Since the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, I have listened to arguments by ASA members who also opposed the boycott that we should not leave the association but should try to overturn the boycott from within to salvage the integrity of the association, safeguard our students, and maintain our own opportunities for professional exchange. But I’ve become convinced that few will actually challenge the resolution and current leadership and, if they do, they will face well-organized dissent. Although I will continue to work to overturn this divisive and discriminatory resolution, I see no serious choice but not to renew my membership until the boycott is rescinded – or there is enough anti-boycott activity within the ASA that rejoining would help to overturn it. The following is my letter to the current ASA’s leadership:
Dear Professors Marez and Duggan,
I write to you, the outgoing and incoming presidents of the ASA, to let you know that I will not renew my membership in the ASA until it rescinds its boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In taking this position, I join a growing list of institutions, including the American Council on Education, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, the Association of American Universities, the American Association of University Professors, and (at current count) 208 universities and colleges, whose leadership has rejected the ASA’s boycott. Although the problems with this boycott have been stated and restated by many more eloquent than I, I want to reiterate why I consider it to be worth leaving the organization over.
First, the boycott violates academic freedom. To the extent that restrictions in speech exist in Israel, the West Bank, or elsewhere, they should be met with more speech, not efforts to shut it down further. By squelching debate on complex issues, academic boycotts only move us farther away from peace. As importantly, they violate one of our core principles as an academic professional association, defending open discourse across geographic boundaries and diverse perspectives.
Second, I don’t accept the National Council’s distinction between a boycott of institutions and individuals. It is only those academics with personal means who can afford to operate independent of the institutions that support them.
Third, the boycott represents a distortion of the demands of Palestinian civil society. It apparently does not include President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian National Authority, Al Quds President Sari Nusseibeh, or various Palestinians and Arab Israelis who study in Israeli institutions and oppose the boycott.
Fourth, this boycott is part of a broader movement to delegitimize the State of Israel. According to the “Council Statement on the Academic Boycott of Israel” posted on the ASA’s website after the membership vote, the association will engage in a boycott “until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.” Other renditions of this statement are more explicit about the resolutions’ anti-Israel character. “What Does the Academic Boycott Mean for the ASA?” also posted on the organization’s website explains that it is “difficult” to determine when the boycott should end but then refers to the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI’s) website for elaboration. The USACBI’s website includes the following three specifications, which were repeatedly emphasized at the ASA’s featured “Town Hall” meeting in November: 1) end the occupation, 2) recognize the rights of Arab-Palestinian-Israelis to full equality, and 3) honor the Palestinian’s “right of return.” Even Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, sharp critics of Israel themselves, agree that the BDS movement’s support for a right of return implicitly calls for the destruction of the State of Israel. There are many ways the ASA could have protested Israeli policies toward the Palestinians; it has chosen an extreme strategy that nowhere affirms the legitimacy of the Jewish state, as recognized by the world in 1948.
Finally, I am disconcerted by the ASA’s process. Despite the National Council’s claims that it followed the association’s deliberative procedures, anyone present could see that the conversation was organized well ahead of time to be one-sided. The association refused to share with its members information that might raise questions about the boycott. The National Council declined requests to circulate or post to the ASA’s website the letters of opposition to the resolution signed by roughly seventy ASA members and an additional seventy Americanists who are not currently ASA members. It refused to circulate a letter against the resolution composed by eight former ASA presidents. Principled opponents of the boycott resolution could not post information on the ASA’s website without joining the Academic and Community Activism Caucus, the very group that proposed the odious boycott resolution.
Professional associations should represent the ideas of their constituents. It is Orwellian for ASA leaders, after railroading through their resolution, to cry that they have been intimidated by the university presidents and other voices in our own civil society who have assailed this resolution as discriminatory and antithetical to academic freedom.
As the spring semester begins at Stockton, I turn my attention to salvaging the damage that you and the ASA have done to a young program – an M.A. in American Studies – that I, as the founding director, have worked hard to build over the last year and a half. In that time, my faculty and I have created a multi-disciplinary program that studies American culture and society both within a local and global context. Our program seeks to nurture its students’ interests even as it pushes them to investigate “America” as a contested category whose meaning has changed over time. Despite our efforts, I fear for my students’ future, the outlook for Stockton’s American Studies program, and the prospects for the field in the aftermath of the dangerous institutional decision you have made. As if the humanities were not in sufficiently dire straits, as if our graduates did not already need to struggle to manage their debt and find jobs in a bleak economy, as if public institutions of higher learning had not already seen their budgets slashed over the past few years, you have added fuel to the flames by turning the world’s attention to the ASA’s proclivity to political activism over scholarship and the intellectual exchange of ideas. Rather than looking to build the reputation of the field and to prove that our students graduate with the skills that will help them to think creatively and boldly in the academic, not for profit, and other worlds, instead of proving that American Studies matters both for our students and for a broader audience, your myopic and wrongheaded political agenda has led you to close off conversation – not only with Israeli academics, but also with a broader audience that desperately needs to engage in complex and multi-sided conversations about, among many things, changing national identity and self- perceptions within a post-9/11, global world.
I hope to see the association restored at some point soon to its founding objective: “the study of American culture through the encouragement of research, teaching, publication, the strengthening of relations among persons and institutions in this country and abroad devoted to such studies.” In the meantime, please rest assured that although I am leaving the association, I will continue to work both with those who remain members and those outside the association to overturn this discriminatory and divisive boycott.
Sharon Ann Musher
Associate Professor of History and Director of American Studies
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey