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One year after boycott vote, Israel issue still divides ASA

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Members of the American Studies Association gathered last year for their annual meeting and a vociferous debate on the wisdom of initiating an academic boycott of Israel.
One year later, the debate is over and the boycott resolution has long since passed — but the aftereffects are still being felt.

Attendees at this year’s meeting, held last week in this city, reported receiving death threats and hate mail over their positions on the boycott. Others have been accused of anti-Semitism or spoke of colleagues cowed into silence for fear of hurting their careers.

The boycott debate and the subsequent public backlash have left advocates for both sides, as well as many in the middle, feeling besieged.

“When people make broad political gestures, as the ASA did with this action, the intent is to polarize the debate — and by that measure the ASA has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams,” said Micki McGee, director of the American studies program at Fordham University.

The tense atmosphere for the ASA’s annual meeting was apparent before it even started. A statement by the ASA leadership in December that it would not collaborate with “scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of [Israeli] institutions” led to questions over whether Israeli scholars could even attend. The ASA confirmed that they could and three did, as well an administrator from Haifa University who encountered no difficulties.

The association also employed stringent requirements for media credentials, insisting on a photo ID and extensive verification that journalists and their publications covered higher education and were not “advocacy publications.”

All of this took place against a broader academic landscape beset by budget cuts and worries about diminishing job opportunities and curbs on academic freedom. The tone of the gathering was captured in a Friday afternoon session called “Scholars Under Attack.”

Still, ASA officials said they stood by the boycott.

Curtis Marez, a past president of the association and chair of the ethnic studies department at the University of California, San Diego, said the ASA has experienced a net gain of individual members and no net loss of institutional members in the wake of the boycott. The organization also just completed the largest fundraising campaign in its history, bringing in $50,000.

“Passing and maintaining the boycott has been well worth it,” said Marez, who serves on the ASA Council and the organization’s executive committee. “Even with the boycott, the ASA is thriving.”

Asked about the death threats that he and other members of the ASA Council have received, Marez said, “Getting discussion of these issues going, if it means a few emailed death threats, is a worthwhile cost given what Palestinians face every day.”

Mohammed Wattad, an Arab-Israeli professor at the Zefat College School of Law in northern Israel, derided the boycott as an assault on democratic principles and suggested that the ASA was trying to have it both ways by saying that Israeli professors were still welcome.

“The trouble is that the ASA’s resolution to boycott Israeli academia is fake,” Wattad said. “One has the feeling that the ASA is trying to tiptoe between the raindrops.”

Unlike last year’s meeting, there were no sessions this time debating the boycott. Instead, there was one modestly attended session opposed to the boycott and numerous others where speakers voiced criticisms of Israel as well as their support for the academic boycott and the larger Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

For the critics, the boycott is a violation of academic freedom and the democratic ideal of free exchange of ideas. It is also, some say, outside the ASA’s zone of expertise.

“I’m not opposed to the ASA taking a political stance,” said Michael Rockland, who founded the American studies department at Rutgers University. But, he added, “I feel that Israel-Palestine has absolutely nothing to do with the study of American society and culture.”

Supporters of the boycott say that this is precisely why a boycott is needed — to raise awareness that the issues in Israel-Palestine are relevant to their discipline.

“It woke up American studies to the significance of Palestine in some of their own studies,” said Sondra Hale, a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Hale said issues of Palestinian indignity can link to Native American studies, and that Israeli settler colonialism links to the study of Africa and the African-American experience.
Debate over these issues on campuses has been anything but academic.

Nancy Koppelman, a professor of American studies at Evergreen State College in Washington state and a boycott opponent, said she has “been accused of wanting to kill babies in Palestine.” McGee, at Fordham, said she received hate mail accusing her of anti-Semitism.

At the conference, too, both sides employed highly charged rhetoric.

“The call for an academic boycott resembles an act of terrorism,” Wattad said. “You take innocent people, you impose fear on them, and you treat them as means in order to change the policies of the government. This is exactly what the ASA is doing right now.”

At the Scholars Under Attack panel, Steven Salaita, who became a cause celebre of the BDS movement after his tenure offer from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was revoked over some anti-Israel tweets, mocked the university’s assertion that the withdrawal resulted from concerns about his incivility.

“Civility is the language of genocide,” Salaita told an appreciative crowd. “It’s inherently a deeply violent word. It’s a word whose connotations can be seen as nothing if not as racist.”

The onslaught of charge and counter charge left some feeling frustrated by the lack of reasoned interaction, yet there were few signs that the issue was going to let up anytime soon. Anti-boycott activists discussed forming a caucus to promote academic exchanges with Israeli and Palestinian universities, while boycott supporters planned further steps to advance BDS on campuses and encourage other academic groups to pass their own boycotts.

“We’ve been debating for so many years,” said Hale, a boycott supporter. “We haven’t had the floor. And we’ve got the floor now, and that’s highly significant.”