At the November 22 weekend’s annual meeting of the American Studies Association, a resolution for an academic boycott of Israel was presented for a vote in the National Council. I won’t repeat the information found in the reports that have already been published in Inside Higher Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education here, nor the fine rebuttal of the charge that such boycotts violate academic freedom, to be found in David Lloyd and Malini Johar Schueller’s “The Israeli State of Exception and the Case for Academic Boycott,” nor will I go over the points made in Joan Scott’s account of how she came to change her mind and support a boycott. My perceptions of what happened in Washington, DC this past weekend and especially its relevance to the passing of such a resolution by the Association for Asian American Studies in April 2013, an act mentioned by Angela Davis in her remarks at a panel on Friday, follow.
The notion of such a boycott has been circulating at the ASA for at least two years; this year it came forward formally. There were a number of sessions in which the issue of Palestine was central, and on Friday there was a large, ballroom-filling session featuring the panel at which Davis and others spoke. This set the stage for a nearly two-hour town hall meeting Saturday.
Those attending were invited to put their names into a box and the organizers drew out names at random, inviting people to the open mike. The overwhelming number of those in favor (a rough count was about 50 for the resolution and 7 against) did not break down neatly across generational lines or professional lines, but nearly so. Among the older, senior scholars, those who opposed the boycott represented the familiar liberal position of academic freedom as a transcendent value, a value to which the Association traditionally held. But many more of the same or nearly the same generation brought up the need to protest against the very imperialism we teach our students about in our classrooms, seeing imperialism as an indelible part of America’s presence in the world; others like myself said the resolution was a vote of no confidence that the existing political, legal, and academic protocols in an apartheid state could guarantee true academic freedom for all. But for me the most impressive speakers were the students and young assistant professors who spoke, people who have everything to risk by making themselves thus visible in the prevailing climate in the United States. It is no wonder that their comments were the most compelling because they spoke with the passion and commitment of activists at risk.
There is no doubt in my mind that the ASA is changing in response to the younger scholars coming into the profession, who are appreciably more diverse in many ways than in the past. It is also changing, not only in terms of the themes and topics around which conferences are organized (this year’s theme was Debt), but also in the spirit of civic engagement aroused, and the kinds of engagement that we are pressed into, given the times.
I am not sure at all what will happen with the resolution for the boycott – which leads me to wonder why and how it is that the ASA may not, as Angela Davis suggested, “catch up” with the Association for Asian American Studies, which is itself preparing for its annual meeting in April. Since our vote was made public, the Association has been hit with relentless attacks in the press and privately, from everyone including regular individuals to a member of Congress (for just one example of this backlash see the exchange I had with Jonathan Marks on the pages of Inside Higher Education). Preparing for our upcoming meeting, I was of a mind that we had no reason to revisit this issue – we had presented the case, held our vote, and taken our position. Yet because the AAAS resolution has now been reanimated by the ASA discussion, I believe that at our meeting we might well re-contextualize what happened last April. For it is clear to me now that the Association for Asian American Studies not only, as does the American Studies Association, research and teach about America, it also is deeply and emphatically devoted to studying the historical and contemporary relationship between America and Asia and Asians in America. And this has included a history of exclusionary laws, the disqualification of Asians to speak in court, their ineligibility for citizenship, anti-miscegenation laws, colonial wars fought on Asian Pacific soil from Hawai’i and the Philippines to Korea to Vietnam and Cambodia, and present-day hate crimes against Asians in America, to name just a few key issues. Maybe because of this knowledge and historical experience our association is particularly attuned to the situation of the Palestinians, and is willing to take this step, now, to speak up in support.