What Does the American Studies Association’s Israel Boycott Mean for Academic Freedom?

What Does the American Studies Association’s Israel Boycott Mean for Academic Freedom?

What Does the American Studies Association’s Israel Boycott Mean for Academic Freedom?

The BDS movement is having a powerful impact in Israel, but there are dangers in applying boycotts to academia.


CorrectionIn the original version of this piece, I mistakenly attributed Omar Barghouti’s words about academic freedom to Judith Butler. I came across the quote in Judith Butler’s journal article “Israel/Palestine and the Paradoxes of Academic Freedom.” In the original, from Radical Philosophy, Barghouti’s words are clearly set off to indicate that they are, in fact a quotation. In the version I read, at the European Graduation School website, that formatting is absent, making them seem as if Butler authored them. I regret the error and sincerely apologize to Butler. (Editor’s Note: The text of this blog post has been changed to correct this error.)


Here is something confusing about the debate over the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel: its supporters, in general, have lesser expectations for its concrete impact than its opponents do. The people fighting for it also minimize it as largely symbolic.

On Wednesday, the ASA’s national council voted unanimously in favor of boycotting Israel. In an unusual move, the council then threw the question to the ASA’s approximately 5,000 members, who have until December 15 to vote. If it passes, the ASA will become the second significant American academic association to boycott Israel, after the Association for Asian American Studies, which joined the boycott in April. It will be a sign that the BDS movement, long far more influential in Europe than in the United States, is gaining a real foothold in American academia.

That’s likely to be alarming to many Israelis, even if they’re not particularly concerned with the opinions of radical American professors. Indeed, one of the strongest arguments in favor of BDS is the degree to which it seems to be shaking the Israeli establishment. As Haaretz editor in chief Aluf Benn wrote in June, “Netanyahu is worried about the growing international boycott against Israel….He hears warnings in the business community about the damage the diplomatic impasse is causing…. If he thought it was harmless noise, he would ignore or minimize the problem. But Netanyahu apparently fears being remembered as the leader during whose time Israel was distanced from the family of nations.”

Many in Israel were shocked earlier this year when Stephen Hawking, acceding to the boycotters, pulled out of Israel’s prestigious President’s Conference. Discussing the reaction of Israel’s leadership, former Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner wrote, “Behind closed doors they’re laughing at Kerry’s peace mission; they’re not laughing at Stephen Hawking or BDS, are they?”

So BDS appears to be working. But even if you believe, as I do, that the Israeli occupation is a great crime, the movement presents real ethical problems when it’s applied to academia. It’s repellant to contemplate Israeli professors being shut out of conferences or barred from journals for no reason other than their ethnicity, or forced to prove sufficient opposition to the occupation to be part of international intellectual life. Arguing against the resolution, New School History professor Claire Potter, who runs a blog called “Tenured Radical” at The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote, “Scholars of any nation ought to be free to travel, publish and collaborate across borders: I consider this to be a fundamental human right, and so does the United Nations. We in the American Studies Association cannot defend some of those human rights and disregard others.”

Some fervent backers of academic BDS reject this argument on the grounds Palestinians are denied their rights to travel and collaborate across borders; in this view, concern for the freedoms of Israeli scholars smacks of bourgeois privilege. Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, has been blithely dismissive of academic freedom as a first principle: “The right to live, and freedom from subjugation and colonial rule, to name a few, must be of more import than academic freedom,” he wrote. “If the latter contributes in any way to suppression of the former, more fundamental rights, it must give way.”

This argument is alarming—who, one might ask, gets to decide when academic freedom must be jettisoned?—but it’s not the one that supporters of the ASA boycott are making. To be sure, they believe that they’re championing Palestinian academic freedom. But they also say that their boycott is narrowly drawn to apply only to collaboration with Israeli institutions, not individual professors, and so its impact on the academic freedom of Israeli intellectuals and the people who work with them will be negligible. “There is no limitation on Israeli scholars coming to give lectures or talks or engaging in any other kind of dialogue or project,” says national council member Sunaina Maira, a professor at UC Davis. “It is targeted at formal collaboration with or sponsorship by Israeli academic institutions. Mere affiliation is not boycotted.”

What does that mean in practice? The boycott “bars the ASA as an organization from entering into partnerships with Israeli institutions,” says Matthew Frye Jacobson, a Yale professor and past president of the ASA, another national council member. “Not that there’s a whole lot of that that has ever gone on anyway, so in that sense it’s symbolic.” The boycott would also prohibit invitations to representatives of Israeli universities in their official capacity—in other words, deans and provosts speaking on their schools’ behalf—but, again, that’s not something that happened much, if at all, to begin with.

Still, there’s reason to think that, informally, the boycott will go further. On the ASA website, there’s a link to the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which calls for institutional boycotts like the ASA’s to be broadly interpreted. Even if invitations or conversations with Israeli colleagues aren’t prohibited, it says, “[A]ll academic exchanges with Israeli academics do have the effect of normalizing Israel and its politics of occupation and apartheid. Academics could consider whether equally valuable contributions might not be made by non-Israeli colleagues; whether an invitation to a Palestinian intellectual might be preferable; whether the exchange is intellectually or pedagogically essential.”

This is ugly and stupid. One might just as easily make an argument for shunning Noam Chomsky on the ground that his employer, MIT, is a major defense contractor, making him in some ways a party to America’s manifold misdeeds in the Middle East.

So the boycott could turn into a de facto blacklist, though if it manages to contribute to a powerful movement against the Israeli occupation without discriminating against individual scholars, it could also be a force for good. One of the best arguments in favor of BDS in general comes from Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, who wrote in July, “On the assumption that the current status quo cannot continue forever, [BDS] is the most reasonable option to convince Israel to change…As long as Israelis don’t pay a price for the occupation, or at least don’t make the connection between cause and effect, they have no incentive to bring it to an end.” But when it comes to the university, exacting that price has a price of its own.

Update, December 7, 2013, 5:30pm:After I posted this piece, I learned that Claire Potter had changed her position on the ASA resolution and voted yes. Reached by phone, she explained how the shift in her thinking came out. When she first expressed qualms about the academic boycott, she says, “The response was overwhelming. There were massive numbers of people, including a lot of people I know, just writing these nasty things on my blog about what a horrible person I was.”

As the debate about BDS and academic freedom has moved forward, she looked for a way to engage in it constructively, but increasingly felt like she couldn’t do so from outside. “The problem, when you hold to a position so rigidly, you yourself become part of the polarization,” she says. “I all of the sudden became a cause célèbre for all kinds of other people, when that is really not what I intended at all. I would like to have a conversation about academic freedom within this strategy.”

A couple of things convinced her that that was possible. First, the ASA National Council adapted the boycott resolution to make its commitment to academic freedom clearer. And then, rather than simply passing the resolution itself, it took the unusual step of putting it to a vote of the ASA membership, which struck her as an effort at compromise. “If there had been concessions on both sides and they had been able to come to a consensus around this vision, I felt like I should support them, because compromise is hard work.”

Essentially, she decided to give her colleagues the benefit of the doubt. “It has become clear to me that there is a shift in political concerns, that maybe I need to see how it works,” she says. “Everybody in BDS says this is not a restriction of academic freedom, that individuals will not be targeted. I’m going to take a leap of faith and say ok, lets see if this does in fact work out the way you say its going to work out.”

Elizabeth Segran writes about a recent groundswell of feminist sentiment throughout the Muslim world.

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