Five Takeaways from the ASA Debacle

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What should we learn from the American Studies Association’s lopsided December 15 vote to endorse the anti-Israel boycott?  Here are five takeaways:

  1. The Jewish Community Got Beat

There is no question about it.  The American Studies Association’s anti-Israel boycott resolution  is a defeat for everyone who is concerned about anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism in higher education.  The ASA is the largest, most important academic association to support the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel (BDS).  By a membership vote of nearly 2-to-1, the ASA voted to support a limited academic boycott of Israel, the first country that the association has ever seen fit to treat in this manner.

For years, Israel’s supporters have observed that BDS tarnishes Israel’s reputation even when it fails.  Until recently, BDS resolutions failed over and over again in the United States.  Yet each battle imposed a cost, as Israel was falsely cast in the public mind as a rogue nation.  The harm is obviously greater when these resolutions actually pass, as they have recently on some university campuses, such as the University of California at Berkeley and Irvine.  The ASA resolution gives a scholarly imprimatur to a cause that is at best political and at worst bigoted.

 

2.  The ASA Got Worse

In the end, the ASA is the biggest loser, and this outcome will not be lost on other associations.  For its efforts, the ASA is now publicly mocked, ridiculed and condemned, even by some of its own members and past presidents, as well as by major scholars and numerous university presidents.  Even those who do not discern anti-Semitism in the ASA resolution nevertheless perceive a violation of academic freedom.  The American Association of University Professors announced that the boycott would violate the academic freedom “not only of Israeli scholars but also of American scholars who might be pressured to comply with it.”  More importantly, perhaps, the ASA has now lost any scholarly reputation that it might previously have had and is now seen as a largely political institution.

Four universities have already terminated their institutional memberships in the ASA.  Penn State Harrisburg was the first to cut its formal ties, followed by Brandeis University, Indiana University at Bloomington, and Kenyon College.  These four institutions should be honored for their leadership.

In short order, over sixty universities have issued strong statements rejecting the ASA’s actions.   Professor William A. Jacobson compiled this list of institutions that have denounced the ASA boycott:

American University (D.C.)
Birmingham Southern College
Boston University
Bowdon College
Brandeis University
Brooklyn College, CUNY
Brown University
Case Western Reserve University
Cornell University
Dickinson College
Duke University
Florida International University
Fordham University
George Washington University
Hamilton College
Harvard University
Haverford College
Indiana University
Johns Hopkins University
Kenyon College
Lehigh University
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Michigan State
Middlebury College
New York University
Northwestern University
Ohio State
Princeton University
Purdue University
Rhode Island College
Rutgers University
Smith College
Stanford University
The City University of New York
Trinity College (CT)
Tufts University
Tulane University
University of Alabama System
University of California System
University of California-Berkeley
University of California-Irvine
University of California-San Diego
University of Chicago
University of Cincinnati
University of Connecticut
University of Delaware
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Kansas
University of Maryland
University of Maryland – Baltimore County
University of Miami
University of Michigan
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pittsburgh
University of Southern California
University of Texas-Austin
Washington University in St. Louis
Wesleyan University
Willamette University
Yale University
Yeshiva University

3.  Other Universities May (and Should) Cut Ties

More universities may, and should, cut their institutional memberships with ASA.  As former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers has cogently argued,  “My hope would be that responsible university leaders will become very reluctant to see their university’s funds used to finance faculty membership and faculty travel to an association that is showing itself not to be a scholarly association but really more of a political tool.”

The ASA helpfully publicizes a list of its institutional members,  which is now readily available thanks again to Professor Jacobson:

AMERICAN STUDIES ASSOCIATION – INSTITUTIONAL MEMBERS 2013

Alberta Institute for American Studies

Bard Graduate Center

Boston College

Boston University

Brandeis University

Brigham Young University

Brown University

California State University, Fullerton

California State University, Long Beach

Carnegie-Mellon University

Centre for the Study of the United States

College of Staten Island, CUNY

College of William and Mary

Cornell University

Crystal Bridge Museum of American Art

CUNY Graduate Center, American Studies Certificate Program

DePaul University

Dickinson College

Eccles Centre for American Studies, The British Library

Emory University

Fordham University

Franklin College of Indiana

George Washington University

Georgetown University

Hamilton College

Harvard University

Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania

Indiana University

Kennesaw State University

Kenyon College

Lehigh University

The Long Island Museum

Michigan State University, English Department

Middlebury College

New York University

Northwestern University

Penn State University, Harrisburg

Princeton University

Ramapo College

Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Rider University

Roger Williams University

Rowan College of New Jersey

Rutgers University, New Brunswick

Saint John Fisher College

Saint Louis University

Saint Olaf College

Skidmore College

Smith College

Sophia University

St. Francis College

Stanford University, American Studies Program

Stanford University, Green Library

Stetson University

Students At The Center

Temple University

Trinity College, Hartford, CT.

