American Studies Association Assaults Academic Freedom, Scholarship and Israel

In an act of shocking bigotry and ignorance, the American Studies Association (ASA) announced on December 16, 2013, that it endorses an academic boycott of Israel and supports the anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement.

The 20 voting members of the ASA National Council unanimously approved the boycott in early December, and then asked the general membership to vote on the resolution. Only 16 percent of the ASA’s 5,000 members (834) endorsed the boycott, but they formed a two-thirds majority of those who actually voted.

This resolution is intended to isolate and condemn Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East and one where free academic debate and research flourish.  Instead, the resolution is an indictment of the ASA and thoroughly discredits the organization.

The resolution and its supporters pretend that they are defending academic freedom when, in fact, they have launched a clear assault on academic freedom.  They were forced to resort to Orwellian double speak to claim otherwise. The prestigious American Association of University Professors (AAUP) urged the ASA to reject the measure precisely because academic boycotts are “violations of academic freedom.” In 2007, over 300 presidents of American universities signed a statement deploring academic boycotts as “utterly antithetical to the fundamental values of the academy.”

The resolution and its defenders make a travesty of scholarship, research and analysis. As in a kangaroo court, they presume their lurid accusations against Israel have been proven, ignore inconvenient facts, never analyze evidence or acknowledge the complex reality of the conflict. Their accusations are untrue, distorted, or completely ignore all context—from Palestinian terrorism and incitement against Israel and Hamas’ draconian censorship of educators and the media, to Israel’s many peace offers—as our published fact check on their resolution demonstrated.  Proponents piously claim they are simply answering the call from “Palestinian civil society,” but this, too, is spurious. Even PA President Abbas has said he opposes boycotts of Israel, as do the hundred thousand Palestinians who work in Israel and West Bank Jewish communities, and the many who have academic and research collaborations with Israel. This resolution is based on ignorance or intentional manipulation of facts, not the thought and analysis one would expect from those who call themselves scholars.

This resolution claims it promotes “social justice.” It does the opposite. It promotes injustice and bigotry and one of the world’s oldest forms of racism—against Jews. It uniquely discriminates against the Jewish state. It inverts reality, condemning Israel’s free and open academia, even as it ignores the rampant  academic repression in countries from China to Africa to the Middle East and beyond. The vote echoes dark periods of history: Jewish academics were among the first targeted by the Nazi regime; the Arab League has boycotted Israel since its founding, long before Israel gained control of the West Bank and Gaza.

The resolution promotes injustice in another way as well. Proponents insist the resolution is a response to Palestinian “civil society’s” call for boycotts, and have claimed that they would take similar action to help others who put out such a call. But one of the worst aspects of truly oppressive regimes is that they not only abuse human rights, but also brutally silence the voices of their victims. The people most in need of help do not have the ability to put out “a call by civil society.” The ASA leaves those who are truly silenced completely on their own. That is not “human rights activism.” It is moral and intellectual bankruptcy.

The debate and voting process at the ASA were typical of BDS efforts we have witnessed in other venues, including labor unions and even churches. A small, ideological anti-Israel contingent manages to gain or increase their influence on the political leadership, manipulates the system, and essentially hijacks the organization, diverting it from its central purpose, in this case, scholarship and education. The ASA has evidently abandoned scholarly values to advance crude political propaganda. As former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, said “My hope would be that responsible university leaders will become very reluctant to see their university funds used to finance faculty membership and faculty travel to an association that is showing itself not to be a scholarly association but really more of a political tool.”

The ASA has joined the ranks of those who sacrifice core values and crucial advances in knowledge and research in the service of bigotry against Jews.

University administrators should be wary of faculty who supported this resolution, particularly because they will mis-educate students and certainly not train them to investigate facts or analyze evidence. University donors should be sure their gifts are not used to support such travesties.

It is disappointing that many ASA members did not bother to vote and oppose the resolution. Passivity and silence are not options in the face of such bigotry. Other associations of scholars to be on the alert for similar efforts to hijack their organizations for this deplorable agenda. We should applaud the many ASA members and former ASA presidents who fought against this resolution and all those who have denounced it. We know that most Americans, scholars, and people of conscience understand the complexity of the conflict, and certainly do not want to harm the invaluable research partnerships with Israel which have led to advances in multiple fields that have benefited the world. In their 2007 statement, the 300 American university presidents declared, “Boycott Israeli universities? Boycott ours too!” We hope to see the same kind of united response again. We must all work together to expose the destructiveness and bigotry of BDS resolutions, and to counter and shame those who advocate them.

Roberta R. Seid PhD, StandWithUs Director of Research-Education co-authored this article.

About the Author
Roz Rothstein is the co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, an Israel education organization founded in 2001 which now has 18 offices in the US, Canada, Israel, the UK and Paris. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Rothstein and her husband Jerry, together with lay leaders such as StandWithUs President Esther Renzer, sought to share the inspiring story of modern Israel with the world, and educate the public about Israel’s achievements and challenges. StandWithUs’ goal is to empower Israel’s supporters globally to be Israel-educators by providing them with training, innovative educational materials, and programs. Prior to founding StandWithUs, Roz spent two decades as a family therapist, licensed in the state of California.  She also worked as the director of family programs at the Westside Jewish Community center and has served on a variety of boards in the Los Angeles area.    StandWithUs has become a leader of Israel advocacy in social media, effective print materials, conferences, and in mobilizing young adults in high school and college who want to educate their campuses about Israel. StandWithUs has also become a leader in organizing missions and conferences in Israel that bring international participants. Rothstein has authored multiple articles and spoken to groups around the world.  In 2007 and then again in 2012, the Forward named Rothstein one of America's 50 most influential Jews, and in 2011, the Jerusalem Post listed her as number 29 of the 50 most influential Jews in the world.