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The Shame of the American Studies Association

Image via Wiki Commons.

For the last several years, elite universities around the world have been roiled by anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian demands to boycott Israel’s academic institutions. This month, a major American scholarly body, the American Studies Association (ASA), has voted to endorse the BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions) movement against the state of Israel. The endorsement, unanimously recommended by the Association’s National Council in December, earned the support of 66 percent of the voting membership; 30 percent of voting members dissented. Those voting, however, comprised less than a third of the association’s total membership. In the run-up to the voting, the leadership of the ASA, in an inexplicable denial of elemental fairness, refused to allow dissenting opinions to be posted on its website.

The ASA has had a long and distinguished history. Its members have done important work at the intersections of American history and literature. In recent years, however, the ASA has come to embrace an explicitly politicized blend of identity politics, multiculturalism, postcolonial studies, critiques of neo-liberalism and American “empire,” far too often expressed in the clotted language that will forever mark such prose as the dated product of a low time.

In entering the tangled and tragic history of the Middle East, an area whose history and culture few if any of its members know as scholars, the ASA has put its scholarly reputation at risk to embrace moral and political posturing. Its leaders have turned the history of Arab/Israeli conflict into a melodramatic morality tale, an old-time Western of black hats and white hats. Israel’s policies toward Palestinians deserve full and honest debate; a debate the ASA leadership chose to foreclose as voting on its resolution began. To condemn the universities of Israel as complicit in the denial of academic freedom represents an extraordinary ideological blindness at a time when Israel’s neighbors, Syria, Iran, and now Egypt, are now engaged in sweeping repression and worse, and when free speech and academic freedom are clearly at risk in Vietnam and China.

The current ASA president, when questioned by the New York Times, why single out Israel, offered an answer both unpersuasive and tactically inept. “We have to start somewhere,” he said. But the ASA isn’t likely to target any other country. No other country in the world faces the determined opposition that the BDS movement has directed against Israel. The BDS movement has been extraordinarily successful in turning the world’s attention away from the terrorism of suicide bombers and rocket attacks, offering instead a vision of an oppressed, colonized people victimized by Israel’s “racism,” and its policies of “apartheid,” falsely analogized to South Africa.

There is no question that Palestinians are suffering, and that suffering has ensured the support of empathic ASA members. But how will a boycott of Israeli universities improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians? Alice Kessler-Harris, a past president of the ASA and an opponent of the boycott, put it bluntly for the Chronicle of Higher Education: “I can’t fathom what the ASA thinks will come of this, or how it will advance the cause of a single Palestinian.”

The ASA claims to “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” The “civil society” is a nice touch, the product of a clever distinction. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas opposes the BDS’s call for a boycott of Israel, though he supports a boycott of companies doing business in the occupied territories.

Noam Chomsky also supports such a limited boycott, though he is sharply critical of the BDS movement as unrepresentative of the Palestinian people and regards its call to boycott Israeli universities as “a hypocrisy that rises to the heavens.” In calling for an unlimited “right of return” and a one-state solution, the BDS movement, a fortiori, seeks the destruction of Israel and the dream of a Zionist homeland. This is the company that the ASA now keeps.

Current members now have two choices, articulated by the late Albert Hirschman: “voice” or “exit.” The members who never voted and those who did and opposed the resolution are a clear majority. Here’s hoping they find their voice and reclaim the ASA as a serious scholarly body. But exiting has it own honor and integrity. I left some years ago, finding little value in the ASA’s growing narrowness, crabbed writing, and political posturing.