Commentary Magazine

It’s Unanimous! The Association for Asian-American Studies and BDS

Academics don’t agree about much, but the members of the Association for Asian American Studies agree, at least, that a “boycott of Israeli academic institutions” is warranted. That is what they resolved, not by a mere majority vote, but unanimously, on April 20, the last day of the Association’s national meeting.

Reportedly, only 10 percent of the members were present for the vote. So when I learned of the resolution, I assumed that we would soon hear from professors of Asian American Studies, enraged, or at least perplexed, that the AAAS had become the first U.S. academic organization to support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. But although one can find almost anything on the Web, you will not find even one professor of Asian American Studies who has respectfully disagreed with, let alone denounced, this move. The Asian American Studies professor who diverges publicly from the party line is that rare a beast.

So evidently no one in Asian American Studies thinks it odd that an organization ostensibly devoted to the study of Asian-American communities has an official line on the Israeli-Arab conflict. The resolution’s drafters propose that the organization has jurisdiction over the conflict, which is, after all, taking place in West Asia. Some professors may be enchanted by this imperialistic suggestion. But all of them?

Nor does anyone in Asian American Studies see fit to deny that, in the resolution’s words, “the Association for Asian American Studies seeks to advance a critique of U.S. empire, opposing US military occupation in the Arab world and U.S. support for occupation and racist practices by the Israeli state.” While that view is certainly not unheard of in the academy, I believe that Asian American Studies is the first discipline to hold it unanimously.

No scholar in Asian American Studies has bothered to correct the drafters, who, when they quote “the United Nations” on the crimes of Israel, are actually quoting Richard Falk, the Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied Since 1967. Falk has been in the news recently for observing, after the bombing of the Boston Marathon, that the “American global domination project is bound to generate all kinds of resistance in the post-colonial world.” Back in 2011 he was in the news for writing about the “apparent cover-up” of the real story behind September 11 and the “eerie silence of the mainstream media, unwilling to acknowledge the well-evidenced doubts about the official version of the events.” Either the drafters are content to keep such company or they momentarily forgot, in all the excitement about striking a blow against colonialism, that scholars are supposed to check their sources.

Susan Rice, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, has criticized Falk’s “one-sided and politicized approach to his work for the UN, including his failure to condemn deliberate human rights abuses by Hamas.” The AAAS had a still wider range of picks than Falk had in deciding whom to condemn for human rights abuses. But like Falk the AAAS has eyes only for Israel. No one in Asian American Studies has thought to call this a shame.

Asian American Studies was born at San Francisco State in the late 1960s, one result of a massive strike organized by the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front. Jean Wu, a senior lecturer at Tufts University and co-editor of a 2010 critical reader in Asian American Studies, says in an interview with Inside Higher Ed that the field is still defined in important ways by “antiracist social justice work.” “Asian America,” she explains, “is a political concept and Asian American studies is a site in which dominant narratives and current structural inequities can be revealed, interrogated, engaged, and challenged.”  It is no surprise, then, that the AAAS takes political stands. What is surprising is that not a single person in the tolerably well-populated, interdisciplinary field of Asian American Studies has objected to this extreme stand on a controversial issue falling outside the organization’s purview. While many have lamented the lack of intellectual diversity in fields that claim to stand for diversity, I am not sure they have ever witnessed such a rare example of groupthink.

Asian American Studies programs exist at some of the most prestigious universities in the country, including Cornell, Columbia, Stanford, UW-Madison, and the University of Pennsylvania. Is anyone going to say anything?

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