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January 1, 2014 12:33 pm

Breaking Down the ASA’s Decision to Boycott Israel

avatar by Alexander Joffe

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Introduction

A variety of BDS activities took place during December but were overshadowed by the American Studies Association’s (ASA) adoption of a BDS resolution. Though the ASA is a minor academic organization, this BDS move has attracted widespread attention and is likely to be a turning point.

Analysis: Passing the ASA’s BDS Resolution

In November the National Council of the American Studies Association debated a BDS resolution that originated with the organization’s Academic and Community Activism Caucus. The resolution was proposed at the last minute and the debate was dominated by pro-BDS voices. These are typical BDS tactics. The National Council then unanimously agreed to put the resolution forward to the entire ASA membership for a vote.

During the two week voting period eight former presidents of the ASA issued a public statement urging members to reject the resolution, as did the American Association of University Professors. Of approximately 5000 members, the ASA stated that 1252 voted, of whom 66% voted in favor of the resolution while 30% objected. The motion was thus passed by approximately 16% of the ASA’s total membership.

The background of the ASA and the resolution requires separate discussion. The ASA is a second tier academic organization with a strong anti-imperialist and anti-American orientation, and a notable history of promoting connections with a regime-connected Iranian academic. The boycott resolution was put forward by ASA activists who have promoted BDS in other settings. It faithfully follows the templates provided by the (PACBI), U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

The ASA Resolution

The ASA has issued several statements articulating what the boycott resolution actually means. The key argument is that “Israeli academic institutions function as a central part of a system that has denied Palestinians their basic rights” and that “By responding to the call from Palestinian civil society for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, the ASA recognizes that 1) there is no effective or substantive academic freedom afforded to Palestinians under the conditions of Israeli occupation; and that 2) Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights.” These blanket indictments of Israeli universities and academics as being intrinsic elements to the “occupation” are standard BDS rhetoric.

The ASA will therefore refuse “to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others), or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.” The resolution is “expressly not endorsing a boycott of Israeli scholars engaged in individual-level contacts and ordinary forms of academic exchange, including presentations at conferences, public lectures at campuses, and collaboration on research and publication.” This formula singles out academics with administrative responsibilities, as all academics do at one time or another.

The ASA denies that the boycott of Israeli scholars and institutions constitute a restriction on academic freedom “but helps to extend it” since “The goal of the academic boycott is to contribute to the larger movement for social justice in Israel/Palestine that seeks to expand, not further restrict, the rights to education and free inquiry.” This formula is contradictory.

But the terms of what constitutes “social justice in Israel/Palestine” is clarified by statements regarding the conditions in which the boycott could be lifted. At one point the statement indicates that boycott will continue “until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.” Presumably the ASA will follow the lead of Palestinian supporters of BDS in deciding if any when these conditions have been met.

What those conditions actually will be, however, is articulated (possibly inadvertently) by the ASA statement: “The boycott is designed to put real and symbolic pressure on universities to take an active role in ending the Israeli occupation and in extending equal rights to Palestinians. The international boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement has called for a boycott to be in effect until these conditions are met. (Click here.)”

Since the international BDS movement advocates for the “right of return” that will dissolve Israel as an independent Jewish state, the ASA effectively advocates Israel’s destruction.

Reactions to the ASA

The ASA resolution has produced an unprecedented level of media coverage. The responses have been overwhelmingly negative. The sheer quantity of news items and negative comments suggest that the ASA has, perhaps again inadvertently, elevated BDS to a new level. It has unquestionably catalyzed unprecedented opposition.

Criticism of the ASA has been widespread across the political spectrum, notably an editorial in the Washington Post that characterized the resolution as “utterly narrow-minded” and which pointed out the ASA’s failure to boycott countries with far worse human rights records. Criticism has also come from far-left journals like The Nation and left-center publications like The New Republic, along with numerous publications and commentators from the center and right. The Jewish left organization J Street condemned the resolution, as did the Jewish weekly The Forward. Several commentators on the left, including Peter Beinart, have also condemned the move. Some commentators from the left have pointed to the ASA as a move that will marginalize progressive causes on campus.

The negative responses from the political and cultural left suggest that BDS was either unknown or not taken seriously in these quarters. Conversely, the negative responses suggest that BDS supporters also overestimated the support from the mainstream cultural and political left. In that sense the ASA resolution may ultimately be a Pyrrhic victory for BDS in academia.

More substantively, the ASA resolution has prompted a series of responses from academic institutions and leaders. At least five schools, Brandeis University, Penn State Harrisburg, Kenyon College, and Indiana University have dropped their institutional memberships, while others have denied that they are in fact institutional members of the ASA. Reports also indicate that several individuals have also given up their memberships.

Reactions from academic organizations have been negative, including the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Universities, and their leadership. Leaders of an increasing number of universities have issued statements condemning the ASA resolution, such as the chancellor of the University of California, San Diego, who reaffirmed “the right of the faculty to advance their scholarship and research through open dialogue with academic colleagues in all countries.” A similar statement was issued by the chancellor of the University of Alabama system, and the president of Yale University. The president of Wesleyan University also published an op-ed condemning the ASA boycott.

Cornell University law professor William Jacobson has taken a leading role in soliciting public statements from university presidents and organizing a crowd-sourcing effort to expand these contacts. On his website he has posted email responses from several university presidents, including Princeton, Boston University, and Willamette condemning the ASA boycott, along with Indiana University, Washington University in St. Louis, George Washington University, Northwestern University, Cornell University, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, Harvard University, John Hopkins University, New York University, Middlebury College, and many others.

