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October 22, 2014 7:32 am

Is the ASA Backpedaling on its Israel Boycott?

avatar by Eliana Rudee

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A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia, on June 5, 2010. Photo: Mohamed Ouda via Wikimedia Commons.

The American Studies Association (ASA) is preparing to host its annual meeting next month at The Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. Back in 2013, the ASA voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions and Israeli scholars, “endorsing” and resolving to “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”

On October 13, the American Center for Justice and Law (ACJL) sent a letter to the Westin Bonaventure’s general manager notifying him of the hotel’s “liability under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act for aiding the ASA in enforcement of [an] unlawful discriminatory policy at the Annual Meeting on the premises of the Westin Bonaventure.”

The ACJL letter cites Section 51b of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which states that no business establishment of any kind whatsoever shall discriminate againstboycott or blacklist, or refuse to buy from, contract with, sell to, or trade with any person based on religion or national origin. The ACJL letter further contends, “the exclusionary policy [of the ASA’s upcoming conference] is likely to have a disparate impact on Jewish Israelis—thereby discriminating on the bases of race and religion.” The Act states, “Whoever denies, aids or incites a denial, or makes any discrimination or distinction contrary to Section 51 . . . is liable for each and every offense for the actual damages.”

The ACJL asks the Westin Bonaventure to respond to the letter within 5 days, indicating their position on “whether they will allow the discriminatory and unlawful Boycott rules to be applied at the Annual Meeting on the Westin Bonaventure’s premises.”

“The fact that the ASA is boycotting Israeli academics and institutions is a shameful act of bigotry. The ASA remains silent about the myriad of other conflicts in the world and has unjustly singled out Israel for punishment. The ASA is violating American values with their bigotry and should be shamed and condemned for its deplorable policy,” said Roz Rothstein, CEO of the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs. “We commend the ACLJ for taking this bold step against the bigotry and shortsightedness of the ASA.

Pressure and/or bad publicity from groups such as StandWithUs and ACJL may have taken their toll on the ASA. In response to an editorial by Eugene Kontorovich in the Washington Post that described the “adopted policy” as “exclusionary restrictions based on their national origin,” ASA’s executive director, John Stephens, demanded a “correction” from Kontorovich, claiming his description was “false,” contradicting the ASA written policy, claiming:

“Our conference is open to anyone, including Israeli academics and non-academics. If someone were to register for the conference as a representative of an Israeli institution, he or she would not be turned away.”

Kontorovich points out, “So according to the ASA, scholars who are ‘representatives or ambassadors’ (whatever that means) are barred; but according to their executive director, a ‘representative’ would not be ‘turned away.’ Of course, this could just mean that the ASA has decided to selectively enforce its discriminatory rules.”

In the past few days the ASA website has been revised with a footnote:

“Israeli academics will be in attendance at the 2014 convention. The ASA will not prohibit anyone from registering or participating in its annual conference.” This cache shows the website before the ACJL pointed out that the annual conference may be a violation of civil rights law.

David French, ACLJ Senior Counsel, told Paul Miller of the Franklin Center for Government & Integrity, “I think our letter, combined with the mounting publicity, caused the ASA to make the changes. If it truly is the case that the ASA (and thereby the hotel) will not prohibit anyone from registering or participating in its conference, then there is no need for legal action. Actions matter more than words, however.”

Multiple inquiries to the ASA about no longer singling out Israel and if additional boycotts are being considered have also gone unanswered.

A spokesman for The Westin Bonaventure hotel informed the Franklin Center that they have responded to the ACLJ and are “committed to meeting the requirements of the Unruh Civil Rights Act at all times,” and “we do not choose, nor refuse, to do business based upon ideologies or affiliations. In addition, the American Studies Association (ASA) has publicly affirmed that anyone can register and will be welcomed at their upcoming conference.”

Eliana Rudee is a contributor to the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. Follow her @ellierudee.

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