Criticism of American Studies Association (ASA) Boycott: A Roundup

The American Studies Association (ASA) resolution to impose an academic boycott of Israel passed on Dec. 15 with 1/3 of the ASA membership voting, 2/3 of them in support. With only 22% of the ASA membership voting in favor of the boycott promoted by its leadership, the backlash has been swift and sharp. Four universities to date have withdrawn from the ASA. University professors, academic associations, academicians have rejected the undemocratic move by the ASA. Newspaper Op-Eds and Editorials have denounced the resolution.

Law professor William Jacobson has led the way in rallying support for and collecting information about those opposing the ASA move on his blog, Legal Insurrection. (See: Legal Insurrection: American Studies Association.)

Below is a roundup of criticism leveled against the ASA boycott.

Statements from Universities That Withdrew from the ASA

American Studies Program
“It is a with deep regret that we in the American Studies Program at Brandeis University have decided to discontinue our institutional affiliation with the American Studies Association. We view the recent vote by the membership to affirm an academic boycott of Israel as a politicization of the discipline and a rebuke to the kind of open inquiry that a scholarly association should foster.”

Indiana University
President Michael A. McRobbie

“Indiana University joins other leading research universities in condemning in the strongest possible terms the boycott of institutions of higher education in Israel as proposed by the American Studies Association and other organizations. Boycotts such as these have a profound chilling effect on academic freedom, and universities must be clear and unequivocal in rejecting them…

…Indiana University will contact the ASA immediately to withdraw as an institutional member. We urge the leadership of the ASA and other associations supporting the boycott to rescind this dangerous and ill-conceived action as a matter of urgency.”
Kenyon College
President Sean Decatur

“Academic freedom – the unfettered exchange of ideas – is a cornerstone of liberal education…I cherish academic freedom and I oppose the ASA boycott of Israel…

…The ASA is, first and foremost, an academic society aimed at the promotion of interdisciplinary studies of American culture and history. This commitment to scholarship, teaching, and learning is what drew Kenyon to participate in ASA activities in the past. But, as the president of a College with an unwavering commitment to the liberal arts and the concept of academic freedom, I reject the notion of a boycott of academic institutions as a geopolitical tool. I concur with the decision of our American Studies program to withdraw as an institutional member of the ASA.”

Penn State Harrisburg
American Studies Department Chairman Simon J. Bronner
“As a prominent program in American Studies concerned for the welfare of its students and faculty, Penn State Harrisburg is worried that the recent actions by the National Council of the American Studies Association (ASA) do not reflect the longstanding scholarly enterprise American Studies stands for. The withdrawal of institutional membership by our program and others allows us to be independent of the political and ideological resolutions issued by the ASA and concentrate on building American Studies scholarship with our faculty, students, and staff. There might be alternative organizations forming in the future that better represent the field of American Studies. When and if that occurs, we will re-examine our independent position. In the meantime we view this move as one intended to protect students and faculty from opprobrium as a result of the ASA’s claim to represent scholars of American studies.”


Official Statements by Other Universities Rejecting ASA Boycott

“Academic boycotts subvert the academic freedoms and values necessary to the free flow of ideas, which is the lifeblood of the worldwide community of scholars. The recent resolution of the ASA proposing to boycott Israeli universities represents a direct threat to these ideals, ideals which universities and scholarly associations should be dedicated to defend.”

Yale Presid
ent Peter Salovey

“Any attempt to close off discussion or dialogue among scholars is antithetical to the fundamental values of scholarship and academic freedom. I stand with the Executive Committee of the Association of American Universities in my strong opposition to a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. At the same time, I acknowledge that individual faculty members have the right to their own opinions and beliefs, even if I disagree with those beliefs.”

John Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels and Provost Robert C. Lieberman

