Academic Boycott of Israel: The American Studies Association Endorsement and Backlash
In 2005, one year after the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion declaring Israel’s wall in the West Bank illegal under international humanitarian law, a large segment of Palestinian civil society issued a call for an international boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel “until Palestinian rights are recognized in full compliance with international law.” Over one hundred seventy Palestinian civil society organizations, trade unions, rights movements, and political parties both in the diaspora and within the borders of historic Palestine endorsed the call. The boycott of Israeli cultural and academic institutions, which are seen as contributing “to maintaining, defending, or whitewashing the oppression of Palestinians,” is one aspect of the larger BDS movement that has garnered much attention, becoming the object of heated controversy in the United States. BDS supporters regard the ethical stance of the academic boycott as an important part of the larger movement as well as a symbolic advance in the sphere of public discourse; opponents consider the boycott an attack on the legitimacy of the Israeli state and a threat to academic freedom and cultural dialogue.
This quarter, the debate intensified when the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to “endorse and honor” the BDS call from Palestinian civil society. The ASA was not the first U.S. academic association to endorse BDS (the Association for Asian American Studies unanimously approved a boycott of Israeli universities in April 2013), but it was by far the largest, provoking unprecedented backlash. While the ASA’s national council unanimously voted in favor, they put the boycott resolution to an organization-wide vote. Of the 1,252 members who voted—the largest turnout in the ASA’s history according to the organization’s press release—66.05 percent endorsed the resolution, 30.5 percent voted against, and 3.43 percent abstained.
The first document in this file, Noura Erakat’s article on the ASA debate, which appeared on Jadaliyya two days before the national council’s vote and announcement, helps to contextualize the boycott conversation within the academy. It provides an overview of many of the discussions that were held at the ASA conference’s open forum as well as those about BDS generally in U.S. academia. In addition to sketching a historical trajectory of the movement’s advances, Erakat asserted that if it endorsed the boycott, the ASA would “be leading the movement . . . by creating much-needed momentum.” Indeed, when the national council announced its decision and the member-wide vote two days later, the boycott debate took center stage in mainstream U.S. media, academic, and policy circles.
Within a few weeks of the ASA endorsement, legislators of the New York, Maryland, and Illinois state assemblies, as well as the U.S. House of Representatives introduced resolutions prohibiting state funding to institutions participating in academic boycott or funding faculty membership in organizations endorsing the boycott. This legislative approach provoked mixed reactions—public and institutional—but state and national representatives proceeded with the measures anyhow.
In addition to the legislative backlash, the ASA action provoked censure from more than two hundred fifty universities, with over one hundred college presidents denouncing the ASA endorsement. According to Amcha, a pro-Israel advocacy group dedicated to monitoring U.S. university campuses for “anti-Semitism,” six universities terminated their ASA membership and over a dozen academic organizations condemned the ASA boycott, including the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers.
The ASA reported that association members received hate or threatening mail following the vote and have been encouraged to report incidents to the organization’sCaucusonAcademicand Community Activism; the ASA insists on the legitimacy and legality of its chosen means to challenge Israeli human rights violations. Despite all the pushback, the ASA has received massive support from academics and international figures such as South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and, at the time of this journal’s publication, the association reported that it had gained seven hundred new members since the boycott endorsement.
The debate shows no signs of subsiding. In March 2014, the Los Angeles Review of Books published eight essays on academic activism and the ethics of boycott, with specific reference to BDS. One of the only points of agreement between authors from opposite sides of the debate continues to be the BDS movement’s centrality to conversations on Palestine and Israel.