Skip to content Skip to footer

Boycotts, Backlash, Authority and Change

The decision on the part of the American Studies Association to honor a call from Palestinian civil society for an academic boycott of Israel has garnered a wide range of responses.

The decision on the part of the American Studies Association to honor a call from Palestinian civil society for an academic boycott of Israel has garnered a wide range of responses. Here I want to focus on a particular aspect of the academic response and then broaden the scope.

Among all the responses, the most visible ones take the form of strident criticism coming from high-ups in university and college administrations, such as the op-ed in The Los Angeles Times from Wesleyan President Michael Roth, who calls the boycott “repugnant.” His criticism is typical in that it mistakenly believes academic institutions are endowed with academic freedom rights (they are not) and that the ASA resolution prohibits its individual members from engaging with, partnering with, working with Israeli scholars. The resolution decidedly does not do that. It is crucially important to restate (as supporters of the resolution have had to do over and over again) that the boycott is one of an organization against a set of institutions. That means that the ASA has agreed that it, as an entity, will not work in concert with Israeli institutions. That is all. But that is a powerful statement, nonetheless, as the reaction against it shows. Even Lawrence Summers felt compelled to get into the act, arguing contortedly on The Charlie Rose Show that academic boycotts are bad, and that is why we should boycott the ASA:

But one reaction is especially remarkable to me. It is found in this story from the Jewish News Service: Here we find Stephen Whitfield asserting: “What seems to be the case is the emergence of Ethnic Studies may have tilted the organization heavily in favor of people of color, in this case the Palestinians,” he said. “Ethnic Studies, which emerged from the civil rights movement of the 1960s and early ’70s, places an emphasis on the study of non-European culture in the U.S, such as African-American Studies or Native American Studies.” For me this accusation forms a complementary pair with this one from Simon Bronner, to be found on the ASA website: “Besides the public ridicule that American Studies has suffered for an anti-intellectual statement related to the resolution, students are concerned that this organization is perceived to be taking a party line they must follow or else are assumed to hold because of their association with it. That is unfair to them, insensitive to the legacy and purpose of American Studies, and damaging to those of us in programs, departments, and centers. On the latter point, you are hearing comments from Turpie Award winners and program heads because they have to answer for American Studies and they are on the front lines of building American Studies as a serious scholarly inquiry. The resolution has done damage to that effort on campuses, and in fact, has undermined the reformist agenda based upon research that many Americanists value.”

Why are these two statements complementary? Because the dismay Whitfield articulates regarding the reputed Stalinesque take-over of the ASA by an insurgent group of people who are not only young, of various races and ethnicities, but, worse of all, not beholden to the traditional ways of studying “America” as led by his truly, chimes well with Bronner’s notion that the democratically-arrived-at vote was somehow fascistic and his belief that the disfavor the resolution incurred from many award-winning senior professors of the ASA should be enough to void the results of the vote.

Indeed, such was the suggestion of Richard Slotkin, a senior and highly-respected scholar from Wesleyan who is referred to in his president’s letter, cited above. As I stated in my reply to Slotkin and Bronner, “If you were truly concerned about the nature or possible effects of this resolution, it would have behooved you to place your considered opinions before the ASA membership. As diligent members of the organization, you, I am sure, read the conference program and saw that Friday there was a full panel that discussed this issue and on Saturday there was a long open town hall where everyone was invited to speak. Those of your persuasion would have been heartened to hear you speak up. If you did not, there are ample and easy-to-use resources on the internet (which you used to post your comments). You could have gone to the news media, etc. etc. But you did not. Why? Did you in fact vote? Did you lobby your colleagues and present your arguments to them? It is beyond belief that you would want to now abort the democratic process and have a second chance. As they say in the US, wait for the midterm elections? You speak of the message this resolution sends to our students. What sort of message do you think it sends to encourage them to disregard democratic process, to say that open and deliberate votes don’t count, that it is possible to wave aside democratically-arrived at resolutions because you don’t like them, but you don’t like them enough to lobby actively against them during the democratic process?”

