Why the ASA’s Israel boycott won

A Palestinian man reads an Israeli order temporarily closing the studies center of Al-Quds University, in occupied Jerusalem’s Old City on 1 October 2013, to prevent a press conference by the Coalition for Jerusalem.

Saeed Qaq APA images

“Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you want them to understand” – Frantz Fanon

The American Studies Association (ASA) has released the results of a membership vote on a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, which was approved unanimously by the organization’s National Council on 4 December 2013.

The move to seek the approval of membership was unusual, a tacit concession to the shrinking contingent of Zionists in the ASA, but the surest way to determine where membership stands on a contentious issue.

The membership made its stance remarkably clear: in a landslide victory, 66.05 percent of voters endorsed the resolution, with 30.5 percent disapproving and 3.43 percent abstaining. In all, 1,252 members participated in the largest ASA vote in history.

Majoritarianism in itself is never a guarantee of ethical propriety. In this case, however, the majority got it right.

Given the level of hyperbole and misinformation surrounding the resolution, it is important to clarify what the resolution does and does not do.

The Resolution does not:

  • Target individual Israeli citizens for isolation or castigation. The resolution conveys the ASA’s resolute support for universal academic freedom, explaining that the association is “cognizant of Israeli scholars” and “supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine.”

  • Endorse or validate anti-Semitism. For a full analysis of the problems with this claim, see here.

  • Force ASA members to do anything they don’t want to do. The ASA boycotts Hyatt Hotels because of the company’s poor labor practices. However, the ASA has no power to prevent anybody from staying at a Hyatt. The boycott resolution articulates an institutional commitment, but makes no binding demand on individual members.

  • Break any laws. A popular response by opponents of the resolution has been to threaten lawsuits. These threats have no merit. The resolution is not in any way illegal.

The Resolution does:

  • Highlight Israeli oppression.

  • Support the academic freedom of Palestinians by condemning structures of occupation that limit their movement, expression, and safety.

  • Preclude the ASA from accepting funds from Israeli sources and hosting representatives of the Israeli government (including civilians with state sponsorship). The resolution encourages individual members to do the same.

  • Open spaces for discussion of verboten issues (e.g., Israeli ethnic cleansing, Palestinian liberation, American support for Israel).

  • Prevent the ASA from entering into partnerships with Israeli academe.

We’re no “vocal minority”

The vote illustrates the ridiculousness of the claim that advocates of the resolution represent a “vocal minority” of the ASA. Hosni Mubarak barely earned a higher percentage of votes during the Egyptian “elections” of the past. Everybody in attendance at the November ASA conference in Washington, DC, sensed that the resolution likely enjoyed overwhelming support. The election confirmed that perception.

The “vocal minority” narrative was always a smokescreen. Given the acute racial dynamics of the Israel-Palestine conflict and in the field of American Studies, the constant usage of the phrase “vocal minority” recalls longstanding appeals to keep women, queers, ethnic communities and other undesirables in their place. It’s no secret, though, that Zionists aren’t very good at irony.

Why the resolution succeeded

The success of the resolution, despite the many obstacles it faced from recalcitrant or hostile ASA members, can largely be attributed to two things:

(1) The justness of the cause of Palestinian decolonization, which allowed the resolution’s supporters to do work without the burdens of prevarication or propaganda.

(2) The hard work, cooperation, and egalitarianism of dozens of supporters, who accomplished their goals using strictly non-hierarchical organizing strategies. It is said often but bears repeating that refusing to be beholden to governments or sectarian funding sources is critical to ethical and effective activism. The activist must be free to make a compelling case for the freedom of others.

Zionism, as an ethnocratic movement, fundamentally contravenes these communal values. The ASA Community and Activism Caucus, which sponsored the resolution, not only rejected Israeli-style disunion, but conducted itself based on a vision of liberation derived from Palestinian civil society.

Many have commented that the passage of the boycott resolution represents a “turning point” in the history of Palestine activism in the United States. I believe it is too early to make this type of proclamation.

It is clear, however, that the resolution is momentous and provides discernible energy to those committed to justice for Palestinians and to creating educational systems that refuse to operate as servants to state power.

More than anything, the resolution illustrates that Zionists are not impervious, that no amount of money or media access can forever overpower the damning existence of truth, that Zionist remonstration more than ever exhibits the hysteria of desperation, that large numbers of people adamantly contest global injustice sustained by Israeli participation, that even in the hostile geography of the United States, Palestine’s supporters can win.

It’s quite simple, really. Palestinians have explained. The people have listened.