Backlash Against Israel Boycott Puts American Studies Assn. on Defensive

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With its recent vote to boycott Israel’s higher-education institutions to protest that nation’s treatment of Palestinians, the American Studies Association has itself become the target of widespread criticism and ostracism. It has gone from relative obscurity to prominence as a pariah of the American higher-education establishment, its experience serving as a cautionary tale for other scholarly groups that might consider taking similar stands on the Middle East.

In sharp contrast to the international campaign for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, which had been slow to gain a foothold in the United States, the campaign to rebuke the American Studies Association has spread rapidly since the group’s mid-December boycott vote. The presidents of more than 80 American colleges have condemned the boycott as an assault on the free exchange of ideas.

“Such boycotts threaten academic speech and exchange, which it is our solemn duty as academic institutions to protect,” Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, president of Amherst College, said in a statement posted on its website this week. Nearly all of the presidents’ statements similarly denounced the boycott as impeding the flow of ideas, and several cited specific collaborations or exchanges with Israeli universities as evidence of their institutional commitment to maintaining strong relations with Israel.

At least five institutions—Bard College, Brandeis University, Indiana University, Kenyon College, and Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg—have withdrawn their ASA memberships.

As of this week, the boycott also has been denounced by three of the nation’s most prominent higher-education organizations: the American Association of University Professors, the American Council on Education, and the Association of American Universities. “Such actions are misguided and greatly troubling, as they strike at the heart of academic freedom,” said the American Council on Education’s president, Molly Corbett Broad.

The scale and speed of the backlash against the boycott is striking, especially considering that the ASA has only about 4,000 members and lacks any formal ties with Israeli institutions in the first place.

“Why anyone should care what the ASA thinks bewilders me. It is not a very large academic association, and it is not one that characteristically has a big impact in the academy,” said Stanley N. Katz, a higher-education policy expert at Princeton University and president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies. Mr. Katz said he opposes the boycott by the ASA, a group he dismisses as “more interested in politics than scholarship,” but does not see it as likely to inspire similar actions by scholarly groups with more weight.

Heeding Constituents

Michael S. Roth, who, as president of Wesleyan University, wrote a Los Angeles Times op-ed calling the ASA boycott “a repugnant attack on academic freedom,” said he does not see anything unusual about college presidents’ speaking out on such an issue. He cited, as an example, how dozens of college presidents had responded to the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn., by signing a statement urging the nation’s leaders to adopt stricter gun laws.

Nevertheless, it is rare for college presidents to speak out on an issue so quickly and in such great numbers.

William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton University and president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, said college presidents were opposing the ASA boycott simply because they believe “boycotts are a bad idea.”

“It is dangerous business, and basically unwise, for institutions to become embroiled in these kinds of debates,” Mr. Bowen said. “The consequences for institutions are just too serious.”

Henry S. Bienen, president emeritus of Northwestern University, said the intricate ties between American and Israeli universities, especially in areas such as scientific research, have also been a motivating factor. More broadly, he said, “Israel has a special place for lots of individuals in academic life,” including Jewish academics who are well represented on the faculties and in the administrations of American higher-education institutions.

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and a boycott opponent, said calls from alumni to take a stand against the boycott had also played a role. “As an active member of the Jewish community, I recognize that the American Jewish community is disproportionately generous to American higher education,” he said. “For the president of an institution to express his or her solidarity with Israel is welcomed by a very important part of their support base.”

Mr. Botstein, who has faulted his fellow presidents for not speaking out more on issues such as income inequality or declining government support of higher education, said the decision to oppose the ASA boycott was easy because the group’s resolution was “clumsy and offensive.” Taking a position against the boycott, he said, “doesn’t show courage, it shows common sense.”

Stifling Debate?

Curtis F. Marez, president of the American Studies Association, this week characterized its critics’ assertions that the boycott threatens academic freedom as misplaced, because the boycott is directed at Israeli institutions and their representatives, not individual scholars or students,and would not affect routine scholarly collaborations and exchanges.

In an email, Mr. Marez, who is chairman of the ethnic-studies department at the University of California at San Diego, argued that, “if anything, the boycott will expand intellectual exchanges and shine a light on the limitations of academic freedom for Palestinians.”

Other supporters of the boycott have argued that the campaign against it represents the real threat to academic freedom. Among them, Ashley J. Dawson, a professor of English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and editor of the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom,argued that college presidents who have denounced the ASA resolution are chilling campus speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are abrogating the academic freedom of those members of their faculties who support the boycott.

“The backlash against American studies,” he said, “is because it is daring to bring up the issue of what is happening in the Middle East.”

Some college presidents have come under fire for their antiboycott stands. Among them, John E. Sexton, president of New York University, wasaccused of hypocrisy for speaking out against the ASA boycott while failing to criticize the United Arab Emirates, where NYU operates a campus, for its repression of academics and restriction of the travel of Israeli scholars.

