Last year, when the American Studies Association announced its boycott of Israeli institutions of higher learning, the development was seen as a great step forward for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Now: not so much. As often occurs when extremist academics encounter the real world, the ASA has been forced to effectively neuter its boycott policy—thanks, in large part, to the excellent work of Volokh Conspiracy’s Eugene Kontrovich.
This year marks the organization’s first since adoption of its boycott. In a bit of bad luck for the ASA, the group’s annual conference is in California, a state whose sweeping civil rights law forbids (among other things) public accommodations from discriminating on the basis of national origin. A conservative legal organization protested to the Westin Hotel, which hosts the conference. And Kontrovich took it from there.
In his first post, on Friday, Kontrovich noted that “the ASA’s argument that it does not bar Israelis, but only Israelis who attend as representatives of their academic institutions, will not likely help them much, as the normal way for academics to attend academic conferences is as representatives of their institutions. In any case, this argument amounts to saying the ACA is not discriminating as much as they could have, which is not an advisable defense in discrimination cases.”
The next day, in a follow-up post, Kontrovich revealed that he had received a (clearly panicked) e-mail from the ASA executive director, who stated, “Our conference is open to anyone, including Israeli academics and non-academics. If someone were to register for the conference as a representative of an Israeli institution, he or she would not be turned away.” The organization also hastily added a footnote to its conference program indicating that Israeli academics would be participating.
Yet before October 17, ASA policy had stated that any Israeli academic acting as a “representative” of his or her university would be barred from the ASA conference, as part of the boycott. Since virtually every Israeli scholar who attends an academic conference in the United States receives travel support from his or her school, this policy had the effect of a boycott of all Israeli academics who didn’t have the money to pay for air fare, lodging, and conference expenses between Tel Aviv and the conference locale in California.
In subsequent statements and remarks, the ASA has now gone even further—suggesting that even Benjamin Netanyahu would be welcome at this year’s annual conference. The only restriction would be his nametag, which would identify him as “Mr. Netanyahu” rather than the Prime Minister of the State of Israel. So a boycott that originally seemed to have the effect of isolating Israeli universities and scholars internationally has now been reduced to squabbles over the wording of a name badge.
While the ASA has been forced to back down (or “clarif[y],” in the preferred language of one of the boycott’s biggest supporters, NYU professor Lisa Duggan), the revised policy doesn’t mean that anti-Israel sentiment in the ASA has vanished. Instead, the hostility likely has been driven back underground, to informal discrimination. How many Israeli scholars, for instance, would see the ASA screening committee fairly consider their conference proposals? As the Times of Israel notes, conference panels this year include such comically one-sided session topics as“Political Imaginings of Palestine Beyond the Here and Now”; “Encountering Zionism: From Academia to Queer Activism and BDS”; “Teaching About Palestine: Changing the Pain and Fury of Ignorance to the Pleasures of Knowing”; and “Students For Justice in Palestine: Awakening the US Campus.”
More important: how many Israeli scholars applying for faculty positions in American Studies Association programs could possibly see their candidacies be fairly evaluated? These are judgments—unlike the forced public changes for this year’s conference—that occur behind closed doors, with no outside scrutiny to prevent the organization’s prejudices from dictating outcomes.