In December 2013, the American Studies Association adopted a boycott of Israel. The organization, which says it “promote[s] the development and dissemination of interdisciplinary research on U.S. culture and history in a global context,” banned ties to Israeli educational institutions.
The Israel boycott resolution was first approved by ASA’s leadership, known as the National Council. Then, due to low voter turnout, it was ratified by a mere 20 percent of the organization’s members.
Four distinguished ASA members have since sued the group and certain ASA leaders, claiming that the small turnout invalidated the vote’s result under the ASA’s bylaws and the District of Columbia Nonprofit Corporation Act. The members also claimed that the boycott violated laws barring a nonprofit from acting outside its chartered purpose.
Even apart from these legal defects, the boycott is an embarrassment. It runs afoul of the principle of academic freedom; its adoption was immediately and harshly criticized by the distinguished 62-member Association of American Universities. And the exclusive focus on Israel smacks of anti-Semitism. The ASA has never boycotted any other country, either before or since.
But here’s the really interesting part: During the course of the litigation, lawyers for the plaintiffs uncovered information suggesting that the ASA’s anti-Israel boycott did not arise organically from within the organization. Rather, it resulted from a carefully planned hostile takeover by outside activists eager to use the ASA and its money to advance their hateful agenda.
Emails uncovered during the litigation point to a coordinated action led by organizers of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, working alongside Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the worldwide anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
One of the biggest ironies of the BDS movement is that Barghouti himself studied at Tel Aviv University — an institution he is trying to convince others to boycott — after growing up in Qatar and Egypt and later moving to Israel. He now chooses to live in Israel with his family while calling on the world to boycott his neighbors.
An important player in the effort to hijack the ASA seems to have been Jasbir Puar, an associate professor at Rutgers University. Her book claims that Israel deliberately maims Palestinians in order to control them. Puar has also reportedly peddled vicious lies about Israel stealing Palestinians’ organs for research, echoing the blood libels used to whip up hatred of Jews in the Middle Ages.
Emails disclosed in the ASA case show that Puar, after joining the ASA’s nominating committee, began to stack ASA’s leadership with USACBI supporters. Professor Sunaina Maira, a defendant in the case, wrote in late 2012: “Jasbir is nominating me and Alex Lubin for the Council and she suggests populating it with as many [boycott] supporters as possible.” Puar appeared 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.”
By the end of Puar’s term on the nominating committee in 2013, seven of the ASA’s 12 National Council members were USACBI supporters. “In my conversations with Jasbir, it’s clear that the intent of her nominations was…to build momentum for BDS,” wrote Lubin in late 2012.
The emails suggest that secrecy was a key component of this strategy to take over the ASA. As individual defendants were seeking election to leadership positions in late 2012, they discussed over email the need to hide their boycott agenda from ASA’s voters. “I feel it might be more strategic not to present ourselves as a pro-boycott slate,” 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.
Only one of those involved in the discussions, New York University professor Nikhil Singh, cautioned against such subterfuge, warning that a secretive attempt to win election and then surprise everyone with a boycott “may well backfire, because it will lack legitimacy.” Singh’s caution went unheeded. Only one USACBI supporter running for an ASA office revealed his support for an Israel boycott, and he lost. The others, who hid their support, won.
BDS leader Barghouti, who seems to have no prior connection to the ASA, appears to have personally guided USACBI efforts from his base in Israel. In the run-up to the boycott vote, the defendants secretly submitted materials for circulation to the membership to Barghouti and other USACBI leaders for their approval. Other emails reveal suggestions by ASA leaders that the boycott’s scope, and when an Israeli institution could be “unboycotted,” should both be determined by USACBI, not the ASA itself.
After USACBI supporters took control of ASA’s National Council, they moved forward with their boycott plans. To ensure things went their way, the defendants manipulated the vote, refusing to give opponents equal time to make their case, rushing to recruit pro-BDS graduate students into the ASA, and then freezing membership rolls to block opponents of the resolution.
All of this cost the ASA real money, discovery documents suggest. To pay for resolution-related expenses, and to offset revenue shortfalls resulting from reputational damage, defendants appear to have improperly invaded the ASA’s trust fund and removed about $300,000. In early March, the court permitted plaintiffs to amend their complaint to add a variety of new claims, including breach of fiduciary duty for misappropriation of assets.
The new evidence serves as a warning to other groups beset by Israel-boycott proposals: they are pushed by activists who happily sacrifice these organizations’ reputations and finances to bash Israel. It also suggests that anti-Israel efforts in academia do not reflect a vast popular movement.
Nor are these efforts a sign of shifting intellectual climate towards Israel in universities. Instead, if the ASA case is representative, BDS in academia is driven by a small group of Israel haters who manipulate and lie their way into positions of power, knowing their cause actually has little support on campus.
Jesse Fried is a professor at Harvard Law School. Steven Davidoff Solomon is a professor at Berkeley Law. Both authors advised the plaintiffs’ counsel in the lawsuit against the American Studies Association.