Toward an Ethic of Legitimate Dissent: Academic Boycott at the American Studies Association 4Dec13 December 4, 2013

by Noura Erakat   -   PACBI   -   4 December 2013

Toward an Ethic of Legitimate Dissent: Academic Boycott at the American Studies Association

 At its 2013 annual conference, the American Studies Association (ASA) considered a resolution to endorse the academic boycott of Israel. Several professors proposed the resolution to the ASA’s Academic and Community Activism Caucus after participating in a 2012 US Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) delegation to Palestine and Israel. If passed, the ASA will join a steadily growing movement among members of American academic associations to support Palestinian calls to implement the 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). Even if it does not pass this year, an affirmative vote appears inevitable based on the overwhelming support for the resolution among ASA’s membership. Time may be necessary to overcome procedural hurdles but will not be enough to sway the tide of support against academic boycott.

More than a decade ago, I was part of the effort that launched the divestment campaign (which is distinct from academic boycott) at University of California-Berkeley. On 6 February 2001, when Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister for a second term, we blocked Sather Gate and unfurled a banner demanding that Cal Berkeley “Divest from Apartheid Israel.” Needless to say, our efforts were swiftly dismissed as idealistic fancies of the radical left. Since then, student activists at Berkeley, University of California-San Diego, University of California-Irvine , Hampshire College, Oberlin College, University of Massachusetts-Boston, University of Michigan-Dearborn, and Wayne State University have passed student government resolutions to divest from Israel.

Earlier this year, the Association of Asian American Studies became the first academic association in the United States to endorse academic boycott. Notably, while the AAAS led the charge domestically, it followed the legacy of similar efforts internationally, such as the University of Johannesburg’s severing of its partnership with Ben Gurion University in 2011. This is to say nothing of the mounting BDS efforts beyond academia. These include successful consumer boycotts against Veolia, Soda Stream, and Ahava Cosmetics; divestment efforts among faith-based institutions like the Methodists or the Presbyterian Church USA; and the cultural boycott endorsed by Alice Walker and Roger Waters among others.

Despite vitriolic attacks by supporters of the Israeli government, material professional consequences for BDS activists and supporters, and some significant setbacks, the movement continues to advance.  The point that BDS opponents seem to miss or choose to ignore is that once space becomes available to speak against the orthodoxy of US support for Israel, there is a groundswell of support for Palestinian liberation. This support squarely fits within a progressive discourse of liberation politics in the United States, including a critique of US imperialism abroad and settler-colonialism at home. The exceptional nature of Palestine within this discourse is the taboo that shrouds it and the harsh consequences meted against individuals and institutions that dare to speak out. 

Daring to Speak: Beyond Intimidation

The staunchest opponents have used silencing tactics rather than debate to challenge BDS efforts. These tactics are often heavy-handed and include threats of legal action, cessation of donor funding, and even the intervention of the political establishment. None of these tactics demonstrate or represent popular opposition to BDS.  

In January 2013, Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz spearheaded a campaign to force Brooklyn College to cancel a talk about BDS. Then, BDS opponents rallied several New York politicians to openly threaten rescinding funding for the public school if it proceeded with the lecture. The threats backfired as faculty members, Brooklyn College’s president, as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the sanctity of academic freedom. In response to their divestment efforts, Berkeley students endured and withstood a Department of Justice Title VI investigation alleging that they created a hostile climate on campus for Jewish students. An Olympia, Washington, co-op successfully defended itself against a lawsuit that sought to block enforcement of a boycott of Israeli goods and to collect monetary damages from the co-op board for breaching its fiduciary duties.

The opposition to the ASA resolution has been no different. Dershowitz penned an open letter threatening ASA members, “For those of you for whom shame is not enough, please understand that a vote for a boycott will expose you and your association both for legal and academic consequences.”

