The Association for Anti-Israel Studies?

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Chartered in 1951, The American Studies Association (ASA) still describes itself as “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.” We will see if there is anything left of the organization’s mission when members gather this weekend in Washington D.C. for its annual meeting. On the agenda: an open discussion about a proposed academic boycott of Israel.

There may not be much left  of the old ASA. A little more than a decade ago, Alan Wolfe took note of the rise of a generation of scholars of American Studies who had “developed a hatred for America so visceral that it [made] one wonder why they [bothered] studying America at all.”

Not long after Wolfe’s remarks appeared, Leo Marx, a past president of the ASA, backed Wolfe up (unfortunately the article is gated). He identified an “energetic cohort of vocal, theoretically inclined, ultra-left Americanists” who had enthusiastically adopted the premise that “the U.S. as a whole—the nation state itself—no longer is a worthy object of teaching and research.” Those victimized by the U.S. inside and outside its borders, and the character and causes of their victimization, were the new worthy objects of teaching and research.

Though Marx did not think this cohort was the only voice in his field, he affirmed that Wolfe was responding to a “reasonably representative sample of current thinking” in American Studies at that time.

That thinking is well entrenched if this year’s meeting is any indication. The theme is “Beyond the Logic of Debt: Toward an Ethics of Collective Dissent.” According to the program highlights, organizers received hundreds of proposals “representing an exciting range of projects that foreground practical, material, and institutional contexts such as indigenous land theft, home foreclosure, environmental devastation, health care inequities, military violence, occupation, prison, and education, as well as rich historical and conceptual work around key words like debt, obligation, ethics, collectivity and dissent.” Members can expect to hear about prisons (“carceral spaces”), “settler colonialism,” slavery, “racial capitalism,” “anti-blackness,” and “social death.”

“United States” appears just once in the highlights, in the description of a “town hall” that will use “the theme of debt and dissent” to encourage a discussion  of “The United States and Israel/Palestine” with a particular focus “on their significance for American Studies.”

But what is their significance for American Studies, and why is the American Studies Association entertaining a resolution to boycott Israel? When the Association for Asian American Studies voted up a comparable resolution in April, members could at least assert, however weakly, that the Middle East is in “West Asia.” American Studies has no such fallback, so you might expect the resolution’s proposers to admit  that the field as they see it now stands for a highly selective stand against injustice, targeting the United States and its junior partner in imperialist crime, Israel.

But, whether because the resolution’s drafters think that such an admission would be bad for donor relations or because there are still those in American Studies who might object to a professional scholarly organization taking a stand on a matter about which it cannot be supposed to have any scholarly expertise, the proposed resolution against Israel pins its justification on “academic freedom.” The “Occupation” imposes restrictions on Palestinian students within Israel, has sometimes entailed the temporary closing of Palestinian universities, and has made it difficult for students from Gaza to travel to the West Bank.

Set aside the vexed question of who is responsible for the undeniable restrictions to which Palestinian students are subject. From the standpoint of academic freedom alone, the ASA can hardly justify targeting Israeli universities which, according to the nonpartisan, widely respected NGO, Freedom House, “are open to all students based on merit, and have long been centers for dissent.”

The resolution’s supporters will answer that Israeli universities have been “directly and indirectly complicit in the systematic maintenance of the Occupation.” Instances of such complicity are left unspecified. But it is reasonable to assume, since the resolution charges all Israeli academic institutions, that “complicity” means conducting government funded research, providing certain benefits for veterans, reservists, and trainees, and obeying the law. Of course, if that is sufficient to justify an academic boycott, the resolution’s backers, who think that the United States is itself a colonizing power whose support for Israel makes “the Occupation” possible, ought to be boycotting their own institutions. But such a move could prove costly to them, so it is out of the question.

The ASA certainly has not conducted its own research into the matters on which members are being asked to pronounce. The drafters of the resolution, who ought to know better, say that the “United Nations has reported,”concerning the effects of “the Occupation” on Palestinian education, what only Richard Falk, the Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied Since 1967 has reported. That is the Richard Falk who declared after the Boston Marathon bombing that the “American global domination project is bound to generate all kinds of resistance in the post-colonial world.” This error, in light of U.N. double standards on Israel, would be immaterial, but for the strong indication it gives that the ASA, if it accepts the resolution, will be approving a document that is either slipshod or intentionally propagandistic.

If it accepts the resolution, the ASA will also invite scrutiny of its failure, as it issues communiqués on Middle Eastern affairs, to address academic freedom in its own sphere of influence, the Americas. That is par for the course. When the ASA did pronounce on “Academic Freedom in the Americas in 2005,” it dealt solely with the failure of the U.S. to grant visas to “Cuban (and other) scholars” to attend its 2004 conference. Restrictions on academic freedom in Cuba, where, according to Freedom House, teaching “materials for mathematics and literature must contain ideological content,” escaped the organization’s notice, as have restrictions on academic freedom in other Central and South American countries.

In its 1915 Declaration of Principles of Academic Freedom, the Association of American University Professors declares that the “liberty of the scholar . . . to set forth his conclusions” is “conditioned by their being conclusions gained by a scholar’s method and held in a scholar’s spirit.” If the ASA accepts the invitation of the resolution’s drafters to engage in anti-Israeli partisanship for which the discipline of American Studies cannot possibly provide scholarly justification, it will undermine the basis of academic freedom. The Declaration adds that if academics themselves do not check their colleagues who use academic freedom as a shelter for “uncritical and intemperate partisanship, it is certain that the task will be performed by others.”

It is heartening to see that, unlike the Association of Asian American studies, the ASA has members who are willing to take a public stand against an academic boycott of Israel. It is my fond hope that if the ASA passes a resolution against Israel, at least some members will leave the organization, with a view to forming a new one, dedicated to the ASA’s original mission of studying American culture and history. That is the kind of boycott I could get behind.

Jonathan Marks is a Professor of Politics at  Ursinus College. This piece was written for SPME


The Association for Anti-Israel Studies?

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