Yes, American Studies Includes Gaza

There is a popular distaste for "rehashing old history." But of course as educators we do not, or should not, feel that way. We teach the importance of not only understanding but reappraising the past, of building knowledge but also questioning the foundations upon which it rests. So I hope you will indulge me for a few moments when I take us back to December 2013 and the debate that raged in the American academy concerning the vote of the American Studies Association to honor the call from Palestinian civil society for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. I am not going to go over all that territory again. I am only going to pick out just two aspects of it that warrant revisiting today. The ASA website still contains much of the back-and-forth amongst ASA members.

The first element I want to address is the argument made by several opponents of the resolution, particularly the eminent scholar Richard Slotkin, that the study of Israel-Palestine was beyond the charge of the American Studies Association. Professor Cynthia Franklin gave voice to many when she wrote:

Professor Slotkin claims, "this boycott is a case of 'going abroad in search of monsters to destroy.' It commits the organization to a partisan position in a political controversy in a foreign country, on an issue not directly related to our work."

I would like to object to this claim on two of many possible grounds. (1) As many ASA members have pointed out in countless articles and statements in the months leading up to the passing of this resolution, this "foreign country" is directly connected to the United States, to the tune of the $3 billion/year we give in direct aid. Moreover, far from being "not directly related to our work," many of the ASA's finest scholars can and do make America's relationship to Israel and Palestine the very center of their research.

As we sit and read this, more than 200 Palestinians have been killed, 80 percent of them civilians, by UN count. Two Israelis have died. What is the reason for this disproportion? As Owen Jones points out in The Guardian:

The media coverage hardly reflects the reality: a military superpower armed with F-15 fighter jets, AH-64 Apache helicopters, Delilah missiles, IAI Heron-1 drones and Jericho II missiles (and nuclear bombs, for that matter), versus what David Cameron describes as a 'prison camp' firing almost entirely ineffective missiles.

It is precisely because America has furnished Israel with this arsenal, and what amounts to diplomatic immunity via a number of vetoes of UN sanctions or even criticisms of Israel, that anyone seriously studying or teaching about the United States is both intellectually and ethically responsible for bringing this history into the light, if only to debate it. But the intellectual debate can be easily stifled by the assertion that it is "political."

We find this argument on the ASA website as well, in a statement entitled, "ASA Turpie Award Winners in Opposition to Israeli Boycott Resolution":

[The boycott resolution] is at odds with the purpose of the American Studies Association, which the ASA Constitution defines as "the promotion of the study of American culture through the encouragement of research, teaching, publication, the strengthening of relations among persons and institutions in this country and abroad devoted to such studies, and the broadening of knowledge among the general public about American culture in all its diversity and complexity." The boycott resolution divides the membership of the association by taking a political position that is extraneous to its statement of purpose, and impedes the "strengthening of relations among persons and institutions in this country and abroad devoted to such studies.

There are two parts. First is the the declaration that the resolution is "extraneous," that it does not pertain to the study of American culture, et cetera. Yet there is a plethora of ways to use the topic of Israel and its central role in the American imaginary to understand quite well an integral part of American culture. What is really at issue is how this is discussed. The resolution is characterized as precisely not "strengthening relations, broadening knowledge" of a certain sort.

At this juncture in history it is critical for our country precisely to reassess its relations, to reappraise the knowledge with which we discuss and debate the bombardment of Gaza. If this means reconsidering with whom we build institutional relations (recall that the resolution says nothing about individual scholars), then this is a critical time to do so, as one of the prime arguments for boycotting Israeli institutions was their complicity with the occupation.

Sometimes it is hard to really register the horrors of a distant war, especially for inhabitants of a country that has never witnessed a foreign war on its soil. Yet building relations with others "devoted" to American studies abroad means developing an empathetic imagination toward all others, and not just those of one ethnicity in Israel-Palestine. Today, as I watch the sun set over a huge swatch of white sand on a beach 30 minutes away from Palo Alto, I cannot help but think of a similar beach I saw in a photograph today. Four young Palestinian children were playing on that empty beach when Israeli bombers chased down and killed all four, within eyewitness distance of news reporters. As I looked at that now-deadly-still beach, I cannot help but think of how vastly different those two sites of natural beauty are, aided by ordinances paid for here in America. The fact that the U.S. State Department blamed the deaths on Hamas for not accepting a ceasefire treaty it was never presented only shows the ethical responsibility we have to bring this issue into our classrooms for debate.