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...

  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    Eddie Carmel, dubbed “The Jewish Giant” by American photographer Diane Arbus, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit opening April 11 at The Jewish Museum in New York. Arbus met Carmel, who was billed “The World’s Tallest Man,” at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in 1959 but waited until 1970 to photograph him at his parents’ home in the Bronx, according to the museum. The son of immigrants from Tel Aviv, Carmel posed for Arbus with his head bowed to [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    A Passover themed cover of hit songs Let It Go and Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from Disney’s Frozen has attracted tons of media buzz and a cool 65,ooo views on YouTube within days of going online. The work of Jewish a capella group Six13, the track is aptly named Chozen. We are celebrating “our freedom, our favorite festival, our fabulous fans, and aspiring Disney princesses everywhere” the group said. The Chozen music video tells the story of [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    JNS.org – Many young Jewish artists struggle to define who they are personally, artistically, and religiously. Against the backdrop of that struggle, the recent Asylum Arts International Jewish Artists Retreat provided a space for some 70 young Jewish artists to explore Jewish ideas, to build community and a culture of reciprocity, and to learn skills to assist their career development. “We are trying to encourage and excite people to engage in Jewish themes,” says Rebecca Guber, director of Asylum Arts. [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    JNS.org – Has the era of large-scale biblical epics returned? Not since “The Ten Commandments” has there been so much torrential water on the big screen (not counting weather-related disaster films such as “The Impossible”) than in “Noah,” the latest blockbuster from writer and director Darren Aronofsky. “Noah” takes the traditional tale and splices it in an eco-friendly and psychologically driven plot. After Adam and Eve got booted out of the Garden of Eden and after Cain killed Abel, mankind [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Israel Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    JNS.org – An Israeli-Arab microbiologist and mother of three won the fourth season of Israel’s most popular reality TV show, “MasterChef.” Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, 32, who holds a PhD in microbiology and is from the Israeli-Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, described winning as the “the most exciting moment in her life.” She said she plans to use the prize money to open up an Arab-Jewish cooking school. MasterChef is a popular reality TV show that originated in the U.K. It is [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Theater Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Jewish comedian and writer David Baddiel is seeking public support to help produce a musical based on his film about a British Muslim man who discovers his parents are Jewish. London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East is in development to premiere The Infidel in October, London’s Evening Standard reported on Wednesday. However, the theater needs another £55,000 on top of around £200,000 already raised in order to produce the show. Baddiel, 49, retained the stage rights to the story when he wrote the [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Relationships Love Guru Says Kaballah Practitioners Tend to Have ‘Less Satisfactory’ Relationships

    Love Guru Says Kaballah Practitioners Tend to Have ‘Less Satisfactory’ Relationships

    British relationship expert Andrew Wallas said Kaballah practitioners are likely to be less satisfied in their personal relationships than other couples, Britain’s Daily Mail reported Wednesday. “All the research is that individuals who have an interest in psychology or spirituality or who practice something like Kaballah (the branch of Jewish mysticism popularized by Madonna) are less likely to have satisfactory relationships,” he said. “A lifetime spent doing self-improvement workshops can just be a case of someone running away from reality.” [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Meet New York’s 6’7″ Jew Who Will Rap for You (VIDEO)

    Meet New York’s 6’7″ Jew Who Will Rap for You (VIDEO)

    He’s a 6’7″ Jewish freestyle rapper who roams the streets of New York delivering his rhymes to unsuspecting passersby. Te’Devan, who calls himself the “6’7″ Jew who will rap for you” was recently profiled by the Gothamist blog. In a video posted Monday on YouTube, as part of the website’s No Your City eight-part series created by Nicolas Heller, Te’Devan is seen rapping about “not trying to conform to the status quo” and his mission to “be what I’m supposed to be.” [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.