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. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Playboy Columnist Calls Israel’s ‘Burning Man’ Festival ‘Ultimate Revenge on Hitler’

    Playboy Columnist Calls Israel’s ‘Burning Man’ Festival ‘Ultimate Revenge on Hitler’

    The Israeli version of the famed American Burning Man music festival is the “ultimate revenge on Hitler,” according to a column in Playboy magazine on Thursday. In his column, Jeff Weiss also took note of the fact that Midburn — a five-day bacchanal in the Negev Desert, self-described as an event celebrating “a communal life style, creativity, art and radical self-expression” — began on June 8, the day of the Sarona Market terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, which left four people dead. Weiss asked rhetorically, “What could needle the mustached […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Some punk rockers integrate their Jewish identity into their music through food, the author of a new book on the topic told The Algemeiner on Wednesday. Michael Croland, author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, described the way different musicians express this connection. “One band is known for throwing gefilte fish in the mosh pit, and people at its concert slide around on it while dancing,” he recounted. “Another used to drink Manischewitz [sweet kosher] wine out of a shofar [the ram […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    The manager of Scotland’s Celtic soccer club lauded Israel, after his team won a match against the Jewish state’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night. Brendan Rodgers said at a post-match press conference: On behalf of the players, the people of Celtic and Scotland, Israel’s been fantastic for us. We came out here on Sunday, [and from] the hotel, the staff, we’ve been very, very warmly received. The atmosphere at the game was amazing and, obviously, one team has to lose, but you have a wonderful team here, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    For the second time, Israel will host the Jaffa Jazz Festival, according to Broadwayworld.com. The festival will unite 43 Israeli musicians and eight international artists for a three-day event. The program will include a special performance by an ensemble of top jazz students studying at Belgium’s Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, the Belgrade Music Academy in Serbia, Israel’s Rimon School of Music and the jazz program of the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv. There will also be a jazz show for children led by Israeli saxophonist […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    JNS.org – As a young boy growing up in Ashdod, Israel, Alon Day got his first go-kart at age 9. By 15, he was racing them. Less than a decade later, Day has become the first Israeli professional race car driver on the NASCAR circuit. He made history by competing in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 13. “Driving a race car is not like any other sport,” Day told JNS.org. “You are actually almost flying […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    The writer of a popular children’s television series will premiere an off-Broadway solo show called “Not That Jewish,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Written and performed by Monica Piper — the Emmy Award-winning showrunner of Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats” — the show is described as “the autobiographical telling of a Jew…’ish’ girl’s life.” “Not That Jewish” explores Piper’s Bronx upbringing in a show-business family, her comedy-club debut and her “almost” night with former Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. “Audiences can expect to leave laughed-out, a little teary-eyed and […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scotland’s Celtic soccer club will fly to Israel with the same private jet Madonna used while on tour, The Scotsman reported on Monday. According to the report, the team is heading for the Jewish state to compete against Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night, and will be transported in the customized, luxurious Boeing 757-200 that the pop icon used in New Zealand for her six-month Rebel Heart tour, which wrapped up in March. The plane is on loan from Greece-based GainJet Aviation and can accommodate 62 passengers. The […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Revealed: Actor Jonah Hill Officiated at Wedding of Fellow Jewish Star, Singer Adam Levine

    Revealed: Actor Jonah Hill Officiated at Wedding of Fellow Jewish Star, Singer Adam Levine

    Jewish actor Jonah Hill revealed on Wednesday morning that he had officiated the wedding of good friend and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine. The “War Dogs” actor, 32, was a guest on Sirius XM’s The Howard Stern Show when the conversation turned to Levine’s July 2014 wedding to Victoria’s Secret model Behati Prinsloo. Hill said that after he was asked to officiate the nuptials, he started getting worried about the type of speech he was going to deliver. “I’m writing all these things, and then I […]

    Read more →