ASA Boycott – Not Defending the Undefendable

I’ve said my piece (really more than my piece) regarding the academic boycott voted in by the American Studies Association last year.  But now that we’re closing in on the six month mark since a boycott against the Jewish state was made policy by an (admittedly marginal) academic group, it’s worth taking a step back to see what the consequences have been for Israel vs. the ASA.

As far as Israeli academics are concerned, I’m not aware of a single American Studies professor from a single university taking a single step to target an Israeli academic or institution in compliance with the boycott policy.  Perhaps someone can provide us an instance of the boycott actually being enacted, but as far as I can tell the leadership of the ASA has proven itself willing to put its organization, its members and the entire discipline of American Studies at risk for the sake of a policy they do not have the guts to actually implement.

Supporters of the ASA boycott point out that the action was primarily symbolic – a means to demonstrate that the organization (claiming to represent the ideals of academic inquiry and discourse) had become so sickened by Israeli policy that they were willing to use the blunt instrument of a boycott to express their disapproval.  But for this symbolism to hold, it must be demonstrated that the boycott actually represents some kind of consensus within the field, especially for a vote passed by a “majority” of just 16% of the organization’s members.

The best way to demonstrate that a “landslide” of 16% represents membership consensus would be to provide examples  of how the American Studies Association boycott call has been taken up by the academics and academic departments in whose name the ASA claims to speak.

Again, perhaps someone can tell me otherwise but as far as I can tell the boycott has yet to receive backing from a single American Studies department in the country.  Yes, I know that some individual academics support the ASA decision and some departments have defended the organization against attacks (especially legal and legislative ones) made in response to the boycott.  But as far as I can tell, the only responses by American Studies Departments to the boycott itself have involved schools and departments ending their relationship with ASA, or insisting that they no longer be listed (inaccurately) as institutional members (which caused the group to drop mention of institutional membership entirely from the latest edition of their journal).

Not only that, but two of the biggest regional ASA organizations (in California and the Northeast – those two hotbeds of reactionary academia) have specifically disassociated themselves from the boycott policy, essentially telling the national leadership that they want no part of a partisan vendetta that brings nothing to the field except shame.

And speaking of shame, if you consider the academy as a whole (not just the sliver of it that represents the field of American Studies), it looks as though the ASA boycott has cemented a consensus that says boycotts are a threat to the entire academic project.  And given that the moral utility of the boycott rests on the assumption that being condemned by an academic organization makes the target condemnable, the fact that much larger and more broad-based academic groups like AAUP and ACE have roundly lashed out against an academic boycott of Israel means – by the boycotters own standards – it is the ASA that has lost all moral standing.

One final argument that ASA leaders make to justify their decision (which, if history is any guide, they will go to any length to prevent being reversed) is that the boycott was meant to open up dialog on the Middle East (a dialog they claim is lacking and for which they desperately thirst).

Which makes it all the more strange that after a few embarrassing appearances in the media, this same leadership has largely “gone to ground,” avoiding discussing the matter in any forum where they cannot count on being surrounded entirely by partisan supporters.

Professor William Jacobson of Cornell Law School, who runs the web site Legal Insurrection (LI), reported that these same ASA leaders have urged members to not talk to him, which has not prevented LI from breaking most of the major news stories regarding the subject (including decisions by California and New England to defy the national organization’s boycott policy).

But probably the most telling example of how desperately the boycotters don’t want to engage in the conversation they claim to crave was this week’s appearance by Jacobson at Vassar College, a school where 39 professors attacked the college’s President’s when she joined over two-hundred other college and university presidents to condemn the ASA’s action (correctly) as an attack on academic freedom.

Jacobson originally presented his talk as a challenge to any or all of those 39 professors to debate him on the topic of the boycott (or BDS in general).  In other words, this single Cornell professor offered to be the lone voice willing to stand up to as many as 39 other scholars, all of whom back a policy they allegedly (1) believe in deeply; and (2) is meant to foster a conversation on the Middle East.

But given the chance to take to the field and defend their positions (with odds offered of nearly 40:1), every one of these professors declined, leaving Jacobson happily providing a lecture (which was fortunately not interrupted by the usual SJP heckling) to a packed audience.

I suggest you watch the whole thing since Jacobson’s Vassar talk lays bare the breathtaking cowardice and hypocrisy behind every claim made by the BDSers.  Yes, they are more than willing to hijack a membership organization in order to speak in the name of those who have shown no interest in enacting a policy that supposedly represents a moral imperative.  But not only are they unwilling to take any steps that would turn that policy into concrete action, they are also unwilling to step into the ring to defend their indefensible positions, even when given 39 seats to their opponent’s one.

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