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The ASA's Boycott of Israel Is Not as Troubling As It Seems

The American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israel has made front-page news. The New York Times described the resolution—which bars members from cooperating with Israeli universities—as momentous: “a milestone” for anti-Israel forces, a signal that the boycott against the Jewish state “has begun to make strides in the United States.” Maximalist supporters of the Palestinian cause cheered. Others felt the blast of a chill wind.

Make no mistake: the vote is troubling, redolent of some of the darkest moments in modern history. In singling out Israel, of all the world’s imperfect actors, as worthy of ostracism, in designating the Jewish state as uniquely deserving of isolation and economic strangulation, the ASA boycotters have joined the ranks of those who—from the anti-Jewish campaigns of nineteenth-century Europe through the notorious Arab League boycott that dissipated only after Camp David and Oslo—believed that the remnant of humanity known as the Jewish people possesses too much power and must be brought to heel. Their campaign seeks not the defensible goal of ending West Bank settlements as part of a peace agreement, but the essentially anti-Semitic end of marginalizing, delegitimizing, even eliminating the Jewish state.

But while the anti-Jewish character of the boycott is (or should be) plain, and while any such display of prejudice is always cause for concern, it’s important to keep this stunt in perspective. Who, precisely, voted for this boycott? Whom does the American Studies Association, with its august-sounding name, represent? What, really, does this vote mean?

In truth, it has been a while since the ASA commanded wide respect as a heavyweight professional organization, and its politics are no bellwether of prevailing ideas in higher education. Like the high-school delinquents who from time to time spray swastikas on a Long Island synagogue wall, occasioning transient alarm and winding up on the local news, the ASA boycott ringleaders are by and large a fringe of malcontents—thugs with credentials, vandals in tweed. 

It’s important for outsiders to this drama to know that the field of American Studies has in recent years lost much of its luster, as Alan Wolfe of Boston College detailed in these pages a decade ago. There are, of course, plenty of reputable professors in American Studies departments around the country, within the ASA, and even among its leaders. But unless you’re a regular at the ASA’s conferences, you’ll likely be confounded by what has come to supplant the mix of U.S. history, literature, and culture that you dabbled in during college.

Once an interdisciplinary inquiry into the character of American society, the field used to be led by such eminences as John Hope Franklin, Daniel Aaron, and Daniel Boorstin. With the “post-colonial” turn in academia, however, using the nation-state as a unit of study came to seem parochial in many quarters. One positive result was a surge of creative new scholarship, focusing on how American ideas spread abroad or how America is seen in the eyes of the world or the ways that cultural phenomena transcended national boundaries. But at the same time, much of the energy in AmStud shifted to a cadre of dogmatists who espoused a cartoon view of the United States as a global oppressor. Imperialism, neocolonialism, and neoliberalism became buzzwords and bugaboos.

Moreover, if a large portion of American Studies as a field has descended into ideology and cant, the ASA as a body has led the way. By recklessly merging scholarship and activism, the association has driven away many of the most accomplished writers and thinkers who actually study the United States of America. In gathering support for a letter opposing the boycott, I was amazed by how many of the most serious AmStud scholars told me that they had quit the organization or let their membership lapse, often because of its ridiculous politics. Some typical replies:

“The ASA is a disgrace, a shell of its former self. It has been taken up by folks in ideological overdrive who use it as a vehicle for their favorite causes,” emailed David Hollinger, a history professor at UC Berkeley and a former president of the Organization of American Historians.

“Obviously this is an outrage. But If I'm surprised, I'm not shocked, given American Studies’ pseudo-scholarly drift in recent years,” said Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton University and contributing editor at this magazine, who ran Princeton’s American Studies program for years.

“What a disgrace,” said Steve Whitfield, professor of American civilization at Brandeis. “Unfortunately I resigned in a huff from the ASA over two decades ago, so I can’t resign again.”

It’s telling that many of the notable scholars who publicly opposed the boycott—Andrew Delbanco, Morris Dickstein, David J. Garrow, Todd Gitlin, Laura Kalman, Jackson Lears, Kathy Peiss, and numerous others—couldn’t vote on the resolution because they didn’t belong to the ASA. Nor is it a coincidence that many other notable opponents—Patricia Nelson Limerick, Elaine Tyler May, Alice Kessler-Harris, Linda Kerber—were past presidents of the ASA. Despite its name, the organization can no longer claim to represent the professors who actually run and populate American Studies programs around the country, or those whose work actually explores the history and character of American culture.

Finally, just as the ASA may not represent actual practitioners of American studies, it’s far from clear that the vote even represents the ASA. The anti-Israel measure was hatched by ASA leaders with scant publicity and placed on the agenda with little warning. This stratagem allowed its promoters to get all their ducks in a row, staffing tables to hand out pro-boycott literature—and lollipops!—to attendees at this year’s conference in Washington the weekend before Thanksgiving. Opponents or skeptics had little chance to prepare their own materials or even make plans to attend the meeting. 

Using techniques out of the old Communist playbook, ASA officials made a pretense of open debate while packing the meetings so as to preclude true discussion. A “Town Hall” organized by Curtis Marez, the association’s president, featured six speakers echoing each other’s agitprop likening Israel to an apartheid state. Organizers passed the boycott resolution around the room of nearly 500 for signing, though no comparable document was circulated for the opposition. (Indeed, after the conference, the National Council—itself stocked with boycott supporters—refused to distribute dissenting arguments to ASA members or post them to its website.) Following the Town Hall, the participants attended an award ceremony (recipient: Angela Davis, a leading boycott advocate) and then the Presidential Address, in which Marez stumped for the measure. An “open discussion” the next day was similarly one-sided. 

Even the vote of the ASA membership was contrived to ensure passage. The council decreed that any member who wished to abstain had to dig up his or her ASA ID number, log on to the website—and abstain. Needless to say, few took the trouble. Most people abstained by actually abstaining, but their abstentions didn’t count. Fully mobilized, the anti-Israel activists won a decisive majority of the of the 1,252 votes cast—which was also, it is important to underscore, a decisive minority of the body’s actual membership of roughly 5,000. (When I asked Marez and John Stephens, executive director of the ASA, for a response to any aspect of this piece, Stephens directed me to this site without further comment.)

In short, the people who approved this resolution were a few hundred strong, the fringe of a fringe. This is not to dismiss concerns about anti-Israel sentiment on campuses today, which is rising and ominous. The ASA vote should be a loud wake-up call, not so much to the Israeli government (which has bigger problems to worry about, including some of its own ministers) as to the American academy. Organized, highly motivated activists are already mobilizing to commandeer other professional associations to advance their extremist agenda, facing minimal resistance because—as Jon Stewart said in the face of a massive Tea Party rally—the rest of us have lives. Those who treasure academic freedom and deplore ethnic discrimination need to take note and fight back.

Still, notwithstanding cries from the right, academia has not yet been captured by the zealots. Groups like the American Association of University Professors have weighed in strongly against the boycott, as did a cohort of some 400 university presidents several years back. Collaborations between American and Israeli universities continue apace. As the ASA flap was unfolding, Cornell University and Israel’s Technion were moving forward with their joint Cornell NYC Tech campus—destined to be an intellectually exciting greenhouse of innovation and research in engineering and technology. The vast majority of American professors who currently attend conferences in Israel or co-author papers with Israeli scholars will feel no compunction about continuing to do so.

The anti-Israel activists within the American Studies Association may be patting themselves on the back, congratulating themselves on their effort to marginalize Israel. But there is reason to ask whether they, having squandered the good name of a once-proud organization, are in fact simply marginalizing themselves.

David Greenberg, a contributing editor at The New Republic, is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.