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Speak Truth to Folly: Boycott the American Studies Association

By a two-thirds margin of the third of its 5,000 members who cast ballots, the American Studies Association (ASA) has passed a “Resolution on Academic Boycott of Israel,” joining the Association for Asian American Studies as the second U.S. academic professional association to boycott Israeli academic institutions for their complicity in the “Israeli occupation of Palestine” and various injustices related to it. Next up the Modern Language Association. The ASA has made its decision, to paraphrase that great perpetrator of American-settler colonialism, Andrew Jackson, and now Israeli universities need to figure out what just what exactly they can do so that the ASA might one day rescind its enforcement.

Unfortunately, the ASA provides little clue. Though its members would presumably object to a system of crime and punishment that delineates neither the terms of the crime, nor the length of the punishment, nor the means to achieve restitution for it—indeed, presumably that’s one of the many features of the “occupation” the ASA finds objectionable, as well it should—they have nevertheless enacted a measure that does just that.

“What is required for an Israeli university to no longer be subject to the boycott?” Well that, the ASA’s response begins, is a “difficult question to answer.” More difficulty ensues. “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 [BDS] movement has called for a boycott to be in effect until these conditions are met.”

Nowhere does the ASA explain what exactly “occupation” means: Are we talking about Jewish settlements across the 1967 green line and/or Jewish settlements since the United Nations General Assembly cast its vote in favor of the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1947 and/or something else? Nowhere does the ASA explain just what an “active role” in resisting the “occupation” would entail. But then again, how could it? If there is no specification of the charge (“occupation”), there can be no explication of what an “active role” in resisting it would involve.

As for the punishment—the boycott time to be served—the ASA says, in effect, we’ll let you know when the international BDS movement lets us know. In the meantime, all that movement can tell us is that the “boycott [is] to be in effect until these conditions”—i.e., ending said unspecified “occupation” through said unspecified “active role” in hastening its end—“are met.”

Boycott, divestment, and sanctions leaders like Omar Barghouti do spell out what they mean by “occupation,” i.e., the State of Israel as a Jewish state, which should be jettisoned in favor a single binational state. If this is what the ASA’s boycott resolution means by “occupation,” it should say so. Once that is cleared up, the ASA can provide guidance to Israeli universities on how to play an “active role” in resisting the “occupation,” be it the post-1947 version or the post-1967 version or some other version.

Barghouti and other boycott leaders insist that specificity on “occupation” is “irrelevant.” The “BDS movement … has consistently avoided taking any position regarding the one-state/two-states debate.” But what’s good for the BDS goose is not good for the ASA gander. Playing down potential points of divisiveness is a necessary condition for building a big tent, which is what political movements must do. Dodging conceptual clarity, however, is the antithesis of what academics do—or ought to do—however sympathetic we might be to this or that political movement and however disruptive such insistence upon clarity might be for political coalition building. The ASA has a different set of commitments to which it must attend than does a political movement. Intellectual precision must precede political mobilization. One does not have to oppose what BDS stands for to lament what the American Studies Association has done.

No less than Judith Butler—a leading proponent of the boycott and a supporter of the ASA resolution—recognizes that there are “reasonable views on several sides” of the issues at stake in the ASA’s resolution. That eight former ASA presidents, the American Association of University Professors, and even President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian National Authority, among others, have come out against the boycott of Israeli universities would seem to confirm Butler’s point. That the ASA National Council voted unanimously (18 to 0) to recommend the measure to its membership would seem to belie it.

No “new emergence of debate,” which Butler praises the BDS movement for sparking, appears to have taken place on the ASA National Council—at least not one that drew a lone dissenting vote. Nor was any such presentation of any of those other “reasonable views” Butler mentions evident on the ASA’s web page in the run up to the vote. Indeed, the web page not only omitted mentioning the AAUP’s opposition to the ASA’s resolution, but also neglected to post the AAUP’s open letter to the ASA explaining the AAUP’s reasoning, despite repeated calls by the professors’ group and others to do so.

Instead, the American Studies Association’s web page misleadingly implied AAUP approval of the resolution by invoking the AAUP as a fellow academic freedom fighter. If debate over the issues at stake in the ASA’s resolution “surely confirms the principle of academic freedom,” as Butler maintains, then the absence—indeed suppression—of such debate mocks the very academic freedom the ASA resolution purports to champion. Members of the American Studies Asspciation could not find in their learned society’s web page the perfectly reasonable argument of the AAUP and others that expanding academic freedom in one direction by restricting it in another violates the basic principles of free expression and open exchange of ideas that are the lifeblood of scholarly inquiry. No wonder the final vote was so lopsided.

But what’s done is done, and while Israeli universities can puzzle over how to undo it, the American Studies Association can perhaps now turn its attention closer to home, to the America that is, after all, its unit of analysis. In particular, maybe the ASA can take up the occupation that American Indians remind us is occurring quite literally under our noses. I’m sure the Oglala Lakota would welcome the ASA’s assistance in reclaiming something bigger and better than Pine Ridge Reservation. Ditto for the Ohlone, who once occupied the land now occupied by my colleagues, the university that employs us, and me. No doubt, the Ohlone would be happy to have the ASA’s help in securing something more than the sidewalk the City of Berkeley has named in their honor. Boycott our backyards, I say.

Boycott our universities, too. After all, if it’s U.S. money to Israel that helped justify the American Studies Association’s targeting of the Jewish state, why not boycott all of us who get high off that drug? I’m sure our dealer would welcome the refund.

Once the ASA finishes with America, perhaps it can then turn to other settler-colonial nations. Justice delayed should not be justice denied by the kind of arbitrary statute of limitations that the late historian Tony Judt once applied to distinguish Israel—an “anachronism”—from other settler-colonial nations. Nor should the ASA draw the line at rogue states whose oppressed make a direct appeal to the ASA to boycott their oppressor, as the current association president, Curtis Marez, said about his organization’s targeting of Israel: “Whereas the current resolution answers the call of Palestinian civil society, to my knowledge there has never been a similar call for boycott from the civil society in another country.” Since when did doing the right thing require an invitation? The world waits. The ASA shouldn’t: Boycott all bad states. This, Marez reassures us, is precisely where his organization is headed. “One has to start somewhere,” he says, about why begin with Israel. Who’s next?

Finally, if all this boycotting hits too close to home or seems like too much to tackle, just do this: Speak truth to folly and boycott the ASA.

Mark Brilliant is an associate professor in the department of history and the program in American studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

Update (12/16/2013, 5:55 p.m.): Details have been added in the fifth paragraph to clarify the American Studies Association’s position on the boycott.

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