Israel's Defenders Glum as American Studies Association Votes on Boycott Resolution

Vote Would Give BDS Movement Victory, But Have Little Practical Impact

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By Nathan Guttman

Published December 13, 2013.
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The world of scholarly organizations, especially those representing academics in social studies and the humanities, is known as a bastion of progressive thinking, according to a number of ASA members. They note that such groups tend to be critical of Israel’s policies and practices towards the Palestinians. ASA members include not just historians but also scholars in literature, culture, sociology and anthropology.

The association has faced calls to take a stand on the Israel’s occupation policies for years, but only recently became more open to the idea of the boycott. Jacobson and others involved in the battle over the vote attributed the change both to the make up of the group’s leadership and to the increasing focus of its members on indigenous studies and on colonialism. The shift grew more pronounced after 9/11 and America’s reaction to it at home and abroad, they said.

The vote in April by the Association for American Asian Studies was actually the first pro-boycott vote by an American academic association. But it went largely unnoticed at the time. Pro-Israel activists said they did not wish to draw attention to the Asian Studies group’s decision by issuing vocal condemnations.

At the ASA, in contrast, supporters of Israel within the group and from outside organizations have waged a high-profile campaign against the boycott resolution.

Still, they were slow to react. At an ASA debate in November on the resolution, supporters of the boycott clearly outnumbered those who opposed the move. Activists did not show up in significant numbers then to speak out against the measure.

It was just one week before the November debate that several boycott opponents formed a group called “ASA Members for Academic Freedom.” The group began circulating letters and collecting signatures of ASA members urging rejection of the resolution. The group also got eight former ASA presidents to sign a letter opposing the decision.

“An academic boycott will only serve to stifle intellectual debate rather than bringing together precisely those people who most need to engage with one another,” said Sharon Musher, an associate professor of history at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, who was among the organizers of the anti-boycott drive at ASA. She added that “by targeting the national homeland of the Jewish people while ignoring other countries that severely violate freedoms – academic and otherwise – the resolution sets an unfair double standard.”

The organized Jewish community provided its support from the outside but was careful not to turn the debate into a battle of the Jewish establishment against an academic group. “This was one of the cases where you don’t want a full page ad in the New York Times,” said one activist.

“Ultimately, these battles should be won by the people inside these organizations,” added Kenneth Stern, director of anti-Semitism and extremism at the American Jewish Committee. “We can provide intellectual context, but outside groups cannot dictate the agenda.”

In the few days remaining before the vote closes, activists are still trying to convince ASA members to take a stand against the boycott. Members opposing the resolution complain that ASA has not allowed them an equal presence on its website to post their views. But most agree it will be difficult to defeat the resolution in any event. A decision on Sunday to boycott Israel will not be a great surprise.

The challenge for pro-Israel organizations, if that happens, will be to make sure the ASA decision does not open the door to other academic groups.

“I don’t see that this will create a domino effect,” said Stern, “it will not transform the academic world to pro-boycott.”

This confidence is based on the Jewish community’s success in blocking anti-Israel moves in the larger academic associations in the five years since British university unions gave the academic boycott a boost with their adoption of strong anti-Israel measures.

The most significant partner pro-Israel groups have in their battle against academic boycott has been the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) with its 48,000 members. AAUP has taken a strong stance against boycott moves and has voiced its opposition to the ASA move in a letter it sent the organization. In October, pro-Israel activists registered another victory when the 30,000 member American Public Health Association defeated a boycott resolution.

Still, the larger battle is far from finished. Next to take up the issue will be the Modern Language Association, which convenes in January for its annual meeting. The organization will discuss a resolution condemning Israel and could possibly ask its 30,000 members to take on a boycott resolution as well.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or follow on Twitter @nathanguttman


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