Johns Hopkins stands for the belief that we will advance the human condition through dialogue rather than isolation, and the dissemination of knowledge rather than its restriction. An academic boycott is, thus, an affront to principles that this university cherishes. To curtail the freedom of institutions to participate in the exchange of ideas because of the policies of the government of the country where they reside is to strike at the very mission of our university. The ASA tries to defend the boycott on the ground that it applies formally to Israeli universities rather than individual faculty, but of course, this neglects the profound impact such a ban will have on the scholars who form the intellectual heart and participate actively in the academic life and governance of those universities….This boycott is a contradiction, one that threatens what it purports to protect: the freedom of thought and expression that is the heartbeat of our academic community.”  
“The University of Chicago has from its founding held as its highest value the free and open pursuit of inquiry. Faculty and students must be free to pursue their research and education around the world and to form collaborations both inside and outside of the academy, encouraging engagement with the widest spectrum of views. For this reason, we oppose boycotts of academic institutions or scholars in any region of the world, and oppose recent actions by academic societies to boycott Israeli institutions.”   
I am disappointed and concerned that the American Studies Association, invoking the principle of academic freedom, would vote to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Research, teaching, and scholarship flourish through robust exchange of ideas, across borders and among institutions in different parts of the world. Universities and their faculties can often transcend even profound political differences. It is ill-advised to make academic institutions the instrument with which to promote a political agenda by attempting to isolate students and scholars. Boston University cannot support this boycott.”
“Tufts University strongly opposes the resolution of the American Studies Association (ASA) to boycott Israeli academic institutions. As an institution of higher education, Tufts University is deeply committed to the principles of academic freedom and educating students to be active global citizens. Boycotting academic institutions in response to government policies would undermine the academic freedom of scholars around the world. We recognize the right of individual members of our community to participate in professional academic associations such as the ASA. Tufts University is not an institutional member of the ASA.”
“The recent votes of two scholarly societies — the American Studies Association and Association for Asian American Studies – to endorse the Palestinian boycott of Israeli academic institutions is contrary to both academic freedom and the international exchange of ideas. The University of Connecticut joins the American Association of University Professors in firmly opposing all such boycotts. Choosing one nation for a boycott is patently unfair and represents a disturbing philosophy among some segments of the academy..”
“Recently the membership of the American Studies Association approved a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli higher education institutions. Two
other U.S. academic associations have also advocated that stance. While we support the right of academicians to voice their viewpoints, Northwestern University disagrees strongly with the boycott vote of the ASA. Northwestern also rejects the actions suggested in the resolution. In fact, we believe the ASA resolution directly contradicts the values of academic freedom and advancing scholarship for which Northwestern stands.

Northwestern University faculty and students should have the ability to pursue academic collaborations with their colleagues at institutions around the world, including Israel.  Northwestern for years has had highly successful and valued joint degree programs and extensive partnerships with Israeli institutions and scholars. We intend to maintain and strengthen relationships such as these.

Furthermore, the Executive Committee of the Association of American Universities, the organization of the most prominent research universities in North America and of which Northwestern is a member, has opposed the position of the three academic organizations. We concur with the statement of the AAU’s Executive Committee…”
For more official university statements, see here


Rejection of ASA Resolution by Other University Associations
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP)
Open Letter to Members of the American Studies Association
“The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which opposes academic boycotts as violations of academic freedom, is disappointed by the [ASA National Council’s] vote and urges ASA members to reject this resolution.”
Association of American Universities (AAU)
Statement on Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions
signed by the heads of 11 universities)

“Restrictions imposed on the ability of scholars of any particular country to work with their fellow academics in other countries, participate in meetings and organizations, or otherwise carry out their scholarly activities violate academic freedom. The boycott of Israeli academic institutions therefore clearly violates the academic freedom not only of Israeli scholars but also of American scholars who might be pressured to comply with it. We urge American scholars and scholars around the world who believe in academic freedom to oppose this and other such academic boycotts.”

Letters From Other Academe Opposing Boycott
November 18th Letter Opposing the ASA’s “Proposed Resolution on Academic Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions”
(Signed by 70 ASA members, including 7 former ASA presidents.)

“As members of the American Studies Association (ASA), including several former presidents, Council members, and ASA award winners, we are deeply committed to the values of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.

Given these priorities, we are troubled by the attempt of a vocal minority amongst the ASA’s membership to force the entire association to enact a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

The “Proposed Resolution on Academic Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions” sponsored by the ASA Caucus on Academic and Community Activism does not further, but rather harms, the general interests of the association. If upheld, it would set a dangerous precedent by sponsoring an inequitable and discriminatory policy that would punish one nation’s universities and scholars and restrict the free conduct of ASA members to engage with colleagues in Israel….”
Nov. 15th Letter by non-ASA Member Americanist Scholars Opposing the ASA’s “Proposed Resolution on AcademicBoycott of Israeli Academic Institutions”
Signed by 68 non-ASA member Americanist academics)
“As Americanists — scholars of American studies — we are deeply committed to the values of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. Although we are not currently members of the ASA, many of us have been members and/or presented at ASA’s national conferences in the past and/or share “an interdisciplinary interest in American culture,” which is the main criterion listed for ASA membership on your website…

…The notion of an academic boycott has been raised by ASA members in the past and was rejected by the ASA’s Committee on Programs and Centers for this very reason. The ASA  should not set policies that would impose on or restrict academic rights to research, and collaborate with colleagues as members see fit…”
Both letters include the following:

“Collectively, we, the undersigned, represent a wide range of views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it should be resolved. While we can and should vigorously discuss these differences, there is one issue on which we all agree: We oppose all academic boycotts, including the idea of an association-imposed boycott against Israeli academic institutions. A fundamental principle of academia is academic freedom; the belief that scholars must be free to pursue ideas without being targeted for repression, discipline, or institutional censorship. The adoption of an academic boycott against Israel and Israelis would do violence to this bedrock principle. Scholars would be punished not because of what they believe – which would be bad enough – but simply because of who they are based on their nationality. In no other context does the ASA discriminate on the basis of national origin – and for good reason. This is discrimination pure and simple. Worse, it is also discrimination that inevitably diminishes the pursuit of knowledge, by discarding knowledge simply because it is produced by a certain group of people.”

Op-Eds by Prominent Academics Regarding the ASA Boycott

Against Academic Boycotts
Inside Higher Ed, Dec. 12
Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay; first vice president of the American Association of University Professors

“Friends and colleagues familiar with my longstanding support of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and my extensive criticisms of the Israeli government’s expansionist policies and violations of Palestinian human rights may be puzzled that I have weighed in publicly in opposition to the proposed academic boycott of Israel endorsed by the council of the American Studies Association (ASA) and now the subject of a membership vote in that organization. But the fact is that such a boycott is at best misguided. Not only is it the wrong way to register opposition to the policies and practices it seeks to discredit, it is itself a serious violation of the very academic freedom its supporters purport to defend.

“… I cannot fail to mention that the leaders of the ASA are not conducting this election in a spirit of frank and free discussion. AAUP’s “Open Letter” was preceded by a private communication prior to the ASA council’s approval of the boycott resolution. The ASA declined to circulate that communication among members and then rebuffed a request to post the “Open Letter” on its website along with other background material on the boycott proposal. The ASA has also declined to inform members of a letter in opposition to the resolution signed by eight former ASA presidents and other prominent ASA members.”

An Idiotic Israel Boycott Obscures Real Progress in Campus Activism
The New Republic, Dec. 12
Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent magazine
“…to single out Israeli universities for violating human rights is transparently myopic. Chinese universities are also “a party” to the policies of their government, which has forcibly relocated many Tibetans from their homes and demonizes their religion—and fires professors who criticize the rule of the Communist Party. Russian universities promote and enforce the Putin government’s vile laws against gays and lesbians. But scholars of American history and culture routinely speak at academic institutions in both countries and invite their counterparts to visit theirs. By the same logic, one might call on ASA members who despise the national security state yet work for universities that get grants from or allow recruiting by the Defense Department, the CIA, or the NSA to boycott themselves.”

Engage, Don’t Boycott: An Open Letter to the American Studies Association
The Nation,
Dec. 13
Ari Y Kelman, professor of education and Jewish studies at Stanford

“I got into the academic business because I treasure the fundamental value of intellectual freedom. It allows those of us fortunate enough to call scholarship our profession to do the work we do. A boycott of Israeli intellectual and cultural institutions seems to run counter to this basic premise of academic life and the commitment to increasing, not limiting scholarly conversation and engagement.

“… If we are to attempt to make the world a better place through our work as scholars, intellectuals, and activists, then we would do ourselves and our profession a service by doing better what we claim to do already:

a. Engaging in informed scholarly debate with people with whom we disagree.

b. Advocating and agitating for more academic freedom, not less.

c. Increasing our scholarly collaborations through shared areas of concern and across geopolitical lines.

d. Deploying the tools of our trade—rigorous research, thoughtful argumentation, reasoned critique—to influence public opinion and policy.

The ASA resolution does none of these things. Instead, it supplants all of them with a weakly worded statement whose only outcome is to cut off discussion, limit cooperation, and stunt scholarship.”

A Vote Against Israel and Academic Freedom
Wall Street Journal, Dec. 16
Jonathan Marks, professor of politics at Ursinus College
“Make no mistake: Supporting the U.S. boycott campaign is not merely a way of criticizing Israel or expressing solidarity with Palestinians. The campaign calls for boycotting “Palestinian/Arab-Israeli collaborative research projects or events.” In other words, it actively discourages opportunities for cooperation and mutual understanding. And while the campaign does not condone a blacklist of Israeli academics, it does warn that “all academic exchanges with Israeli academics do have the effect of normalizing Israel and its politics of occupation and apartheid.
It is heartening that eight past presidents of the American Studies Association, along with more than 50 other members, signed a letter calling the resolution “discrimination pure and simple.” But the association’s current president, Curtis Marez, refused repeated requests from opponents of the boycott to communicate their arguments to the membership. Instead, the ASA’s national council posted a 1,200-word manifesto in favor of the resolution on its website.The executive committee of the national council has six members. Five of them have previously endorsed the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Four signed a 2009 letter to President Obama that described Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as “one of the most massive ethnocidal atrocities of modern times” and declared that a one-state solution, which would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state, is “almost certainly” the only road to peace….
True scholars, unlike activists, are for the most part not joiners. But if we—myself included—do not join together to save our professional associations from anti-Israel activists, we will bear part of the blame for erasing the line between scholarly work and propaganda.”