Tufts University

University of Alabama

University of California, San Diego

University of Delaware

University of Hawaii

University of Iowa

University of Maryland, Baltimore County

University of Minnesota

University of Mississippi

University of New Mexico

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

University of Notre Dame

University of Oklahoma Honors College

University of Southern California

University of Southern Mississippi

University of Texas, Austin

University of Texas, Dallas

University of Utah

University of Western Ontario

University of Wyoming

Vanderbilt University

Vassar

Washington State University

Washington University, St. Louis

Western Connecticut State University

Willamette University

Winterthur Program in Early American Culture

Youngstown State University

Significantly, some of these institutions have denied that they are ASA members, even though the ASA claims them as members on their web site.  These include Brown, Northwestern, Tufts, Temple, Willamette, and the University of Southern California.  As Prof. Eugene Kantorovich observes, the ASA owes these institutions an explanation.

Interestingly, the presidents of many of these universities are signatories to the American Jewish Committee’s powerful ad, which boldly proclaims: “Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours Too!”  Indeed, these institutions joined Columbia University President Lee Bolinger’s statement that anti-Israel academic boycotts are “utterly antithetical to the fundamental values of the academy, where we will not hold intellectual exchange hostage to the political disagreements of the moment.”

At a minimum, universities that endorsed the AJC statement should demonstrate intellectual consistency and integrity by dropping their institutional memberships with the ASA.  That would seem to include the following institutions:

Bard Graduate Center

Brigham Young University

California State University, Long Beach

Carnegie-Mellon University

College of William and Mary

Cornell University

Georgetown University

Michigan State University, English Department

Middlebury College

Princeton University

Ramapo College

Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Roger Williams University

Rutgers University, New Brunswick

Smith College

Trinity College, Hartford, CT.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County

University of Minnesota

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

University of Texas, Austin

University of Texas, Dallas

University of Utah

Washington State University

Washington University, St. Louis

One should hope that alumni, trustees, faculty and students at these institutions will be asking their administrations to take action.

4.  The Courts May Have the Final Say

The ASA may be held accountable in other ways too.  Its resolution has, to say the least, pushed the legal envelope with respect to anti-boycott laws.  Several groups, including the Louis D. Brandeis Center, are contemplating taking legal action against the association.  Anti-Israel boycotts may violate federal anti-boycott law, as well as the laws of some states, such as Section 296(13) of New York’s Human Rights’ Law, and localities.  The ASA, and other institutions that adopt such boycott resolutions, should not be surprised to find themselves in court.

In addition, the BDS resolution may jeopardize the ASA’s tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service, since it is arguably a political activity outside of the ASA’s mission.  The ASA is on notice that its tax-exempt status may soon be challenged.

5. MLA is Next

Sadly, the ASA is not alone.  Despite the troubles that the ASA has brought upon itself, other academic associations are considering similar action.  The Modern Language Association (MLA) is next in line.  In its upcoming conference, the MLA is considering an anti-Israel motion.  While not technically a BDS resolution, the MLA’s more narrowly crafted resolution also reflects antipathy towards the Jewish state.

Proposers of record: Richard M. Ohmann and Bruce W. Robbin

Supporting materials: Click here to see the information provided by the proposers.

Whereas Israel has arbitrarily denied academics of Palestinian ethnicity entry into the West Bank and Gaza;

Whereas these restrictions violate international conventions on an occupying power’s obligation to protect the right to education;

Whereas the U.S. Department of State acknowledges on its Web site that Israel restricts the movements of American citizens of Palestinian descent;

Whereas the denials have disrupted instruction, research, and planning at Palestinian universities;

Whereas the denials have restricted the academic freedom of scholars and teachers who are U. S. citizens; 

Be it resolved that the MLA urges the U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U. S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.

At present, the MLA plans to present its members with a one-sided presentation before voting on this politicized, unacademic resolution.  In light of the widespread derision, not to mention legal liability, that ASA has brought upon itself, one might hope that other scholarly associations would turn to more fruitful areas of inquiry – perhaps even returning to the scholarly endeavors which they were presumably formed to advance.

Five Takeaways from the ASA Debacle

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