This threat was not lost on the ASA’s membership that gathered on 23 November 2013 to discuss the resolution at an open forum. Of the forty-four speakers randomly selected to speak for two minutes each, thirty-seven began their comments by affirming their support for the resolution. Several of them recounted how they endured violations of their own academic freedom to critique Israel. One speaker, a former student of the late Professor Edward W. Said, recalled how his office was firebombed in an effort to intimidate and silence him. Another recalled the politicized tenure battles waged against Professors Joseph Massad, Nadia Abu al Haj, and Norman Finkelstein, who contravened the unspoken truism among scholars that you do not speak about Palestine until you have secured the safeguards of tenure. Every academic and student who spoke, knew that by supporting the resolution for academic boycott of Israel, they were placing themselves in the line of fire. This knowledge among ASA’s membership, coupled with the fact that an overwhelming majority among it was ready to speak anyway, contributed to a sense of victory for the boycott effort regardless of the official vote by the Executive Committee. According to Professor Nadine Naber, associate professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois – Chicago,

Because the open discussion about Palestinian human rights that happened [at the ASA meeting] rarely happens in the US, people called the meeting historic…This is just one way the resolution creates new openings for academic freedom and the perspectives that dominant US and Israeli discourses systematically ignore, crush, and silence.

Significantly, no one took to the microphone to defend Israel’s practices (although one speaker did explain how he has “a Palestinian friend” who thinks the biggest problem facing Palestinians is Palestinian corruption and violence). Opponents of the boycott resolution argued that the resolution should go to a membership-wide referendum (the petition in support of the resolution garnered 1,008 signatures and the one against approximately 400). They argued that they were blindsided by the proposal (it was proposed and made public a year ago). They also argued that Israel is not unique for its violations (i.e., China and the US have an equal, if not worse, track record). All seven naysayers objected to the resolution on procedural grounds rather than challenging the substance of Israel’s violations.

Turning Corners: Mainstreaming Scrutiny of Israel

This shift reflects a number of developments that have incrementally brought Israel into the purview of mainstream scrutiny in the United States.

As the curtains of the farcical peace process begin to fall, and as armed Palestinian resistance becomes an ever-fading memory, Israel’s settler-colonial campaign aimed at dominating the land and diminishing its Palestinian population comes into increasing focus. Israel’s national security concerns hardly explain its plans to forcibly displace more than 40,000 Palestinian citizens from their homes in the Negev in order to build a Jewish settlement within Israel and to plant a forest (i.e., the Prawer plan). Nor can security explain its mushrooming settler population in the occupied West Bank, which has increased by 300 percent since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Perhaps more than any other development, Israel’s excessive and intensifying transgressions against the 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have catalyzed scrutiny of its policies. These include a comprehensive and devastating blockade, which experts predict will make Gazaunlivable by 2020, brutal military campaigns in the Winter 2008/09 and again in November 2012, as well as a fatal attack on a civilian international flotilla delivering humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip in 2010.

Among policy circles closer to the political establishment, the recent bifurcation between Israeli and US national interests has also created more space to discuss the liability posed by Israel to US interests. These cleavages have been highlighted by members of the US national security establishment like Jim Jones andDavid Petraeus, by the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, and by pointed analyses of the Israel Lobby. The broadening divergence between US and Israeli interests was demonstrated during the confirmation hearingsof Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the debate about a military attack on Syria, and most recently in response to the nuclear agreement with Iran.

The battleground is steadily, if slowly, shifting in the United States from fighting for the space to speak about Israel, to openly questioning the United States’ relationship to it. 

Academic Freedom: In Defense, or in Spite, of Principle?

