American Studies Association Boycott: The Backlash

Other web sites, notably Legal Insurrection (which has taken such a leadership role in responding to the American Studies Association boycott) have kept running commentaries of hostile responses to the decision of ASA to shun their Israeli colleagues (but just the Jewish ones) that came in the wake of the organization’s boycott vote earlier this month.

Since I can’t add much to the details others have been compiling and communicating, I shall instead try to put the substantial BDS backlash into a broader context, given my experience watching other boycott and divestment attempts (and the associated backlashes against them) play out at colleges and universities for over a decade.

Whenever a civil society group (in this case, an academic organization) is hijacked to serve as the mouthpiece for the political statements of anti-Israel partisans, the most effective voices countering ensuing boycott or divestment activity comes from the same branch of civil society.  Which is why, in the case of ASA, the voices that have done the most to shove BDS to the other side of the Pale have emerged from academia.

The highest profile response has come from college presidents, with over two-hundred of them (and counting) having expressed in no uncertain terms that the boycott represented what it indeed was: an assault on academic freedom.

Contrary to claims that these leaders have been reading from the same script, their condemnation of the ASA’s boycott have been diverse and colorful (my favorite comment coming from President John Garvey of Catholic University – the 100th school to sign onto the backlash – who said of ASA: “It has decided to pour gas not on the source of the fire but on bystanders, some of whom are trying to extinguish the flames”).

That said, these leaders have been careful to not take sides in the Middle East conflict when responding to the controversy, but instead focused on the issue most vital to the academy as a whole: the ability of scholars to enjoy freedom of inquiry without demands that they bow down to a particular set of partisan principles. For these Presidents recognize what the ASA boycotters have been trying to obscure: that once you establish precedent that says academic freedom must take a back seat to political interest, then there is no stopping any group of scholars from shunning any other in the name of whatever “higher principle” suits their fancy.

As important as these Presidents’ statements have been, an even more significant group to come out against ASA’s decision has been other academic organizations: including the American Association of University Professors (whose membership list is more than an order of magnitude larger than ASAs) and the American Council on Education (which represents over 1800 colleges and universities).

It was actually the boycotters who imbued decisions by AAUP, ACE, and similar groups with their enormous political significance since the message underlying BDS claims that the ASA vote has political meaning is that being condemned by an academic organization automatically makes one guilty and worthy of loathing.  This could help to explain why the ASA’s leadership refused to share with members the critical statements AAUP made before the vote (due to those statements allegedly containing “inaccuracies”) in favor of filling their communication pipeline exclusively with unverified and unedited bilge provided by BDS propaganda sites.

Ironically, the most significant academic condemnation of the boycott comes not from college leaders or major organizations, but from fellow members of the American Studies discipline whose opinions ASA claims to represent.  For right after the vote, six of the organization’s institutional members terminated their relationship with the group, and many more claimed to be inaccurately represented on the ASA web site as institutional partners and demanded their names be removed immediately.

Decisions to terminate relations with the American Studies Association have largely been left to American Studies departments within a school, which makes it supremely telling that in the month since the vote was taken not a single such department has come out in favor of the ASA’s decision.  Some have decided to stay in the organization despite the vote (with Middlebury College choosing to use their institutional membership to press for explanations and reforms). But nothing could say more about how much ASA does not represent the views the field it was established to support than the total lack of support they have received from that field.

Once you leave the academy, other backlash activity has been important, but less surprising.  Naturally, organizations that have fought against anti-Jewish hatred and other forms of bigotry for decades, such as the ADL, AJC and the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations, have continued the tradition of insisting BDS has no place either inside the Jewish “Big Tent” or within civil society as a whole.  Over 138 members of the US Congress issued a statement deploring the ASA’s boycott, and outside the Iranian and Saudi press (not to mention the fever swamps of BDS web sites) news and editorial surrounding the boycott has gone almost entirely against ASA.

Probably the most controversial backlash activity has been legal: including two lawsuits (or threatened lawsuits) against the organization and legislation filed in New York to force state colleges to break ties with ASA.

Long-time readers know that I’m not a major fan of turning to state power (either through government or the courts) to win a BDS battle.  For even though, when asked, I’ve provided eyewitness or expert testimony in two of the four BDS-related cases that have gone to court, I don’t think it’s an accident that in every one of those cases (three brought by BDSers, one by BDS opponents) those who initiated the suit have lost big.

Also, unlike political losses that can be reversed by later wins, failing in court establishes legal precedent that is much harder to later reverse.  And given how successful we’ve been beating BDS politically over the last decade and a half, I’m not sure if courts or legislatures are needed to show the boycotters the door.

All that said, it’s important to sum up by pointing out that the backlash against ASA has the exact form of what the BDSers dream about when they go to bed each night.  For what is the shunning of ASA by the rest of the academy if not a form of boycott (at least against the principle ASA now stands for)?  And what are American Studies Departments pulling out the organization doing but divesting themselves from the organization?

And regardless of what you think about the efficacy of government proposed punishments (vs. legislators using their free speech rights to condemn BDS), the only way to describe what’s been going on in State Houses and Congress is as a form of sanction against the organization.

In other words, in the last month we’ve seen BDS in full flower.  And unlike the anti-Israel variant which has taken close to fifteen years to achieve nothing, this successful BDS campaign has reached critical mass in mere weeks.

Pity, then, for Omar Barghouti and the “movement” he leads, given that the first successful BDS campaign they have triggered is one that has them as its target.

Next up: The Response