Emails unearthed in a federal lawsuit appear to show that the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israel was orchestrated by a small cadre of academics who infiltrated the ASA’s leadership to demonize the Jewish state.
The ASA website says the scholarly group “promotes the development and dissemination of interdisciplinary research on U.S. culture and history in a global context,” but in December 2013 it endorsed an academic boycott of Israel. The ASA’s leadership, called the National Council, backed the boycott resolution and put it to a membership vote. A third of the members voted, and two-thirds of those endorsed the resolution.
Last year four ASA members sued the organization, alleging the boycott violated its bylaws, the District of Columbia Nonprofit Corporation Act, and laws prohibiting nonprofits from exceeding their chartered purposes. Even putting legality aside, the boycott was out of step with the principle of academic freedom. The boycott generated an immediate rebuke from the executive council of the Association of American Universities.
The ASA sought to have the suit thrown out, arguing that legal challenges violate the group’s First Amendment rights—a claim commonly made by Israel boycotters. A federal judge rejected that argument in March and allowed the case to proceed.
A central figure in the boycott’s adoption was Jasbir Puar, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, according to emails cited in a public filing by the plaintiffs in the case. The emails appear to show that after joining the ASA’s nominating committee in 2010, Ms. Puar actively tried to stack the National Council with boycott backers.
“Jasbir is nominating me and [University of New Mexico professor] Alex Lubin for the Council and she suggests populating it with as many supporters as possible,” reads a late 2012 email from Sunaina Maira, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Davis.
Ms. Puar appears to confirm the strategy in an email from the same time period. “I think we should prepare for the longer-term struggle by populating elected positions with as [many] supporters as possible,” she wrote. By the end of Ms. Puar’s term on the nominating committee in 2013, seven of the ASA’s 12 National Council members were public supporters of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “In my conversations with Jasbir it’s clear that the intent of her nominations was . . . to build momentum for BDS,” wrote Mr. Lubin in late 2012.
The emails suggest that secrecy was part of the strategy. As nominees sought election to leadership in late 2012, many explicitly agreed to hide their anti-Israel agenda from the ASA’s voting members. “I feel it might be more strategic not to present ourselves as a pro-boycott slate,” Ms. Maira wrote. “I would definitely suggest not specifying BDS, but emphasizing support for academic freedom, etc,” wrote David Lloyd, a professor of English at the University of California, Riverside.
But Nikhil Singh, a New York University professor of social and cultural analysis and history, cautioned Mr. Lloyd, Ms. Maira and others against subterfuge: “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.”
The warning went unheeded. Only one BDS supporter running for a seat on the National Council mentioned his support for a boycott resolution in his candidate statement. He lost. Those, who hid their support won. More recent Israel-boycott campaigns at larger academic organizations like the Modern Language Association have failed.
Emails cited in the court filings also show that ASA boycott supporters coordinated with outside anti-Israel activists, such as Omar Barghouti, a founder of the BDS movement. In the run-up to the vote, ASA leaders sent materials to Mr. Barghouti—who has no obvious previous connection to the group—and other anti-Israel activists before distributing them to the membership.
Once in control of the National Council, supporters pushed for a boycott resolution and then manipulated the voting process. ASA leaders refused to give opponents an equal opportunity to make their case in meetings and on the ASA’s website. The National Council froze the membership rolls for about a month, until the end of the voting period, in an apparent attempt to block boycott opponents.
These revelations have implications for other academic groups. They show that pressure on campus for a boycott of Israel is unlikely to reflect a vast popular movement. If the ASA case is representative, academic boycotts against Israel are driven by small groups of activists who pursue their pet cause at the expense of colleagues and the good of their organizations.
Mr. Fried is a professor at Harvard Law School. Mr. Kontorovich is a professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. Both authors advised the plaintiffs’ counsel in the lawsuit against the American Studies Association.