Tired of Talking About the American Studies Boycott

Ever since the American Studies Association had the nerve to decide through a democratic vote that it would impose an academic boycott on Israel, the news media has been on a feeding frenzy. And it’s just the beginning. The much larger and much more powerful Modern Languages Association will take up the matter of academic freedom and the Palestinians in about a week. Hang on to your seats. No doubt I will file a dispatch or two about that one. But for right now, I’d like to suggest we take a pause in the debate about the ASA.

Maybe it is because I have been so involved in the trenches that some bigger picture issues have been less visible to me – they are becoming clearer now. For example, the most recent ASA stories have all focused on the reaction of college presidents to the boycott. They are against it. Is that cause for surprise? Don’t look to college presidents to ok boycotts – their track record isn’t great. It’s the free market – and not just the marketplace of ideas – they protect. In fact, in the name of academic freedom and institutional connection-building they pursue relations with one nation that the critics of the ASA boycott always say we should focus our criticism on (instead of Israel): China. US universities don’t seem to have a problem with chasing after cozy relationships with that country’s so-called “Confucius Institutes.” As Marshall Shalins asks, “Confucius Institutes censor political discussions and restrain the free exchange of ideas. Why, then, do American universities sponsor them?

University presidents who sign up with the Confucius Institute and instantiate them on their campus see no contradiction between partnering with a state that is under attack for its human rights and academic freedom violations while at the same time publicly and virulently blasting a professional organization for saying, “no thank you, we want nothing to do with a state that has dozens of UN resolutions against it for (you guessed it) human rights violations.” And why? Because these university presidents say we are denying academic freedom. Please. But let’s leave that to these honorable and decent presidents to deal with, after they receive all the pats on the back for their brave and principled stances and reap in the new donor dollars that flow into their endowments from grateful defenders of academic freedom. It’s patently clear – this is not about academic freedom, it is about the audacity the ASA had to protest Israeli state policies. And let me add once more: the resolution is not anti-Semitic; it is a protest against the practices of the Israeli government that deny academic freedom to the Palestinians.

The grass roots and disenfranchised have always created change. Those vested with power are invested in the status quo that keeps them in power. A few concessions can be wrested from time to time, but for things like rights and freedoms for the Palestinians, it will take more than an academic debate to change the status quo. And yet the ASA vote is an essential part of that larger struggle. Let me ask you, when was the last time you’ve heard “Palestinian civil society” mentioned so often in the news? Whether in favor or not in favor of ASA or Palestinian rights, the taboo has been broken. The continuing discussion should not be about just an academic boycott and it possibly disrupting the normal behavior of US universities and professional organizations. We need to focus on what the boycott is about.

It’s time to stop shrugging off reports of more settlement building, more destruction of homes, more closing down of small businesses, destruction of the land and what little infrastructure there is in the occupied territories, more siphoning off of aid and water, more persecution, more barriers, more quarantines, more rockets, more bombing of schools. And less energy spent on the supposed denial of “our” rights and the “reputation” of the ASA. Are these really the things that deserve our attention and intellectual resources? I urge all of those who are expending so much energy against the ASA and the supposed ineffectiveness of the boycott to take your energy and good intentions and do something yourself about the occupation. Start or join a divestment or sanctions campaign. Have a teach-in at your school. Even explain why the boycott is bad and why and how your plan of action is better. Whatever works. Oh, and if Israel is off limits, please do write a university president whose institution has a Confucius Institute. It will make you feel good.