Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

American Studies Professors: Israel Boycott Antithetical to Scholarly Pursuits

December 19, 2013 11:37 am 0 comments

A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.org The decision by the 5,000-member American Studies Association (ASA) to boycott Israeli universities has drawn widespread condemnation. At a time when the humanities discipline as a whole is facing declining funding and student participation, some American Studies scholars say narrow pursuits such as boycotting Israel may distract from efforts to revamp the field and from values such as the free exchange of ideas that form the core of a liberal arts education.

“As a scholar, I deeply value the free exchange of ideas,” former American Studies Association president and Stanford University Professor of English Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin told JNS.org. “Academic boycotts make the free exchange of ideas impossible. For that reason, I think the ASA’s endorsement of the boycott was a big mistake.”

Fishkin, who served as ASA president from 2004-2005, was part of a group of eight former ASA presidents who sent an open letter to ASA members—66 percent of whom endorsed the boycott of Israel in a Dec. 15 vote—opposing the move on the grounds that it is “antithetical to the mission of free and open inquiry for which a scholarly organization stands.”

While she is personally opposed to many of the policies of the Israeli government, Fishkin draws the line at boycotts.

“I understand the impulse to do something to register a protest [against Israel’s policies], but I do not believe that boycotting Israeli universities is a sensible response,” she told JNS.org.

Fishkin said the ASA’s boycott is counterproductive because it targets some of Israel’s most progressive institutions.

“Israeli universities are often at the forefront of fostering dialogue between Arabs and Jews, of educating the future leaders of Arab universities, and of providing the next generation with the tools of critical thinking that can allow them to construct a society more equitable and just than that of their parents,” she said.

Dr. Stephen J. Whitfield, an American Studies professor at Brandeis University who has taught in the field for more than 40 years, shares Fishkin’s sentiments on the ASA’s move.

“I’m outraged by this and my sense is that the organization has become utterly foolish,” Whitfield told JNS.org.

Whitfield explained that he is not surprised by ASA’s actions against Israel. The professor said he quit the organization nearly 20 years ago because it had become highly politicized, and that the recent boycott proves he was right. On Wednesday, American Studies departments at Whitfield’s Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg announced that they are severing ties with the ASA in the wake of its boycott.

Prof. Simon Bronner, head of Penn State Harrisburg’s American Studies department, said in a statement that such boycotts “curtail academic freedom and undermine the reputation of American Studies as a scholarly enterprise.”

The boycott is the result of the type of groupthink mentality that has permeated the ASA, Whitfield told JNS.org.

“This is driven by a kind of groupthink and hostility to not only Israel, but to a broader assumption that conscience is inevitably on the side of those who claim to be oppressed,” he said.

Whitfield added that he believes the growth of Ethnic Studies within the American Studies discipline may have also played a role in the ASA’s hostility to Israel.

“What seems to be the case is the emergence of Ethnic Studies may have tilted the organization heavily in favor of people of color, in this case the Palestinians,” he said.

Ethnic Studies, which emerged from the civil rights movement of the 1960s and early ’70s, places an emphasis on the study non-European culture in the U.S, such as African-American Studies or Native American Studies.

But Ethnic Studies has also garnered considerable criticism, with some accusing it of “anti-Americanism”—former University of Colorado at Boulder Ethnic Studies professor Ward Churchill in 2005 blamed the 9/11 attacks on U.S. foreign policy.

The ASA’s focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, meanwhile, comes against the backdrop of a growing decline of interest in the humanities, as students and administrators are becoming less interested in the type of scholarship that is produced across that discipline today.

“In 2010, just 7 percent of college graduates nationally majored in the humanities, down from 14 percent in 1966,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

Much of this decline has been attributed to budget issues, rising tuition and student loan debt, and an overall lack of enthusiasm for the humanities by students, who flock to degrees in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields instead.

These problems are compounded by the fact that humanities majors are less likely to find jobs after they graduate. According to a report by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, graduates who majored in English faced a 9.8 percent unemployment rate, and for history, religion, and philosophy majors it was 9.5 percent. By comparison, chemistry graduates only faced a 5.6 percent unemployment rate, and education majors only 5 percent.

Stanford’s Fishkin told JNS.org that she hopes moves like the ASA boycott of Israel do not add to the apathy and dismay many students feel towards the humanities.

“It is important that many disciplines that make up the humanities remain at the core of a liberal education,” she said. “Literature, history, philosophy, and the arts can help us understand our aspirations and failings as human beings.”

Yet the ASA, according to Whitfield, discredits itself by veering away from its proper role and focusing on Israel.

“The interest in the historically intractable conflict in the Middle East is way beyond the focus of the ASA,” he said. “It is a distraction, a distortion, and it has nothing to do with the scholarly and group research purposes of the organization.”

