Anti-Israel activists implemented a “covert campaign” to gain leadership positions at the American Studies Association (ASA), which they subsequently manipulated into endorsing an academic boycott of Israel, a Jewish human rights group said on Thursday.
The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law — which is representing four plaintiffs suing the ASA over its 2013 adoption of the boycott — revealed that newly-uncovered emails showed how activists with the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) “took over” and used the ASA to advance their political agenda.
A proposed second amended complaint filed by the plaintiffs — all current and former American Studies professors — named five of the 10 individual defendants as USACBI leaders: Sunaina Maira, Neferti Tadiar, J. Kehaulani Kauanui, Jasbir Puar, and Steven Salaita.
The defendants “misappropriated the American Studies Association’s funding, name, prestige, membership lists, and respected institutional voice” on behalf of USACBI, thereby subverting ASA’s “apolitical mission and scholarly purpose,” the plaintiffs said.
According to the complaint, the “defendants obtained control of the nominations process by which the American Studies Association chose its leaders,” then restricted nominations to individuals affiliated with USACBI and who would support the ASA’s proposed boycott of Israel.
“This constituted a violation of the American Studies Association bylaws, which require that nominations for the American Studies Association National Council and President reflect the diversity of the membership,” the plaintiffs argued.
The scheme was allegedly spearheaded by Puar, an assistant professor of women’s studies at Rutgers University who has come under fire for supporting terrorism against Israelis and repeating accusations that Israel harvests Palestinian organs.
Puar, also a USACBI leader, acted “to ensure that only signed supporters of USACBI were nominated for American Studies Association President” — a requirement she did not disclose to ASA members, according to the complaint.
In one alleged email exchange between nominees to the ASA’s National Council — who were debating whether to reveal their support for BDS in their nomination statement — USACBI leader Maira claimed, “I feel it might be more strategic not to present ourselves as a pro-boycott slate. We need to get on the Council and I think our larger goal is support for the resolution, not to test support at this early stage from ‘outside’ the NC.”
Another USACBI leader, David Lloyd, replied, “I would definitely suggest not specifying BDS, but emphasizing support for academic freedom, etc.”
Nikhil Singh, who was already a National Council member, cautioned against this approach.
“[W]e all know that ‘academic freedom’ is not good enough,” he wrote. “My real question: what do we hope to gain from election of pro-BDS members to the American Studies Association national council if we have not made any of the stakes of their election clear to the membership?”
“I think that not revealing something this important and intentional and then hoping later to use the American Studies Association national council as a vehicle to advance our cause will not work and may well backfire, because it will lack legitimacy,” Singh added.
Of the three nominees involved in the discussion, only one — Alex Lubin — mentioned support for “the academic and cultural boycott of Israel” in his statement.
“He lost the election” while the other two candidates won, demonstrating that “a nominee’s commitment to the boycott of Israel and its academic and cultural institutions” was a material fact to ASA members, the plaintiffs argued.
By the end of her three years on the Nominating Committee, Puar and two other USACBI endorsers “had turned the American Studies Association National Council from a body primarily comprised of American Studies professors and scholars, and otherwise diverse members … to one overwhelmingly comprised of individuals with a singular focus on adopting the USACBI Boycott,” the complaint continued.
Ultimately, seven of the twelve ASA members nominated for the 2013 National Council had also endorsed USACBI. This did not reflect the diversity of the ASA’s approximately 4,000 members at the time, which only contained some 800 USACBI endorsers, according to the plaintiffs. This was a breach of the ASA’s constitution, which mandates that nominees “shall be representative of the diversity of the association’s membership.”
The complaint included what it said were several other incriminating emails from the defendants, including one from Maira, who wrote, “Jasbir is nominating me and Alex Lubin for the Council and she suggests populating it with as many supporters as possible.”
In another email, Puar claimed, “I think we should prepare for the longer-term struggle by populating elected positions with as [many] supporters as possible.”
A third email, this time from Lubin, read, “In my conversations with Jasbir it’s clear that the intent of her nominations was to bring more people who do work in, and are politically committed to . . . the question of Palestine . . . we were nominated in order to build momentum for BDS even though the question of BDS in American Studies Association may or may not emerge while we’re on the council.”
The plaintiffs listed multiple other complaints against the defendants, including that they “refused to post or circulate letters and other information opposing the boycott” before the ASA vote.
The ASA’s 2013 vote to implement a boycott of Israeli universities and academic institutions marked its first-ever — and thus far only — boycott of a nation.
Several universities terminated their ASA membership over the vote, which was condemned by over 200 senior university administrators and multiple academic organizations, including the American Association of University Professors, American Association of Universities and American Council on Education.