Jacobson has noted several times on his web site that boycotts are illegal under American law and indicated that he will spearhead a challenge to the ASA’s tax exempt (501(C) 3) status. The legal restrictions on boycotts by American organizations have also been extensively described by Israeli attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, founder of Shurat HaDin – Israel Law Center. Here, too, the ASA’s victory appears to have created unforeseen effects that will have a negative impact on BDS in academia.

Of equal note are responses emerging from political quarters. In an interview with Charlie Rose, former Harvard University president and Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers reiterated his previous position that BDS is antisemitic in practice if not intent and called on university leaders to shun the ASA. Heads of the bipartisan Congressional Israel Allies Caucus also voiced their disappointment, a move that suggests legislative moves may be forthcoming. New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind has called on the New York State Attorney General to address the ASA’s “violation of New York State’s Human Rights Law.“

Israeli academics have also weighed in. Martin Kramer, president of Shalem College, a new liberal arts college based in Jerusalem, has pointed out that the ASA has now articulated a specific demand to boycott him. Former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren, now a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, has reviewed the history of anti-Israel boycotts and American Congressional responses making those illegal. Other Israeli academics have, belatedly, expressed fears that the ASA resolution may lead to other attacks on Israel academics and institutions.

Finally, Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas has stated his opposition to boycotts of Israel, except for products of Israeli communities beyond the “Green Line.” Predictably, however, Palestinian Authority representatives in South Africa have backtracked and issued another statement in which Abbas is said to express his “deep appreciation” for the BDS movement.

After the passage of the resolution the ASA adopted a defensive stance. It posted a series of talking points on its web site to guide members and also purged its Facebook page of critical comments. These moves indicate that the organization is attempting to shape the debate over the resolution but imply that the leadership has been surprised by the negative reaction. When questioned, ASA president Curtis Marez acknowledged that Israel was not the world’s leading human rights abuser but stated that “one has to start somewhere.“ This formulation elicited considerable ridicule from observers.

Reports indicate that before and after the resolution that individual ASA members were subjected to pressure and harassment by BDS supporters. A notice posted on the ASA Facebook page and reposted at pro-BDS websites such as Mondoweiss have complained about “abuse” and “intimidation” from opponents of the BDS resolution. Unspecified legal action has also been threatened against critics of the ASA resolution. Supporters of the ASA from within the BDS movement have also complained that criticism of the resolution violates their academic freedom. BDS supporters have generally characterized the negative responses as having been orchestrated by the “Israel Lobby.” Claiming harassment and infringement on academic freedom, when these are precisely their tactics and goals, are standard for the BDS movement.

A major question is which academic organizations will follow the ASA’s lead. The national council of the tiny Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) quickly announced its support for BDS on the basis of ” illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the legal structures of the Israeli state that systematically discriminate against Palestinians and other Indigenous peoples.” The statement either is unaware of or deliberately ignores the fact that Jews are indigenous to the territory of the State of Israel, as are Israelis to their own state.

Of greater significance are BDS movements in the Modern Language Association (MLA). In January, a panel on BDS will be held at the annual MLA meeting. The panel is billed as informational but consists solely of BDS supporters, including David Lloyd, who had been a leader of the ASA BDS effort, as well as a contributor to the AAUP’s BDS issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom. This is a standard BDS tactic, where dedicated “scholar-activists” go from one venue to another, representing support for BDS in purely impartial, academic terms while in fact the deck is fully stacked against Israel.

To summarize, the ASA BDS resolution has created an unprecedented opposition across the political spectrum and from academic, cultural, and political leaders. The long-term results are difficult to predict but it is likely that the ASA affair has changed the landscape for BDS debates in the United States.

In other news, BDS activities continued in December on a broad spectrum of political, economic and cultural fronts.

Reports indicate that European Union (EU) pressure on Israel to successfully conclude peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority has increased in the wake of the agreement ensuring Israeli participation in Horizon 2020, a seven year, €80 billion scientific, technical and industrial project. Israeli participation had been stalled for several months over EU political proposals that would have forbidden funds to or participation of Israeli institutions or individuals located across the “Green Line.” These issues were apparently overcome through a compromise statement suggesting that Horizon 2020 could restrict Israeli funding and participation but was not automatically obligated to do so. Concurrently, 28 EU foreign ministers promised “unprecedented“ aid to both Israel and the Palestinians should an agreement be concluded.

This carrot and stick approach from the EU’s political authorities, as opposed to the technocratic authorities who oversee Horizon 2020 and who were anxious to ensure Israeli participation, demonstrate the manner in which Israel is both linked and unlinked from BDS in Europe. Political authorities occasionally, and sometimes nominally, support the BDS agenda, while scientific and industrial concerns, both public and private, and almost uniformly opposed.

Other examples of political linkage also emerged in December. In one case, a document issued by the British Ministry of Trade and Industry described the “key security and political risks which UK businesses may face when operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” With regard to economic activities involving Israeli communities or industries across the “Green Line” the report states there are “clear risks related to economic and financial activities in the settlements, and we do not encourage or offer support to such activity.” Interestingly, the British Consulate in Jerusalem is listed as the contact, suggesting that local British diplomats may be developing or describing policy in different terms than their ministerial superiors in London.

In another case a Dutch company severed its relations with the Israeli water company Mekorot over the latter’s operations in the West Bank. Reports indicated the company made the move after consultations with the Dutch Foreign Ministry. In response, the Israeli government summoned the Dutch ambassador to Israel to protest what were called “ambiguous” Dutch statements regarding boycotts of Israel. The Dutch move was praised by Palestinian officials.

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