I'm a professor of American Studies. My professional organization is the American Studies Association (ASA), of which I've been a member for more than a decade. Over the course of those years I've organized, chaired, and presented papers on panels at several of the annual meetings of the ASA. I also hold a very minor leadership position in the association, serving on the ASA Committee on Departments, Programs, and Centers. At our most recent committee meeting held last month in Washington, DC, I was selected to be co-chair for the 2014-2015 academic year.
I say all of this because on Wednesday of this week, after more than a week of intensive discussion among a group of people I respect, the National Council of the ASA endorsed a call for an academic boycott of Israel, a boycott initiated in 2005 and coordinated by the Palestinian BDS National Committee. (BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.)
The Council was unanimous in its support of the boycott. It has put the resolution to a vote of the ASA membership, encouraging members to endorse the resolution, but agreeing to withdraw the resolution if a majority votes in opposition to the idea of an academic boycott of Israel.
I've cast my vote in opposition. I want to make public some of my reasons why, speaking only on behalf of myself.
First, I believe that the primary role of a professional academic organization is to advocate for the needs and concerns of its members within their professional lives. In that regard, I believe that the American Studies Association should be devoting its energies to supporting and advancing the careers of its members by, for example, advocating for improved working conditions for adjunct faculty members, articulating the strengths of interdisciplinary scholarship to skeptical audiences, and providing material and moral support when American Studies programs are at risk of being eliminated at colleges and universities.
Second, I don't believe that academic boycotts advance the cause of academic freedom, and I believe that defending academic freedom should be a paramount concern of any academic organization. The ASA is very sensitive to this issue, but the Council's interpretation of the boycott's potential impact on academic freedom differs from my own.
The association's explanation of the meaning of the boycott resolution reads, in part: "The ASA understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the ASA in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others), or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law."
It goes on: "We are expressly not endorsing a boycott of Israeli scholars engaged in individual-level contacts and ordinary forms of academic exchange, including presentations at conferences, public lectures at campuses, and collaboration on research and publication. U.S. scholars are not discouraged under the terms of the boycott from traveling to Israel for academic purposes, provided they are not engaged in a formal partnership with or sponsorship by Israeli academic institutions."
I take the latter paragraph to mean that ASA members are discouraged from pursuing Fulbright research or teaching opportunities in Israeli universities, as Fulbright opportunities typically require explicit affiliation with host institutions. That, to my mind, is a restriction of the academic freedom of individual scholars. (The ASA acknowledges it has no "legislative authority over its members" that would prevent them from engaging in such work, but I am troubled by even symbolic gestures that could restrict academic freedom.)
Finally, it is unclear just what conditions need to be met in order for the boycott to be lifted, as the ASA itself has noted. Perhaps the best clues to finding out the terms of boycott can be found on the BDS website.
Or, perhaps not. The first stated goal of the BDS movement is the return of Arab lands. In the original boycott call issued in 2005, that goal was written as: "Ending [Israel's] occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall." However, a different version of the BDS call reads: "Ending [Israel's] occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall."
Those two versions of the boycott's primary goal are significantly different. The original call can be interpreted to mean that BDS wants to go back to conditions prior to the creation of the state of Israel.
I don't believe that the ASA National Council or the members of the ASA are in favor of the elimination of Israel, but it isn't exactly clear to me what it is those members would be endorsing in their affirmative votes.
I don't know how the ASA membership will vote. Given the pro-boycott enthusiasm I saw at the recent ASA conference, I suspect that a majority of votes cast will support the boycott. However, I will be surprised if those votes represent a majority of the ASA membership.
The deadline for voting is December 15.