls for a boycott ultimately come down to a call to an end to “the occupation.” But Israel has withdrawn completely from Gaza and has three times–in 2000, 2001, and 2008—presented the Palestinian Authority with concrete peace proposals to “end the occupation” of the West Bank. Each time, the Palestinians both rejected the offer and refused to present a counter-offer. Boycott supporters either don’t know or don’t care that much of the BDS movement thinks that Israel’s offers are insufficient because they deem the “occupation” of Palestinian land to include all of Israel.

One would think that with liberal arts in the U.S. facing a growing crisis as students abandon it in droves in favor of more practical subjects, the ASA would strive to show its real-world relevance and commitment to serious scholarship, rather than marginalize itself by spending a huge amount of time and energy to announce that it is a politicized organization that exists at the farthest-out fringe of American politics. One would be wrong.

The ASA has promised to withdraw the resolution if the membership votes it down. If that doesn’t happen, universities should declare their unwillingness to fund any professorial activity that involves collaboration with the ASA, such as attendance at its annual conference. There’s no good reason that student tuition dollars and state university funds should go toward working with an organization that, as Professor Sharon Ann Musher puts it, is demonstrating a commitment “to ideology over intellectual exchange.”

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