The American Studies Association Boycotts Israel

The results are in. The American Studies Association has voted to boycott Israel, becoming the second notable academic association, after the Association for Asian American Studies, to vote on the boycott. What does this move mean?

It will be touted as a sign of strength of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. And to be fair, a win is a win. However, the Association for Asian American Studies passed their resolution unanimously at its April convention with not even an abstention. While the AAAS never put their resolution to a vote of the full membership, it remains the case, almost eight months after the resolution, that not one member of that organization has publicly dissented. In contrast, the American Studies Association, in spite of its well-earned reputation for radicalism, includes members who fiercely opposed the resolution.

Opposition from within the American Studies Association, compelled the full membership vote and a watering down, as David Bernstein has written here, of the original resolution. The present resolution says only that the American Studies Association will not in its official capacity cooperate with Israeli universities or its official representatives. Since the American Studies Association has few if any official ties with Israeli universities, the resolution is purely symbolic.

However, the symbolism is terrible. The U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which five of six members of the ASA executive committee had endorsed prior to this month’s discussion, warns its supporters that “all academic exchanges with Israeli academics do have the effect of normalizing Israel and its politics of occupation and apartheid.”

Conservatives who read about this resolution may think that academia is lost. If so, they should read this listering attack on the resolution by Henry Reichman, first vice president of the 48,000 member strong association for American University Professors. Although the AAUP came out strongly against the Association for Asian American Studies as well, and opposes academic boycotts as a matter of policy and principle, Reichman’s piece in the widely read InsideHigherEd was notable for its frank, detailed condemnation of the American Studies boycotters for their hypocrisy in singling out Israel and their failure to conduct the election vote “in a spirit of frank and free discussion.”

There has been some bad blood between the AAUP and more conservative groups, like the National Association of Scholars, that also oppose boycotts. Readers may judge NAS president Peter Wood‘s attack on the AAUP for themselves. But, regardless of whether Wood is right that the AAUP is changing for the worse, AAUP stalwarts like Reichman, Cary Nelson, and Ernst Benjamin have led the charge against boycotts. Whatever the AAUP’s defects may be, we should probably join them (can someone loan me $147?), even if we sometimes must sometimes disagree with or criticize them.

I say so not out of any disrespect for the NAS, which does important work, but from my sense that, even today, and especially under the difficult conditions in which higher education finds itself, there is a winning coalition to be forged between conservatives, old-fashioned academic liberals, and the many academics, particularly in the natural and hard social sciences, who find the politicization of the academy unwelcome and a distraction from dealing with the threats, in some cases existential, that many colleges and universities now confront. The boycott movement is a very thin slice of the left, and has earned denunciation in the Nation and from the editor of Dissent. This is not an issue that divides conservative and liberals or Israel boosters and Israel critics. The boycott movement has a narrow constituency, and its natural opposition is a broad group of academics and non-academics committed to the proposition that colleges and universities should not be propaganda arms of political movements like BDS. This movement will win only if we let it.

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks is a Professor of Politics at Ursinus College.

One thought on “The American Studies Association Boycotts Israel”

  1. As always, a well written column from JM. While I have regularly debated with NAS about the issue of political advocacy in the classroom, I also believe that organizations should join forces when their interests coincide. Thus I have spoken at NAS national meetings, published in their magazine, published an essay by one of their leaders in AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom, and approved their signature to one of our resolutions. Happily, academic freedom sometimes makes strong bedfellows; it needs them.
    The ASA had no plausible disciplinary dog in the BDS hunt. Israel’s policies have no significant bearing on American higher education.
    Consequently, now that the ASA is clearly a political organization, I wonder what its tax status will be? One also waits to see how many of its members will allow their memberships to lapse.
    Meanwhile, we need a more thoroughgoing analysis of how american academics can be misled into making an assault on academic freedom of
    the sort ASA has mounted. Cary Nelson

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