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Relationships Yossi Vardi Credits Pushy Jewish Mother for His Startup Success

    Yossi Vardi Credits Pushy Jewish Mother for His Startup Success

    Millionaire entrepreneur Yossi Vardi credited his success in start-ups to his Jewish mother continuously pushing him to do better, Daily Mail reported on Thursday. “Jewish mothers are never satisfied and nothing is ever good enough,” he said, adding that his mother, who died 15 years ago, used to compare him with his cousins and say he was “an idiot.” “For most of my life I have been trying to show her I’m not,” he continued. “I keep on trying even now.” Vardi, […]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Seth Rogen Unveils New Christmas Movie — ‘Will Open on Thanksgiving, Made by Jews’ (VIDEO)

    Seth Rogen Unveils New Christmas Movie — ‘Will Open on Thanksgiving, Made by Jews’ (VIDEO)

    Famed actor Seth Rogen on Tuesday unveiled with typical comic fanfare the trailer for his new Christmas film. The movie “was made by Jews… and opens on Thanksgiving,” Rogen pointed out on Twitter. The Night Before tells the tale of three “ride or die homies” celebrating one last debauchery-filled Christmas Eve reunion before they become too busy to keep up their annual tradition. In an effort to make the night as memorable as possible, they set out to find the “Nutcracka Ball – the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish History Art Can Inspire Faith; It Can Also Empower Destructive Ideologies

    Art Can Inspire Faith; It Can Also Empower Destructive Ideologies

    A June 2015 art exhibit, “The Transformative Power of Art,” at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, harnessed the universal language of art to convey an important message: “Our fragile Mother Earth faces the devastating consequences of climate change, a defining challenge of our time.” The exhibit also included sixteen portraits of people from all over the world who have “contributed to the common good of humanity in one way or another and have transformed the way we […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports Israeli Muslim Cage Fighter Says He’s Proud to Fight Under Jewish State’s Flag

    Israeli Muslim Cage Fighter Says He’s Proud to Fight Under Jewish State’s Flag

    A 32-year-old Circassian Israeli Muslim Mixed Martial Arts fighter from Abu Ghosh says he takes pride in fighting under the Israeli flag, Israel’s Walla reported on Sunday. Like most Circassian Israelis, Jackie “the Punishment” Gosh was born Sunni Muslim. He became observant about eight years ago, and is now scrupulous in following his religion’s tenets, praying five times a day and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Gosh is also very proud of his Israeli nationality, and sees no contradiction between […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Music New Mark Skinner Documentary Explores Jewish, Arab Rap Scene in Israel (VIDEO)

    New Mark Skinner Documentary Explores Jewish, Arab Rap Scene in Israel (VIDEO)

    A new documentary explores the lives and work of Jewish and Arab rappers in Israel and how the ongoing conflict in the region has impacted their lyrics, the U.K.’s Jewish Chronicle reported on Thursday. Hip Hop in the Holy Land is a six-part series co-directed by Mike Skinner, the British frontman of hip-hop group The Streets, and produced by Noisey, a music channel published by Vice news. The first episode, published last week, shows Skinner meeting with Tamer Nafar, the founder of one of […]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada 49ers Running Back Jarryd Hayne Apologizes for ‘Hurtful’ Jesus Tweets

    49ers Running Back Jarryd Hayne Apologizes for ‘Hurtful’ Jesus Tweets

    New 49ers running back and Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne apologized on Wednesday for a tweet in which he raised the age-old myth that Jews were historically responsible for Jesus Christ’s death. Reaching out to his Jewish fans, and the chairman of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, Hayne tweeted: “To the Jewish community @DvirAbramovich #WeAreAllOne.” Underneath, he keenly included a screenshot of a text message to elaborate on his apology: “I sincerely apologize for my tweets on July 1. I […]

    Read more →
  • Theater Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Recalls Being ‘Extremely Surprised’ at Winning Miss Israel Contest

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Recalls Being ‘Extremely Surprised’ at Winning Miss Israel Contest

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot reminisced about her childhood in Israel during an interview published in this month’s edition of Vanity Fair. “I don’t remember this, but my mom told me that when I was three they threw a party on the rooftop of the house. They put me to bed, and I heard people coming into the house and no one came to me. I went to the rooftop and took a hose and I started to spray water on everyone, just […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Wounded Israeli Soldiers Unite With American Veterans to Help Their ‘Brothers for Life’ Heal (INTERVIEW)

    Wounded Israeli Soldiers Unite With American Veterans to Help Their ‘Brothers for Life’ Heal (INTERVIEW)

    An Israeli organization is helping wounded U.S. veterans move past their physical and psychological challenges by connecting them with injured Israeli soldiers who understand what they’ve been through. “What we discovered very early is that there’s no ‘professional, psychiatrist, social worker’ or anything like that [or] pills that can come even close to helping a soldier who fought in combat, who was wounded, who lost his friends. No one can help him like another person who’s been through exactly what he has,” Rabbi Chaim Levine, […]

    Read more →