In the past few years, the American Studies Association (ASA) has been diverted from its scholarly mission—promoting the study of American culture—to a political one, by leaders seeking to turn the ASA into an organization that advocates for social change far beyond American borders, and with an unwavering focus on delegitimizing Israel. This effort culminated in a resolution for an academic boycott of Israel in December 2013.
The Israel boycott was put together by a small group that has commandeered the ASA, and is opposed by a substantial number of ASA members. It has torn the group asunder. It has sullied the name of the ASA. And, we contend, it violates the law.
Recently, the four of us filed a lawsuit against the ASA to return the group to its core scholarly mission. We are lifelong academics in the field of American studies. All of us care deeply about the study of American civilization. We have given our professional lives to the study of this rich field, and through our teaching, we seek to pass along our passion to our students. Combined, we have been teaching American studies for approximately 150 years. One of us is the editor of the ASA’s Encyclopedia of American Studies and an ab officio officer of the ASA, and another is a former editor of the annual Bibliography Issue of the American Quarterly, the official journal of the ASA. Two of us are winners of the Marie Turpie Prize, the ASA’s award for outstanding teaching, advising and program development in American studies.
We now fear what will happen to academic programming in American studies. We see how the ASA’s anti-Israel boycott has alienated our students. Few of our students and fellow faculty members attend ASA meetings any longer.
The main claim of our suit is that using a boycott to attack Israel is outside the scope of the ASA’s own legal purpose, enshrined in its corporate charter, which is to promote “the study of American culture” and the “broadening of knowledge about American culture.”
For over sixty years, the ASA loyally fulfilled its stated mission, becoming the leading organization for educating the public on American culture and the home for preeminent scholars of American studies. But the academic boycott of Israel has nothing to do with the ASA’s purpose of “broadening knowledge about American culture.” Indeed, the boycott is at odds with the ASA’s mission, by reducing the ability of U.S. and Israeli scholars and students to work collaboratively on the study and teaching of American culture. The boycott even prevents ASA members from working with the many Arabs who study at Israeli universities. Thus, under well-known principles of corporate law, the boycott is illegal.
The reason for specifying a purpose in the charter of a non-profit entity, such as a church or academic organization, is to make members or donors feel secure that their contributions will be used for that purpose, and not later hijacked for an altogether different one. Just as it would be wrong to take control of a church, temple, or mosque, and use its resources to promote another faith, it is wrong to take a scholarly organization such as the ASA and turn into a political organization aimed at “social change”. We dedicated our time and effort to the American Studies Association in order to build a scholarly organization, not to provide a platform for those who are interested in making foreign policy pronouncements. In addition to betraying us and our efforts, the anti-Israel warriors running the ASA have created a distraction at substantial cost to the ASA in terms of membership and lost revenue. They have also exposed our group to ridicule.
Our lawsuit also claims that the process by which the boycott resolution was passed was procedurally and legally flawed. The vote itself was manipulated. Among other things, the same few actively anti-Israel members recruited their own students to join the organization (at reduced rates) and limited the ability of those with opposing views to speak in an effort to tilt the vote in their favor. And even after such manipulations, the boycott received support from only 828 of the approximately 5,000 members of the ASA.
We strongly support free speech. Indeed, one reason why we are against the boycott is that it chills speech and the free academic exchange of ideas. We believe that the proponents of the Israel boycott should be allowed to voice their opinions, and that the truth will win out. But they are not entitled to use the ASA – funded by the annual fees of over 5,000 American studies scholars – as a megaphone for demonizing Israel. If these members want to boycott Israel they should do it personally, or through the various organizations devoted to that cause. They should not be permitted to take over our organization which is devoted to American, not Israel, nor Arab, studies – and whose mission is studies, not politics.
We want our organization back and returned to the study of America. That is our right, and it is the right we have brought this case to enforce.
Bronner and Rockland are professors of American studies and longtime members of the ASA.