Faculty members at Trinity College in Connecticut are divided over astatement by its president, James F. Jones Jr., denouncing the ASA boycott as misguided and unprincipled. More than 20 faculty members there, many of whom are ASA members, have signed a letter denouncing his statement as uninformed and “intellectually lazy,” and taking him to task for issuing it without consulting them. In response, more than 30 other faculty members have signed a separate letter thanking Mr. Jones for “taking this clear-throated position against the ASA’s condemnable boycott proposal.”

Fears of a Foothold

The backlash against the boycott is being stoked by fears that other scholarly groups in the United States might follow the ASA’s lead in joining the international boycott, divestment, and sanction movement to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian activist who was one of the movement’s founders, told The New York Times soon after the ASA’s boycott resolution passed that its adoption represents “perhaps the strongest indicator yet that the BDS movement is reaching a tipping point, even in the U.S.” The U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel hailed the ASA vote as “a historic breakthrough among U.S.-based academics.”

The American Studies Association is the second disciplinary association in the United States to decide to boycott Israel’s academic institutions. A smaller group, the Association for Asian American Studies, approved a similar boycott resolution in April without receiving nearly as much public attention or criticism. A third organization, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, plans at its annual conference in May to vote on a pro-boycott statement that its leadership council approved last month.

In her statement denouncing such boycotts, Ms. Broad of the American Council on Education said, “We hope the leadership of these organizations soon reconsiders their actions, and trust that other scholarly organizations will see the troubling implications of such boycotts and avoid similar votes.”

In an interview this week, Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, characterized his group’s recent denunciation of such boycotts as partly a response to the growth in the number of scholarly groups adopting them.

Mr. Dawson, the AAUP journal editor whose support of the boycott puts him at odds with that organization’s leadership, alleged that “the ASA is getting slammed by groups that are dedicated to keeping debate about Israeli settler colonialism in the occupied territories out of public view in the United States.”

It remains unclear, however, whether the academic-boycott movement stands much chance of gaining enough ground in the United States to have a real impact.

The only large scholarly organization to consider weighing in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the nearly 30,000-member Modern Language Association, is taking a much more tentative approach. Its annual conference this month will include a round-table discussion of boycotts in support of Palestinians, and its leadership will consider asking its members to vote on a resolution urging the U.S. State Department “to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank” by American academics invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.

Although the American Studies Association has a substantial reach in academe, with more than 100 institutional members, some of its critics say it leans too far to the left for its actions to be seen as portending pro-boycott votes by other scholarly groups. Those deriding the ASA as ideologically skewed include Alan Luxenberg, president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who in a recent op-ed in The American Interestaccused the association’s National Council, which unanimously endorsedthe boycott resolution, of having academic profiles that showed “a stunning lack of diversity of intellectual interests and perspectives.”

Backlash to the Boycott

The ASA’s recent experience clearly shows that boycott resolutions carry a potential price.

After the resolution passed last month, with the support of two-thirds of the 1,252 association members voting on it, the ASA’s national office was too deluged with angry phone calls to carry on with business and ended up having to close for a day, according to John F. Stevens, the group’s executive director.

Two New York State lawmakers, State Sen. Jeff Klein of the Bronx and State Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn, said they planned to propose legislation that would cut off state support to any public or private college that participated in the ASA or any other group involved in a boycott of Israel. The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, an advocacy group devoted to fighting anti-Semitism on college campuses, has threatened to challenge the ASA’s tax-exempt status.

Among those who have spoken out against the ASA’s boycott, Lawrence H. Summers, the former president of Harvard University, has called on college administrators to deny faculty members funds to attend ASA meetings. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has sent the presidents of all universities with ties to the ASA a letter similarly urging them to dissociate their institutions from the ASA and deny faculty members funds to participate in the group or travel to its events.

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, argued in an interview this week that faculty members overstep their bounds when they use a college-supported leadership role in a scholarly group to wade into a political debate beyond that group’s area of expertise.

At least one college president, however, has publicly resisted calls to crack down on the ASA. Christopher L. Eisgruber, president of Princeton University, has responded to alumni inquiries about the boycott with a letter saying he opposes it but does “not intend to denounce the ASA, make it unwelcome on campus, or inhibit the ability of faculty members to affiliate with it.” The better approach, he said, is to engage with the association and hope “more thoughtful and reasonable members will eventually bring the organization to its senses.”

Clarification (1/2/2014, 12:24 p.m.): The American Studies Association is the second group representing a discipline to join the boycott, not the second scholarly association. Another group of scholars, the Association for Humanist Sociology, approved a boycott resolution in October. The article has been updated to reflect this clarification.

Backlash Against Israel Boycott Puts American Studies Assn. on Defensive

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