Academic Boycotts Are Damaging, Anti-Intellectual, and Political Posing

There is truly little more distasteful than boycotting academic institutions for questionable political reasons. I mean if any organization is committed to problem-solving, analysis, and understanding it is academia. The American Studies Association (ASA) is an insignificant but highly politicized minor academic organization that is regularly critical of the United States. Last November the ASA was manipulated by an anti-Israel organization into supporting a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The ASA has about 5000 members and approximately 16% of them voted. A majority of that biased 16% voted in favor of the resolution and it technically passed. Additional details are available at Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. For now, let’s look a little more closely at what happened.

Who is the American Studies Association?

The ASA focuses on the study of American culture in general but with a strong anti-American sentiment. On the website you can find numerous resolutions critical of the US and imbalance with respect to the consideration of many political issues.

What is the justification for this resolution according to ASA?

The basic argument is that Israeli academic institutions are part of the system that discriminates against Palestinians. Moreover the playing field between the Israelis and the Palestinians is unequal because academic freedom is denied to Palestinians. And finally, Israeli universities are part of state policies that discriminate against Palestinians. The resolution claims not to discriminate against individual scholars engaged in research. The ASA asserts that this resolution is a form of social justice.

What has been the response to the resolution?

The response has been overwhelmingly negative with many of university presidents and leaders calling for the rejection of the boycott and for the resolution to be rescinded. Moreover, the ASA is a tax-exempt academic organization but such exemptions are denied if an organization is blatantly political. Lawyers are beginning to work on removing the tax-exempt status of the ASA. Lee Bollinger’s statement opposing the boycott appears here.

Still, the media coverage of the boycott has been strong and successful at raising the issue in the consciousness of most people. Many of the distinguished newspapers across the country have been critical of the ASA and these criticisms range from the left (e.g. The Nation) to the right (Commentary). Some criticisms from the left have claimed that the ASA resolution will weaken other causes, and some from the right simply defend Israel’s right to defend itself and question the political and legal challenges in the West Bank. The president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmud Abbas also rejects boycotts against Israel except in certain instances, and these refer to particular products, beyond the green line. The ASA appears to be stunned by the negative reaction and has begun manipulating its website and adopting a stance designed to minimize the damage.

The ASA has shown itself to be counter to the traditions of academic freedom and even potentially dangerous to inquiry and progress. If the resolution has any effect at all it will probably be to damage and make more difficult the work of just those individuals most able to work toward the resolution of the problems between Israelis and Palestinians. Resolutions such as these are typically political posing designed to attract attention rather than solve problems. And although attracting attention is a key component of the political communication process, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond such simplicities and in need of serious attention by serious scholars – not the kind of attention that comes from the safe stances of fashionable progressives who make pronouncements but don’t “get in the fight.”


About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on December 30, 2013, in Israel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. As usual, you are the voice of calm reason in a stormy sea, Don.

    I must admit experiencing some confusion at the initial demands of the ASA as well as the near-universai repudiation of their call for a boycott. Now, I’m happy to count the prez of our state’s flagship U among this burgeoning fold.

    The statement “(t)he ASA focuses on the study of American culture in general but with a strong anti-American sentiment,” puts me in mind of those odious Westboro Baptist cretins who so heinously twisted the Christian message of love thy neighbor into “God hates fags.”

    May both groups dry up and blow away. Soon. Please.

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