ASA is not following an academic path

Fortunately, many have taken issue with the American Studies Association (ASA) move to boycott Israeli higher education. A clear response in opposition to the ASA’s position was provided by numerous colleges and universities as well academic umbrella organizations. The rationale for these opposing groups centers on issues from academic freedom to the ASA’s focus on Israel despite violations of human rights and academic freedom being more pronounced elsewhere in the world.

Whereas I most certainly agree with the charges leveled at the ASA, my concern in particular is the absence of “academic” thinking in the process that culminated in the decision. When investigating an issue, scholars generally follow a particular pathway. These paths can vary but they all hold elements dear. The pathway followed by the ASA, however, falls well short of a rigorous academic approach. Normally an academic begins to assess an issue by first becoming acquainted with relevant background material. For, example they review earlier debates or discussions of the matters, considering the various perspectives of a host of scholars. It is critical to the process that various opposing sides of the issue be represented and examined. In addition, as one prepares for an investigation, criteria are set by which outcomes can be tested to determine whether the outcome favors one position over another.

From my reading of the process, there appears to have been little consideration given to competing perspectives. Apparently, other than online discussions no real attempt was made to review the arguments against a boycott move. There have been numerous discussions of this matter. Also, historical context was absent from the discussion. In fact, members who were unfamiliar with the issue were never provided with an unbiased and informative historical review covering the complexity and extent of Middle East conflict-vital to an informed decision.

With regard to criteria by which to measure the appropriate position on such a critical matter, apparently there were none or maybe one. As a brief exercise let’s consider a few criteria that would make sense. The one criterion hinted at by the organization was the “complicity” of higher education in furthering the aims of oppression. Of course, the evidence offered was simply that the institutions function in Israel, and therefore are presumed to be complicit in government policy (presumably by providing technical know- how, intelligence, etc.). Such reasoning implicates higher education in any country that exhibits oppressive practices or policies deemed to cause human suffering. Using that criterion, one might be tempted to boycott higher education in at least half the countries of the world (probably a good deal more). In fact, if one looked at U.S. practices in Iraq, or current drone policy, for example, perhaps the ASA might wish to extend its boycott to U.S. institutions.

Another reasonable criterion would be whether the curriculum of academic institutions is set or regulated by the state. How about whether institutions of higher education are open to minorities or women? Or, whether alternative life conduct, e.g. gay life, is acceptable? Do the institutions encourage minority or female attendance by providing scholarships specifically provided such groups? Is open debate about government policy permitted at the institutions? All these would be reasonable criteria, and frankly Israeli institutions would pass such tests. However, many institutions around the world adhering to prevailing cultural norms in their countries and/or acting as protectors of governmental policies would fail, and fail badly. It is clear that ASA fashioned their action without really considering the specific policies of the institutions themselves or the extent of governmental interference in the conduct of higher education.

Having defined the problem, you design an approach or method to collect the data and then you collect evidence to inform your decision. What was ASA’s method and manner of evidence collection? Did anyone perform a site visit to determine whether in fact institutions of higher learning in Israel were promoting “offensive” policies? Did anyone visit Israel and then other countries to determine whether Israel’s oppressive actions restricted human development to a level that was so exceptional that it and it alone deserved a special singling out? Did a committee determine how a process assessing “boycott worthy” actions would be determined and then apply those measures to countries around the globe?

Of course, the head of committee recommending the boycott action concluded famously that you “have to begin somewhere,” when it comes to boycotts. Without data, however, how do you determine which candidate (country’s institutions) is most worthy of the place to “begin?” Would any of these ASA academics accept a manuscript whose authors argued in favor of one position over another rests because you “have to begin somewhere?” Would they accept such reasoning from an undergraduate?

The point is that without setting criteria to determine “boycott worthy,” devising a method for assessing whether the criteria were met, and then actually collecting data, the actions of the ASA appears to have simply been a response to a lobbying effort! There was nothing academic at all in their preparation for a vote. Is this the type of critical thinking academics wish to promote in their classrooms or scholarship? No, it is actually a response that probably most members of this progressive group would find offensive in any other context. Think, (ASA member) about whether the strong effort of the gun lobby has placed us in a better position to discuss and formulate policy regarding gun safety. Now, I might be way off here, but my bet is that the majority of ASA members find setting gun policy based on the strength of a lobbying effort as not the best way to resolve the scourge of gun violence. My bet is that they would prefer a reasonable debate based on evidence, criteria, and a complete understanding of the issue. In sum, what ASA has done is vote for a lobby effort over academic exploration, over evidence-based discussion. They voted for the antithesis of the academic enterprise. They voted based on the power of a lobby.

About the Author
Seth Greenberg was born in NYC and currently lives in NJ and Jerusalem (half-time in each location); He is a professor of Psychology, having held endowed Chairs at both Union College and Carleton College; He is published in areas of attention, memory, reading, face recognition with a number of Israeli co-authors; He has children and grandchildren in the US and Israel; and he leads student term abroad programs in Israel and hosted Shabbat dinners on campus.