One Side Fits All: An Interesting Development @ #2013ASA

November 22, 2013, 10:51 am

Take a look at the following screen shot, and tell me what you see.

Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 9.46.01 AM

The first tweet, at the bottom, reports on what sounds like an outstanding presentation by Duke University’s Fred Moten. Moten was arguing in support of an intellectual boycott of Israel being considered by the National Council of the American Studies Association on Sunday. If I am understanding his, and the tweeter’s, argument correctly, it is an established position of PACBI: that Palestinians have no academic freedom, and therefore the issue is null. The corollary to this is that freedom of speech among US academics, and concerns that an institutional boycott of Israel will constrain the academic freedom of those employed by Israeli institutions (unless they are explicitly aligned with BDS) is a privileged, bourgeois concern that whitewashes the reality of the ongoing Occupation.

I would like to point out, however, that a “one-sided appeal for academic freedom” is an oxymoron: you either believe in free speech or you don’t; you either believe in academic freedom or you don’t. There are plenty of people whose noxious and bizarre behavior would have gotten them fired years ago were it not for principles of academic freedom. Go and read the AAUP’s Censure List if you don’t believe me. Years ago I had a colleague at Zenith who taught a course on pornography and became on object of public attack: when the university tried to punish her for it after the fact, even colleagues who thought pornography was vile and an unsuitable academic subject stood up for her because they believed it was an appropriate exercise of academic freedom.

Back to the Twitter feed pictured above: the second tweet points ASA attendees to a table where they can get the information BDS wants them to have about the boycott, including the stock answers to commonly asked questions that often show up on this blog and elsewhere.  These are what politicians call talking points: they are intended to inform, but also to steer the conversation and imply that other questions, and other answers, are not legitimate. But since we believe in academic freedom: What’s wrong with this picture?

On the face of it, nothing. ASA officers and committee members pushing this resolution on the membership insist that they followed every rule and procedure properly. I believe them, and have been reassured by an excellent source within the ASA that I am right to believe them. You should too.

But the fact is that there is no well-prepared table for those of us who question this resolution, with “clear and helpful handouts.”  The program is not stacked with roundtables and panels populated with academic stars, that have been designed to promote or brainstorm a non-BDS approach, an approach that might both address the human rights violations in Israel and the Occupied Territories and preserve academic freedom. How did that happen?

It happened because BDS activists had a year to prepare and those troubled by the resolution had about five days. No one in the membership who I have talked to, supporters and non-supporters of the resolution, knew it was under discussion. No one outside the ASA leadership knew that this resolution was under discussion. We did not know we might need to organize to have our voices heard. No one was given a choice to come to this meeting to engage in vigorous, well-prepared advocacy for other ways of addressing this humanitarian crisis.

So who, exactly, is promoting a one-sided view of the boycott?

I am not advocating the promotion of panels justifying the Occupation, although others might. I am suggesting that alternatives to the academic boycott are not fully available because the membership was not notified that this resolution has been under discussion throughout 2013, giving BDS supporters in key positions at the ASA the best chance to construct a strategy and a program committee that, in turn, gave them the best chance to persuade the Council that the majority of the membership would support it.

Another source tells me that there was an alternative approach floated, which many of us opposed to the BDS resolution could have approved: that the ASA adopt a Statement, condemning the Occupation, the expansion of the settlements, and the human right violations and the suppressions of cultural and intellectual freedom that are key to suppressing Palestinian political equality. Why was this not a choice offered to the membership?

But alternative approaches, and compromises, are not part of the PACBI Guidelines, which, contrary to BDS organizers’ protest, do explicitly target individuals unless they those individuals are, themselves, willing to follow PACBI Academic Boycott Guidelines. Start with item four and you will see this item: as an act of “civil resistance” to the Occupation, supporters are urged to “Work toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations.” No other resolution that I am aware of has been part of a political program that puts the ASA at the service of another political organization. Keep reading, taking particular note of what is in bold, and the boycott of individuals that is expressly stated at the bottom of this excerpt:

Before discussing the various categories of academic activities that fall under the boycott call, and as a general overriding rule, it is important to stress that all Israeli academic institutions, unless proven otherwise, are complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights, whether through their silence, actual involvement in justifying, whitewashing or otherwise deliberately diverting attention from Israel’s violations of international law and human rights, or indeed through their direct collaboration with state agencies in the design and commission of these violations. Accordingly, these institutions, all their activities, and all the events they sponsor or support must be boycotted. Events and projects involving individuals explicitly representing these complicit institutions should be boycotted, by the same token. Mere institutional affiliation to the Israeli academy is therefore not a sufficient condition for applying the boycott.

Go to the open meetings. Ask these questions. Ask why the ASA should become an arm of PACBI, and where this leaves members who do not support a PACBI or BDS approach. And think about this: if the resolution is so straightforward, compelling and ethical, why was the vast majority of the membership not informed of it, and our views sought, in a timely way?

The best thing the National Council could do at this point would be to not take an up or down vote, but to table this resolution until a more democratic process can occur in 2013.

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