Worrisome boycott

Grass roots activism must go to work to repeal this motion, and to keep track of upcoming attempts to delegitimize Israel and pass discriminatory hypocritical boycotts like this.

Israel boycott 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel boycott 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On December 16, the membership of the American Studies Association voted overwhelmingly to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Of the 5,000 members, 1,252 participated in the vote, and 66% of them supported the resolution. This brings to mind numerous creeping boycott initiatives in Europe and the US that have been gaining ground in the last decade. The ASA’s decision is a worrisome development, but should not be cause for undue alarm; rather it should encourage pro-Israel voices on campus to go to work to repeal this motion and struggle against future resolutions.
The ASA decision was more than a year in the making. On December 4, its national council voted unanimously to support the resolution which was sponsored by the ASA’s Academic and Community Action Caucus. The Caucus gathered 150 signatures of ASA members and noted that it sought to “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions”; pairing its support for the boycott with ostensibly supporting the “right of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research.”
The supporters of the boycott were organized and effective at drumming up support. They galvanized themselves by claiming that Israel’s actions closely mirrored historic injustices in the US and South Africa. One scholar from Cornell noted that “American exceptionalism seeks to erase the genocide of ongoing settler colonialism of indigenous peoples here in the US, so the myth of Israeli exceptionalism seeks to erase Israeli colonialism.”
Prof. John Rowe of the University of Southern California argued that “I realize this is a controversial resolution, but it is in keeping with our activist history. It is not directed at individual citizens and academics in Israel, but at academic institutions...[and] their complicity with state policies intended to discriminate against the Palestinian people.”
However, the ASA National Council used alarming wording, claiming “the council acknowledged the force of Israeli and US settler colonialism throughout our negotiations.” The final resolution claimed the ASA “struggle[s] against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism.” These statements seem intended to inoculate the association against charges of anti-Semitism.
Condemnations of the resolution have come from many sectors. The American Association of University Professors noted that the boycott was limited only to the ASA’s own organizational contacts. “It will be up to those members of ASA who support the principles of academic freedom to decide for themselves how to respond.” Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard University, claimed the organization was no longer a scholarly organization but “more of a political tool” that was unfairly singling out Israel. Similarly, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder argued that “this vote to boycott Israel, one of the most democratic and academically free nations on the globe, shows the Orwellian anti-Semitism and moral bankruptcy of the American Studies Association.”
Scholars for Peace in the Middle East bashed the decision as “counter to any principle of academic freedom.”
The decision comes against a backdrop of numerous other boycott attempts. The Teachers Union of Ireland endorsed a boycott in April. Many commentators have argued that the ASA action represents a symbolic break in the dam, whereby US organizations had refrained from supporting boycott motions of Israel. However many forget that in 2002, Harvard and MIT were both the center of controversy over attempts to divest from Israel. At the time, Summers had come out strongly against the rise in the number of faculty supporting divestment, noting it was tinged with anti-Semitism. Left-leaning Protestant churches, such as the Presbyterians and Methodists in the US, have been the scene of partially successful attempts to divest from Israel.
The ASA decision was made by a minority of members of a relatively small academic organization that has a long history of radical activism. At a 2012 conference in Puerto Rico, organizers noted they should “reflect on indigeneity and dispossession... on the course of US empire [and] on rich histories of resistance.”
What is remarkable here is the large portion of members who supported a boycott and the ineffectual attempts to combat it. Anti-Israel organizers are highly organized, motivated and willing to wait years to see their resolutions pass, widdling away at association members who resist. Pro-Israel voices don’t catch on until it is too late, and then only make do with condemnations. Grass roots activism must go to work to repeal this motion, and to keep track of upcoming attempts to delegitimize Israel and pass discriminatory hypocritical boycotts like this.