Academic boycott is at the heart of this shift because it scrutinizes the role and agency of the US academy. It is also among the most controversial forms of boycott because it raises concerns about academic freedom. Notwithstanding repeated emphasis that the boycott targets Israeli institutions and not individual Israeli scholars, these concerns persisted throughout the ASA’s deliberations. In a blog post published days before the start of the ASA conference, Claire Potter, professor of History at the New School for Public Engagement, wrote,

I regret to say that I find the distinction between boycotting institutions and boycotting individuals, one that is consistently emphasized by BDS activists, to be a legalism that is utterly meaningless in practice

Potter takes for granted that the boycott does not seek to regulate scholarly ideas, collaborations, or writings. Rather, boycott seeks to neutralize the detrimental role of the Israeli academy in perpetuating the conflict. In particular, it prevents Israeli institutions from using the ivory tower to create false parity between Israel, a nuclear-power state with unparalleled ties to the United States, and Palestinians, a stateless, subjugated, and scattered population. The academic boycott also seeks to prevent the Israeli academy, which is intertwined with Israel’s military and weapons industrial complex, from using scholarship as a tool to normalize Israeli settler-colonialism.

In practice, the boycott encourages scholars to avoid participating in conferences at Israeli universities, to refuse to collaborate in initiatives funded by them, and to not host official representatives of the Israeli academy who perpetuate Israel’s normalizing efforts. This does not target individuals qua individuals, although it does affect those who participate in Israel’s institutionally driven normalizing and whitewashing efforts. Finally, while the boycott discourages normalizing exchanges, it encourages events aimed at exploring these ideas in the form of debate and collaboration dedicated to co-resistance.

In his two minutes on the floor, David Palumbo-Liu, professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, explained that in the context of the resolution for academic boycott, 

[T]o do nothing was to be complicit in the continued denial of academic freedom to opposing voices in Israel-Palestine, and that each visit there for academic ‘exchange’ was an endorsement of the status quo.

Palumbo-Liu raised a pervasive concern among ASA’s membership: when we speak of academic freedom, whose freedom are we concerned with? He suggested that engaging in boycott has the potential to cultivate more freedom to engage in critique. 

In her 2006 essay, “Israel/Palestine and the Paradoxes of Academic Freedom,” Judith Butler contemplates the value of academic freedom as an abstract good extricated from its political context. Butler highlights that between 1972 and 1993, Birzeit University (BZU) was closed on fifteen separate occasions amounting to over seven years. In 2004, due to the Bantustanization of the West Bank, there was a one hundred percent drop of student enrollment at BZU from Jenin Governate, meaning zero students could register because of movement restrictions. From September 2000-2004, Israeli military violence killed 196 students and thirty-eight teachers and university employees. By highlighting these incidents Butler challenges readers to consider a hierarchy of rights wherein material freedom, which makes possible the exercise and enjoyment of all other freedoms, ranks supreme.

The fact that Palestinians issued the call for boycott was central to the ASA’s consideration of the resolution. In response to suggestions that the ASA should demonstrate its solidarity with Palestinians using less controversial means, Craig Willse, professor of Cultural Studies at George Mason University, cautioned that in exercising solidarity, allies should not instruct Palestinians how to free themselves.  

Mark Rifkin, associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina, added that anxieties that this boycott singles out Israel are misplaced. Rifkin emphasized that if indigenous populations in the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere asked him to endorse an academic boycott, he would vote yes as well.

Significantly, a vote for academic boycott in the ASA carves out new spaces for indigenous populations in the United States to discuss their forced removal and subjugation as an ongoing condition. In fact, the one amendment to the resolution echoed during the town hall was that it should explicitly implicate US imperialism and settler-colonialism as part of the problem and the place from which ASA solidarity extends.

The ASA’s executive committee would be wise to endorse the academic boycott. If it does, it will be leading the movement in the United States, along with the AAAS, by creating much-needed momentum. Even if it does not, the Association is already victorious for shattering a taboo at a high risk and cost. In so doing, it has transformed a muted and distant inquiry about the Palestinian-Israel conflict into a self-critical analysis about the role of the United States as a third party to the conflict. The ASA has forthrightly brought the question of Palestine into the fold of American Studies and provocatively asked, what then is the proper role of the US academy? Its membership has answered this question clearly, and loudly, enough for other academic associations to consider it as well. This is the victory to be celebrated.

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