In Protest Against the American Studies Association

The American Studies Association (ASA) infamously endorsed a boycott of Israeli academic institutions at its annual meeting in 2013. It was subsequently condemned by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the American Association of Universities (AAU), the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU), and the leaders of some 250 American colleges and universities. Unfortunately, the program for the 2016 annual meeting scheduled November 17-20 in Denver, Colorado shows that the ASA’s obsession with vilifying Israel has, if anything, intensified.

Among the proceedings are ten panels focused at least in part on the perceived evils of Israel and Zionism. This would not be surprising at an academic conference devoted to Middle Eastern and North African Studies but it is unusually high for American Studies.  The ideological conformity of the panels also raises serious questions about the ASA’s stated objective to serve as “a network of scholars, teachers, writers, administrators and activists from around the world who hold in common the desire to view US history and culture from multiple perspectives [emphasis added].”

A close examination of these panels, which include such titles as “Israel’s Lethal Involvement in Mega-Sporting Events: Heeding the Call for Boycott,” “Activating Palestinian Solidarity,” and “The Homes of Zionism: Circuits of White Supremacy between the Americas and Israel” indicates the one-sided nature of engagement with the subject in American Studies today Scholars on the first panel are preoccupied with the ways securitization and militarization in Israel are allegedly exported as strategies and techniques to serve as bases for racial oppression and repression in the U.S. and the Americas. Another panel refers to “Zionism as a form of settler colonialism that works hand-in-hand with white supremacy.” A number of ASA scholars on the panels openly affirm the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and Zionism, which they refer to as a kind of “decolonial resistance”, and seek to inject the logic of boycott into broader arguments they also make against the liberal academy as the servant of American imperialism.

Eight of ten panels are the products of ASA committees or political caucuses (e.g. the Activism Caucus).  Another is a session with participants from a Palestinian solidarity delegation, and yet another is a discussion by a new group on Critical Muslim and Critical Jewish Studies, which includes study of “activist movements and formations of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) and Black Lives Matter movements.” All the panels are in sync with the ASA’s politicized and biased view of the Israeli-Arab conflict, its propensity to assign blame for all ills in the region – and increasingly throughout the world – to the  state of Israel, and its refusal to acknowledge a right of self-determination for Jews.

An objective observer might ask why the American Studies Association lavishes so much attention on Israel and Zionism. In the aftermath of the boycott resolution and President Curtis Marez’s presidential address on Palestine in 2013, the ASA devoted an issue of its journal, the American Quarterly, to rationalizing this focus. An article by Berkeley lecturer and BDS activist Hatem Bazian maintained the ASA should take up the Palestinian cause in part because pro-Israel forces since 9/11 have managed to “consolidate Israel’s narrative in the United States and dominate the discourse inside academe, including American studies.” Such a claim, of course, bears little relation to reality, and a look at the 23 panels focused on Palestine at the ASA since 2001 shows members have made common cause with Palestinians and attacked Israel for many years.

Academic freedom allows scholars broad latitude to research and explore subjects they choose related broadly to their expertise. We affirm such freedom. However, academic freedom also demands accompanying responsibilities, among them openness to full inquiry and to debate. The ASA will showcase members’ work on Israel/Palestine at its meeting but there will be little debate, which has been effectively nearly completely driven out of the organization. The ASA deserves sharp criticism of its substitution of political activism for scholarship and its abdication of the mission to present “multiple perspectives.”

  • Robert H. Abzug, Professor of History and American Studies
    University of Texas at Austin
  • Joe Lockard, Associate Professor of English
    Arizona State University
  • Cary Nelson, Jubilee Professor of English
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Kenneth Waltzer, Professor of History Emeritus
    Michigan State University
About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.