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ASA-Awarded Scholars Denounce Israeli Boycott, Call For Revote

One dozen decorated members of the American Studies Association have denounced the scholarly group’s recent controversial decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions and have called for a revote.

The association defines the parameters of the boycott, approved last month, to be in part “limited to a refusal on the part of the ASA in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions … ”

It lists a parade of grievances as well, including “U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions … (and) the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students.”

Not all members of the ASA are in support of the boycott, however, with dissent even coming from the top levels of the organization’s membership.

Twelve out of nineteen recipients of the association’s Turpie Award – given for outstanding teaching and program development – prepared and signed a statement expressing their disapproval of the boycott, according to a copy obtained by The College Fix.

The scholars include Simon J. Bronner of Penn State University, Robert Gross of William and Mary, Daniel Horowitz of Smith College, Joy Kasson of University of Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jay Mechling of University of California Davis, Jesper Rosenmeier of Tufts University, Michael Aaron Rockland of Rutgers University, Lois Rudnick of University of Massachusetts Boston, Eric Sandeen of University of Wyoming, and Richard Slotkin of Wesleyan University.

They’re all long-time members of the ASA, and they question what the future ramifications of supporting the boycott could be for the organization, stating “having devoted our academic careers to building American Studies on our campuses and as an international field of study, we wish to express our concern about the future of the ASA and of our shared intellectual enterprise.”

The scholars call the boycott “wrong in principle,” explaining their objections in the statement.

The boycott fundamentally contradicts the organization’s function, according to the scholars, arguing “it is at odds with the purpose of the American Studies Association, which the ASA constitution defines as ‘the promotion of the study of American culture through the encouragement of research, teaching, publication, the strengthening of relations among persons and institutions in this country and abroad devoted to such studies, and the broadening of knowledge among the general public about American culture in all its diversity and complexity’.”

“We are strongly opposed to the Israeli occupation and the Israeli government’s policies in the Occupied Territory, including the continued expansion of settlements. But the principle at stake here has nothing to do with the merits of arguments about Israeli policy,” the scholars explain.

Although they disagree with Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories, the scholars state it’s “unwarranted to to claim that Israeli policies in the Occupied Territory ‘directly affect our work as scholars and teachers’ of American culture.”

According to the scholars, the effect of the boycott could be felt by the same people the boycott aims to help.

“The proposed boycott may undercut the very groups in Israel working for dialogue and peace with Palestinians,” they state. “Israeli universities are one of the primary loci of opposition to government policies, and of joint projects in aid of Palestinian scholars, students, and educational institutions.”

Furthermore, the scholars assert the vote does not accurately represent the sentiments of the organization’s members, noting that out of a membership of nearly 5,000, only 828 members voted in favor of the boycott resolution.

The poll among American Studies Association members last month attracted 1,252 voters, with 66 percent endorsing the boycott, 30.5 percent voters against, and nearly 4 percent abstained.

“The boycott resolution divides the membership of the association by taking a political position that is extraneous to its statement of purpose, and impedes the ‘strengthening of relations among persons and institutions in this country and abroad devoted to such studies,’ ” the statement reads.

“We believe that this call for a boycott does a grave disservice to an organization and an academic field to which we have devoted our personal lives,” it concludes. “We therefore ask the president and the Council of the ASA to reopen the discussion for a longer and fuller conversation among the membership, allow a new vote, and restore our proud tradition of full and free discussion, tolerance, and dissent.”

Presently, the Council of the ASA has yet to revisit the issue and a revote had not been scheduled.

Richard Slotkin, professor emeritus of American studies at Wesleyan University and a member of the association since 1966, is among those who signed the statement opposing the boycott.

“I am myself strongly opposed to the Israeli government’s policies in the Occupied Territories, and (in other forums) support a call for ‘disinvestment’ by universities as a way of directly pressuring the Israeli government,” Slotkin states on the ASA website.

Slotkin asserts “the call to boycott is wrong in principle, politically impotent, intellectually dishonest, and morally obtuse.” He also questions why impose sanctions on Israel “when so many other states are worse violators of human rights and UN resolutions.”

“The ASA cannot credibly accuse Israeli universities of systematically violating the canons of academic freedom. Israeli universities are one of the primary loci of opposition to government policies, and of joint projects in aid of Palestinian scholars, students and educational institutions,” Slotkin stated.

While there is plenty of support for the boycott, it has drawn harsh criticism from many other well established American Studies scholars, long-term members of the ASA, and globally.

According to the Jerusalem Post , “more than 90 American universities have released statements rejecting the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions so far, and several have cut ties with the organization in protest.”

Last month, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, spoke out against the boycott, labeling it as “shameful” and a “travesty.”

“The singling out of the Jewish state for boycott is no different than the many attempts throughout history to single out Jews and hold them to a different standard,” Dermer said.

Dermer, like the dissenting Turpie scholars, question the validity of the boycott: “Rather than standing up for academic freedom and human rights by boycotting countries where professors are imprisoned for their views, the ASA chooses as its first ever boycott to boycott Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East, in which academics are free to say what they want, write what they want and research what they want.”

William Kelly, interim chancellor of the City University of New York, also condemned the boycott, and like others, cited academic freedom: “The free exchange of ideas is at the heart of the academic enterprise. Any effort to impede that flow is antithetical to the values that universities hold most dear.”

The George Washington University, in a prepared statement, said the university will not sever ties with Israel, that it “has multiple academic, research and programmatic relationships with Israeli institutions and plans to continue these relationships as well as explore new ones.”

“We continue to believe that academic exchanges and conversations lead to better understanding between nations and people of differing views.”

And former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, now the president of the University of California, joined other top universities in condemning the boycott.

“The University of California prides itself on a rich tradition of free speech and diversity of thought,” she stated. “Universities depend on the unrestrained exchange of ideas, and it is our role to defend academic freedom and our scholars’ ability to pursue research of their choice.”

“An academic boycott goes against the spirit of the University of California, which has long championed open dialogue and collaboration with international scholars.”

This is the first installment of a two-part series on the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions. This article examines the opinions of those against the decision. Click here to read part two, which reports on those who support it.

College Fix contributor Julianne Stanford is a student at University of Arizona.

IMAGE: Zeevveez/Flickr

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About the Author
Julianne Stanford -- University of Arizona