At its annual meeting in Washington, DC this week, the American Studies Association (ASA), following the example of the Association for Asian American Studies, will consider a resolution calling for boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
This has initiated much discussion and controversy.
The role of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) in scholarly organizations is a serious matter that warrants equally serious discussion. Thus far, opponents of the resolution have largely failed to argue seriously, relying instead on misdirection and mythology.
Why the controversy?
It is critical to clarify the primary misconceptions (and conscious misrepresentations) of BDS and examine the role of professional associations in responding to domestic and global sites of injustice.
While many argue that the role of such associations is to facilitate disinterest, in reality scholarly bodies have always been immersed in geopolitical advocacy, even (or especially) when they claim dissociation and neutrality. In fact, appeals to disinterest function not as viable ethical positions, but as the mollification of power dressed up as high-minded responsibility.
The ASA does not follow this line of reasoning. It adopts institutional positions on workers’ rights, racism, sexism, imperialism and colonization. None of those positions has generated animosity and none inspired so many frantic appeals to neutrality.
It is clearly not the fact of adopting an institutional position that has generated the controversy around the latest resolution. The controversy exists because the resolution implicates Israel.
If adopting an institutional position in itself isn’t the controversy, then the primary question becomes: in what conditions and according to which standards of judgment would it be unjustifiable for the ASA (or any other scholarly organization) to condemn what many of its members view as an injustice of import to the work we do?
I argue that BDS is perfectly in keeping with the ASA’s mission and wholly consistent with resolutions its membership has approved in the past.
Misrepresentations versus realities
Many of the arguments against the ASA boycott resolution misrepresent the tactics and intentions of BDS or cannot withstand quick fact-checking.
A persistent complaint is that BDS would impinge on the academic freedom of Israeli scholars. Nothing in the BDS literature endorses the rejection or marginalization of individuals. BDS is explicitly institutional, targeting corporations and universities that facilitate or profit from Israel’s occupation and other abuses of Palestinian rights. Attempts to reduce the boycott to arbitrary instances of individual alienation are either misguided or dishonest.
An equally persistent complaint is that BDS “singles out” Israel. This assertion is true only in the strictest interpretation of “singling out,” one whose ethical connotations are negligible.
BDS justifies itself based not on caprice, but on a long list of Israeli crimes, all supported by American tax dollars, that haven’t been curtailed over the course of many decades by myriad strategies of resistance, violent and nonviolent. Israel, therefore, is singled out based solely on the opprobrium of its behavior.
The mere accusation of singling out Israel — a suggestion that other nations too commit crimes worthy of boycott — asserts victimhood despite an exceptional imbalance of power and tacitly acknowledges Israel’s crimes while simultaneously disavowing moral responsibility for them.
ASA’s long history of endorsing boycott
To understand the logical failings of the “singling out” narrative, we can compare the current boycott resolution to past ASA actions. In 2010, the ASA joined a consortium of academic groups that condemned Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s infamous profiling legislation, in a statement that cited the suitability of boycott.
The association has also passed resolutions demanding the withdrawal of American military personnel from Iraq, rejecting the embargo on Cuba, supporting graduate student unionization, and pledging to avoid conference sites with records of labor exploitation (a clear form of boycott).
None of these resolutions evoked nearly the level of anxiety as that generated by BDS. Indeed, much more corporate and conventional institutions than the ASA, including the National Football League, refused to hold events in Arizona for years when the state wouldn’t recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The obvious question isn’t why a scholarly organization like ASA should endorse BDS, but what possible reason it could have not to endorse BDS given its support for boycotts in the past and given the indisputable evidence of academic complicity in Israel’s brutalization of Palestinians.
Who is “singling out” Israel?
BDS is fully consistent with the American Studies Association’s recent tradition of support for struggling and oppressed communities.
It is therefore appropriate — necessary, even — that the ASA solidify its commitment to the study and practice of decolonization through adoption of the current boycott resolution. A key component of today’s American studies is the demystification of biological hierarchies and ethnonational narratives that result in disparate legal systems and inequitable access to the geographies of nationhood. These are the central concerns of Palestinian civil society.
The term “civil society” is crucial to understanding the boycott. Neither Hamas nor the Palestinian Authority has formal involvement in BDS. The same is true of the Arab League and the Organization of African Unity.
BDS is a grassroots movement initiated by dozens of Palestinian civic groups and managed by activist collectives in Palestine and around the world, including Israelis who support its principles.
This civic orientation deemphasizes state and corporate participation and facilitates constant discussion of social justice, democracy, resistance, self-determination and collaboration across borders.
These organic sites of boycott accord to important methodological traditions of the disciplines represented in American studies. In no way is BDS a contravention of the field’s sacred ideals. It is a material extension of the field’s actual vocations.
If BDS, as its detractors argue, is beyond the ASA’s purview, then the organization would have no choice but to be overtly apolitical, an outlook very few of us would accept or consider viable, or face serious problems with ethical consistency. If reluctance to adopt a resolution on BDS results primarily (or even in part) from skittishness about condemnation of Israel, then the ASA will have validated the same ideologies of exceptionalness underlying the colonial project of Zionism.
The only people singling out Israel in this debate are the ones opposed to BDS.
Divide this House
The controversial nature of the boycott resolution has generated concern about its possible divisiveness. However, an issue’s potential for divisiveness, a strangely vague term that obscures more than it clarifies, should not be a standard for judging its merit.
Divisiveness inevitably accompanies the pursuit of justice. Slavery divided the United States before it was abolished. The decolonization of Algeria almost brought down France. Australia remains deeply divided about any implementation of aboriginal rights. Kurdish nationalism severely divides Iraqis, Turks, and Iranians. The admission of Jews into the Ivy League divided university administrators and their elite WASP constituents.
Zionism, it is worth pointing out, has been one of the most divisive issues of the modern age, yet those who decry the divisiveness of BDS don’t appear have a problem with it.
Let us then divide this house and separate those with commitment to the principles of equality and unfettered academic inquiry from those attached — emotionally, intellectually, or economically — to the preservation of a militarized nation-state.