Six days after its membership voted to implement an academic boycott against Israeli universities, the American Studies Association’s Caucus on Academic and Community Activism hurriedly issued a defensive appeal for support bemoaning, in the wake of a tsunami of backlash, what it defined as a “campaign of intimidation against the ASA.”
Instead of taking responsibility for the significant and profoundly damaging action it collectively took by approving the boycott in the first place, the ASA saw the wide-ranging negative response from the academic community as an attack on the organization’s integrity, its stated solidarity with the Palestinians, and its overall credibility as an academic organization. The ASA also struck back with a well-worn tactic used by those individuals and groups who participate in the demonization and delegitimization of Israel as part of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign: the ASA reflexively, and disingenuously, accused “powerful and well-funded academic and non-academic organizations” of “mount[ing] a public campaign aimed at destroying the Association.”
The paranoid notion that “powerful and well-funded” interests had any desire to even notice, let alone seek to destroy, the ASA, is ridiculous.
More troubling is that this statement reveals that ASA members naively believed that they could institute a broad academic boycott against Israel, call for Jewish academics to be shunned, and tar the reputation of Israeli scholars without anyone with opposing views answering back these slanders with counter-arguments and opposing views.
The ASA claimed that the wide condemnation came after the boycott vote – not because the boycott’s concept was intellectually defective and ran counter to academia’s values, but “because it dared to express criticism of Israel.”
More significant is that, in singling out Israel and Jewish academics to be boycotted, many, including former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, observed that the ASA boycott was possibly ant-Semitic, “if not in intent, then in effect.” The ASA responded by saying “these organizations falsely accuse the ASA membership of being anti-semitic [sic],” and “bent on the destruction of Israel.”
The ASA members may not like being accused of exhibiting anti-Semitic behavior, but several working definitions of anti-Semitism, including those by the U.S. State Department and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, suggest that such actions, in targeting Israel and holding it to a different standard of behavior than all other nations—something which this boycott clearly does—is one criteria by which speech and actions can be considered anti-Semitic.
Protestations and defenses aside, the issue is far more obvious than the members of ASA care to realize, and much less insidious. Those who speak back to ideologues do so not to suppress criticism of Israel; academic freedom grants the professors the right to spew forth any academic meanderings they wish, but it clearly does not make them free from being challenged for their thoughts.
The core issue is that just as the pro-Palestinian activists within the ASA have the right under the umbrella of academic free speech to express their views—no matter how factually inaccurate, vitriolic, or repellant they may be—those within and outside academia with opposing views also have the right, under the same precepts of free expression, to question the ASA’s views, and to call them anti-Semitic, or racist, or genocidal, or merely historically inaccurate or incorrect. It is naïve and unrealistic, at best, for the ASA leadership to think it could call for such a potentially damaging boycott, which seriously violates fundamental academic principles, without any response from a great many people with opposing views about the wisdom of such an action.
That the academics of the ASA do not understand, or choose to ignore, such a fundamental concept is troubling, and yet more evidence that universities have become, as Abigail Thernstrom has described them, “islands of repression in a sea of freedom.”