Commentary Magazine


Update on the Association for Asian American Studies and BDS

Back in April, the Association for Asian American Studies voted unanimously on the last day of its national conference to back the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. This move was cause for wonder and disgust at more than one level. While the resolution helpfully points out that many Arabs are “West Asian,” it is hard to swallow without guffawing the claim of Asian American Studies scholars to speak authoritatively of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although Asian American Studies, originating in anti-colonialism and Third-Worldism, has always granted itself a worldwide mandate, it had, up until April, rarely gone public with its claims to academic expertise in absolutely everything. But Israel seems to have that effect on people.

More strikingly, though, as I have noted here and here, the resolution was passed unanimously, without so much as an abstention. While I have been unable to get AAAS president Mary Yu Danico to divulge how many were present for the vote, or even how many members the organization she leads has, the official account Professor Danico and the AAAS executive board has given of the discussion that preceded the vote indicates that there was no dissent whatever. Not about the wisdom of academic boycotts. Not about the prudence of supporting BDS’s one-state solution. Certainly not about “Israeli racism.” And stunningly, more than three months later, no scholar of Asian American studies has come forward in a blog or an op-ed to question the resolution.

In one of relatively few public statements in response to the controversy, David Palumbo Liu of Stanford University complained that it was dirty pool to criticize the AAAS in a “mainstream journal,” in which one might get a “wider and assumedly more sympathetic audience.” Palumbo Liu states well what has been the AAAS strategy up until now: avoid publicity. One thing you start to notice in stories about this affair is that representatives of the AAAS are never available for comment.

I am therefore relieved that my fellow Stuyvesant High School alum, Congresswoman Grace Meng, has compelled the AAAS to take notice of its critics. Meng, who represents New York’s 6th Congressional District, wrote in a letter to AAAS that “the characterization of Israeli actions as ‘racist’ is inaccurate, inflammatory, and inconsistent with the views of the vast majority of Americans and Asian-Americans. It does not serve the cause of peace; rather, it serves to galvanize those who oppose peace.” While Algemeiner reported on Meng’s letter in late July, it has otherwise gone virtually unnoticed (indeed, I have been unable to obtain a copy of the letter).

Evidently prompted by Representative Meng’s criticism, Mary Yu Danico has posted a statement on the website of AAAS. Danico complains of “hostile-threatening emails from non AAAS members,” that have led her to remove not only the names of the signatories of the resolution but also the names of the members of AAAS’s board from a statement in support of the resolution. While threatening e-mails should be taken seriously, it is remarkable that Professor Danico thinks that, having stood behind what purported to be a bold statement in support of the Palestinian cause, she now thinks she can erase the board’s forthright and unapologetic support for the resolution. It is the board, and not the signatories to the resolution, who parroted the demonstrably false claim that Israel has been immune from governmental criticism and the even more preposterous assertion that there is no debate about Israel’s actions at the level of civil society.

Still, Professor Danico laments the “misunderstanding among our AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community members.” Some even think she led the effort to pass the resolution, rather than merely being the first signatory in the subsequent statement in full support of it.

The reference to the AAPI community, as opposed to the community of Asian American Studies scholars, is significant and heartening. What it means is that members of that community, like Representative Meng, have decided not to stand by and let an organization which purports to speak for their interests embarrass them.

While Professor Danico argues that the resolution is irreversible, it is finally, thanks to external pressure, becoming “increasingly clear” to her that there is a need to have a session regarding “The Resolution to Support the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions” at the next AAAS conference. She hopes to “engage in conversations with our AAPI community leaders who have ties with both parties involved to organize a session that will yield respectful and healthy dialogue at the 2014 meeting.” It is a good thing that she is talking to people outside of the Association. Maybe this year, at least, support for virulent anti-Israeli propaganda will not be unanimous.

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