Boycott of Israeli universities: A repugnant attack on academic freedom
Los Angeles Times, Dec. 19

Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University

“But the boycott is a repugnant attack on academic freedom, declaring academic institutions off-limits because of their national affiliation.

The ASA has not gone on record against universities in any other country: not against those that enforce laws against homosexuality, not against those that have rejected freedom of speech, not against those that systematically restrict access to higher education by race, religion or gender. No, the ASA listens to civil society only when it speaks against Israel. As its scholarly president declared, “One has to start somewhere.” Not in North Korea, not in Russia or Zimbabwe or China — one has to start with Israel. Really?

… As president of Wesleyan, and as a historian, I deplore this politically retrograde resolution of the American Studies Assn. Under the guise of phony progressivism, the group has initiated an irresponsible attack on academic freedom. Others in academia should reject this call for an academic boycott.”

The ASA’s Boycott of Israel Is Not as Troubling As It Seems
New Republic, Dec. 19
David Greenberg, professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University

“Make no mistake: the vote is troubling, redolent of some of the darkest moments in modern history. In singling out Israel, of all the world’s imperfect actors, as worthy of ostracism, in designating the Jewish state as uniquely deserving of isolation and economic strangulation, the ASA boycotters have joined the ranks of those who—from the anti-Jewish campaigns of nineteenth-century Europe through the notorious Arab League boycott that dissipated only after Camp David and Oslo—believed that the remnant of humanity known as the Jewish people possesses too much power and must be brought to heel. Their campaign seeks not the defensible goal of ending West Bank settlements as part of a peace agreement, but the essentially anti-Semitic end of marginalizing, delegitimizing, even eliminating the Jewish state.

… the ASA boycott ringleaders are by and large a fringe of malcontents—thugs with credentials, vandals in tweed.”

Tireless Enemies of Israel: America’s Academic Boyco
Weekly Standard, Dec. 23
Edward Alexander, professor emeritus of English at the University of Washington

“Anybody who believes that the singling out of Israel, the sole Jewish-majority nation among all the nations of the world, for boycott has nothing to do with Jew-hatred will also believe that Europe’s recent obsession with banning circumcision and the laws of kashrut has nothing to do with a deep-seated desire to rid itself, yet again, of Jews. Such a (conjectural) person might also be interested in some choice real estate I know about in downtown Aleppo.

The American Studies Association boycotters, especially the organization’s president and executive committee, have comported themselves with the dogmatism and dictatorialness that have long been de rigueur among academic liberals: they would not allow their opponents within the ASA to make the case against declaring war on Israel to the organization’s membership. They also acted according to rule in trotting out their Display Jews (to borrow Kafka’s term) to blacken Israel’s image (and turn the pariah people into the pariah state).  This stale trick is the ASA’s chief defense against charges that the boycott movement is anti-Semitic.  One hesitates to call such Jews self-haters because so many of them are sick with self-love. Seen in long historical perspective, they represent a relatively recent development in the often desperate search for Jewish “identity.”
Selection of Newspaper Editorials Against ASA Boycott
Wall Street Journal, Dec. 16
Shame of the Academy
“The political corruption of the American academy is by now an old story, but every so often it reveals itself in a new and shocking way. The latest example comes from the professors of the American Studies Association, which on Monday announced that two-thirds of its members had voted in favor of boycotting Israel….
Yet it’s still worth pondering what must go through the mind of a professoriate, presumably dedicated to free political speech, that would choose to boycott the most democratic country in the Middle East. The country in which Arabs are treated far better and have far more rights than they do in most Arab lands. And the country that is America’s most reliable ally.”
Washington Post, Dec. 23
Scholars With Blinders
“The most difficult thing to swallow about the resolution is how utterly narrow-minded it seems…
 …To focus a resolution on Israel and ignore these injustices [in China, Russia, Cuba and Saudi Arabia] is puzzling at best. It is also fundamentally wrong.”

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