It is, in sum, more than discouraging that we find senior professors wielding their authority in the name of academic freedom and free inquiry in order to squelch it. It is bizarre to see a rigorously democratic vote referred to as the product of a “party line.” In essence, it shows these scholars’ deep disrespect for and suspicion of scholarship and behavior that does not mimic and pay homage to theirs; it shows the readiness with which they can accommodate contradiction and abandon their professed views on democracy. It shows the limits they put on critical thinking and free inquiry. It, in fact, may indicate how much this issue has to do not with their principles but rather with their investment in their own power and their reluctance to share it with anyone who does not look or think like them.

Ironically, and cruelly, as much as the ASA boycott is aimed at institutions, not individuals, these critics are doing exactly the reverse, and this is nothing short of reprehensible. These pronouncements are just the public face of private and not-so-private expressions of animus and resentment being leveled at their unrepentant and institutionally weaker colleagues. The backlash against those who support the boycott has taken the form of vicious emails, phone calls, threats from senior and not-so senior faculty and administrators. A statement from the ASA Caucus on Academic and Community Activism states: “It has come to our attention that members of the American Studies Association are getting hate mail or threatening mail following the ASA membership vote in favor of a resolution calling for boycott of Israeli universities. The ASA Facebook page has been subject to an avalanche of abusive postings for almost two weeks. In other cases, the intimidation has been less public as senior faculty have explicitly and implicitly intimidated junior faculty who support the boycott. More generally within the academy, some are threatening to cut funds for faculty who want to attend the ASA in the future. We are also learning that individuals and groups outside the academy are threatening legal action against the ASA.” That boycotts of this nature are protected free speech does not deter critics from attempting to access the legal system to defeat it. Their case has no legal merit – this is just another form of harassment.

To those outside the academy, this might seem like just your usual ivory tower infighting. It has some elements of that, but I think its implications go far beyond. For it is in our universities and colleges that much important intellectual work goes on that changes the way we create and produce knowledge about the world and teaches the students who will take that knowledge into their lives. And that is precisely what the critics of this resolution are afraid of. We are challenging the status quo, not just about being able to have a public and robust discussion about Palestine – whether in agreement or disagreement with the boycott measure (which affirms, “the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine”) – but also about questions of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, et cetera. In other words, some of the very most urgent and critical issues of our contemporary life.

The ground is shifting. A recent article in The Washington Post shows that the effects of this boycott by a moderately-sized academic organization are being felt precisely because it is part of larger, non-coordinated but synchronic actions that signal a profound change in public discourse. “‘For various reasons, the Western governments have turned a blind eye to the Israeli violation of human rights’ in the occupied territories up to now, Aviad Kleinberg, a history professor at Tel Aviv University, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily this week. ‘They usually make do with feeble condemnations and voicing pious concern for the future of ‘the conflict.’ It appears as though this policy of turning a blind eye is going to end,’ he wrote.”

Richard Falk, in his post of December 19, frames this shift in the context of previous struggles: “We had no illusions that if the World Bank withheld a loan from Chile it would precipitate the collapse of the Pinochet regime. What we did believe, however, [was] that such a step would strengthen the perception of delegitimacy, possibly influencing American foreign policy and certainly encouraging to the mounting opposition in Chile, but mainly important as a symbolic move. In a similar vein, we can reflect on why it is proper to celebrate the endorsement of this ASA resolution goes back to the essentially Hegelian nature of a Legitimacy War. A symbolic victory is not merely symbolic, although symbols should not be underestimated. The ASA outcome is part of a campaign to construct a new subjectivity surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict. It is the sort of act that lends credibility to claims that a momentum is transforming the climate of opinion surrounding a conflict situation. Such a momentum is capable of breaking down a structure of oppression at any moment.

Both within the academy and without, we thus find ourselves at an historical moment when it comes to the issue of Palestine, and, I would argue, when it comes to the very notion that the way we know the world is predetermined and only available to us by way of authorized knowledge. So perhaps Whitfield and his ilk are right after all – perhaps the changes they shudder at taking place within the ASA are indeed the product of its new diversity, its new voices, and its new courage, and these younger scholars will be the ones to take the lead. Let’s hope so. It’s time.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $34,000 in the next 4 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.