American Studies Association appears to backtrack on boycott of Israeli academics

The organization had openly called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and declared on its website that boycott extends to annual conference in Los Angeles.

Boycott Israel sign (photo credit: REUTERS)
Boycott Israel sign
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The American Studies Association appears to have backed down from a threat to boycott Israeli academic institutions at its annual conference next month, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
The Post spoke to CeCe Heil and David French of the American Center for Law and Justice, who had threatened the ASA and the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, which is hosting the conference, with legal action should they not allow speakers from Israeli academic institutions. Heil and French told the Post that while the ASA had not responded directly to them, the organization had indicated to blogger Eugene Kontorovich, a professor of constitutional law at Northwestern University, that it was changing its policy.
“It seems very clear to me that the ASA is climbing down here on its core boycott policy,” French told the Post.
The ASA, which calls itself “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history,” is set to hold its annual conference at Los Angeles’ Westin Bonaventure Hotel from November 4-9.
The organization had openly called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and declared on its website in response to questions about the boycott that “yes” it does indeed extend to the annual conference. “Institutions and their representatives, not individual scholars, students, or cultural workers who will be able to participate in the ASA conference or give public lectures at campuses, provided they are not expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or of the Israeli government,” read a statement on the ASA website.
In response to the announcement, Heil and French sent an urgent letter directly to the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and to the ASA decrying the ASA’s discriminatory and bigoted policy. They also put the Westin Bonaventure on notice that should the hotel agree to host the conference, they would be in violation of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, “for aiding the ASA in enforcement of this unlawful discriminatory policy.”
The letter was sent on October 13, with Heil and French giving the recipients five days to respond. The story was quickly picked up and discussed on Professor Eugene Kontorovich’s blog “The Volokh Conspiracy” in The Washington Post.
The Jerusalem Post spoke by telephone with French on Monday, two days after the deadline offered up in the letter to the Westin Bonaventure and to the ASA.
French said while the Center had not heard back from the hotel, nor directly from the ASA, the ASA did in fact respond to Kontorovich and indicated to him that they were now changing their policy.
Indeed, the section on the ASA’s website regarding Israeli participation in the annual conference now has a footnote attached that states, “*In accordance with the “yes” answer immediately above, Israeli academics will be in attendance at the 2014 convention. The ASA will not prohibit anyone from registering or participating in its annual conference.”
Said French, “That was definitely our concern because the boycott targeted institutions and their representatives. That an Israeli scholar as a representative of an Israeli school would not be able to attend this conference would be unique and it would be national origin discrimination because of the impact on Jewish Israelis.” He added, “It would also be discrimination on the basis of race and religion.”
French noted that in addition to the footnote on its website, the ASA told Kontorovich that if someone were to register for the conference as a representative of an Israeli institution he or she would not be turned away.
He added however that the ASA was also claiming that the allegations that they were going to bar Israelis were false all along.
“But their boycott was self-explanatory,” French said. “They were targeting [Israeli] institutions and their representatives.”
French added that while he couldn’t “read minds” he believes that some combination of the letter and the media coverage regarding the issue helped in reversing the ASA’s policy, at least for the conference.
“All I know is there was no change in course prior to us sending the letter and literally by Friday they had added this new footnote to their policy.”
French said the letter was sent so close to the conference (barely three weeks ahead of schedule) because “proximity tends to focus attention. By dealing with this issue now I believe we were able to raise the proper awareness of the policy. It’s a sad reality that if you deal with issues far in advance, often there is little attention.”
French hopes that this step by the ASA will chip away at a policy that “is bigoted. It’s disgusting, it’s preposterous, it’s malicious and there’s no place for that kind of invidious discrimination in American higher education so we were pleased to be able to weigh in and attempt to uphold anti-discrimination laws.”
He added that more than 250 institutions of higher education have rejected the ASA’s policy as well as major academic associations including the American Council in Education and the American Association of Universities. “The opposition to the boycott writ large has been going on for a very long time,” French said, adding, “It’s important for American higher education to demonstrate, as it has been doing, that ASA’s boycott is beyond the pale and we’re just glad that the ASA is beginning to understand that its bigotry is unsustainable within the academic environment.”
While the ASA did not respond directly to The Jerusalem Post’s requests for comment, it did issue a press release on Monday morning (Oct. 21) that stated in part, “In recent days, several erroneous reports have circulated claiming that the American Studies Association (ASA)…will bar Israeli academic from participating at our upcoming annual conference…. This allegation is false. There will not be discrimination of any sort against anyone. We welcome Israeli academics to attend, and in fact several are already scheduled to participate in the conference program.”