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The Opposition to BDS

It has been no pleasure to write about the anti-Israel activity in academia this year, beginning in April with the Association for Asian-American Studies resolution to boycott Israel and culminating in the decision of the National Council of the American Studies Association last month to vote up an academic boycott resolution of its own. That resolution is now being considered by the full membership.

I do not agree with David Bernstein, writing for Minding the Campus, that we can take much comfort in the fact that the ASA resolution is watered down, amounting mainly to a refusal of the ASA as an organization to cooperate with Israeli universities or their official representatives, rather than a call, say, for individual ASA members to stop inviting Israeli scholars to visit American campuses. No resolution the ASA passed was going to have a substantial direct effect, since the organization is quite small, and its ties to Israeli scholars are very limited. The meaning of the resolution was always going to be symbolic, and its impact, if the resolution passes the full membership, will be to bolster the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and the international Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, neither of which can bring itself to concede Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

But Bernstein is right that we should be heartened by the “significant resistance” the resolution has met within the ASA. The ASA has a powerful radical wing, such that the sociologist Alan Wolfe took to the pages of the New Republic more than a decade ago to denounce a field increasingly characterized by “postcolonial criticism of the United States for its imperial pretensions” and for whose practitioners “nobody’s revolutionary credentials are good enough.” Nonetheless, seven former presidents of the ASA along with more than fifty other members have signed onto a letter against the resolution.

What is most remarkable about this letter is that it goes beyond what too often passes for level-headedness in academia, namely a ritual denunciation or Israel followed by the argument that although everyone agrees that Israel is an international criminal, academic freedom is too precious to sacrifice for the sake of denouncing international criminals.  Rather than choosing sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the letter’s authors call for “healthy, constructive debate on the Middle East and other complex topics,” and observe that the boycott, being “discrimination pure and simple” is unlikely to foster such debate.

Simon Bronner of Pennsylvania State University, the editor of the ASA’s Encyclopedia of American Studies, has led the effort to oppose the boycott (his petition is here), and other thoughtful members of the ASA have weighed in. ASA’s leaders have done what they can to shut out critics. ASA’s president Curtis Marez, according to Bronner, flatly refused his request to “provide corrections of misstatements, information on reasons for non-endorsement, and the possibility of extending the deadline for voting.” He did so even though the Council has communicated to members a lengthy justification of its actions before calling the vote.

Opposition is coming from other corners of academia, too. The American Association of University Professors, which criticized the Asian American Studies Association when it passed a boycott resolution, has issued an open letter urging members of the ASA to vote this new resolution down.

The comment I get most frequently when I write about higher education is that there is no hope for the higher education racket, and that we should pray that the economic and technological developments that now threaten our colleges and universities will destroy them and make way for something new. Some conservatives seem to have given up on academics altogether. But the opposition within the ASA to boycotting Israel suggests that even in a highly politicized academic organization, influential members have not given up on preserving the integrity of the scholarly and teaching professions. These people are not going down without a fight. Neither should we.


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