2014 Influence List: Boycotters

American Studies Association As national organizations go, the American Studies Association is fairly small. But its impact this year on political discourse has been outsized. By voting in favor of….

American Studies Association

As national organizations go, the American Studies Association is fairly small. But its impact this year on political discourse has been outsized. By voting in favor of an academic boycott of Israel, its 18-member executive body provoked a bitter debate nationally and internationally, within higher education and beyond.

Israel’s relationship to, and treatment of, Palestinians has long attracted heated discussion. But the decision right before the New Year of a single 4,000-member disciplinary association to say it would no longer work with Israeli universities reframed the issue in new ways. What is the role of Israeli higher education in the government’s affairs? Are boycotts antithetical to academic freedom? And whose freedom, exactly, are we talking about?

The ASA was not the first academic association to take such a stand, but it was the first whose actions—leading up to the executive committee’s vote and after the broader membership endorsed the boycott—received significant scrutiny. Hundreds of news articles and opinion pieces debated the association’s move: The New York Times alone published more than a dozen articles. That attention forced academics everywhere to take sides, revealing deep divisions and a diversity of approaches. Many scholars who oppose Israel’s treatment of Palestinians argued with colleagues over why they thought boycotts were wrong. Surprised presidents found themselves having to explain the actions of—and in some cases chose to distance themselves from—a handful of professors on their campuses. And faculty members who had long championed Palestinian rights said they could finally come out of the closet. Many academics on both sides were horrified when two U.S. congressmen introduced a bill—which has since stalled—to deny federal funds to institutions that supported boycotts.

The vote also inspired supporters of the broader Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to keep pushing their agenda. (The movement has deeper roots in Europe but has made inroads in the United States more recently.) They had mixed success. In June the Modern Language Association rejected a resolution criticizing Israel’s treatment of academics of Palestinian descent who wish to enter the West Bank. And this month the American Anthropological Association defeated a resolution opposing an academic boycott of Israel, keeping the issue alive for another year.

The fortunes for the American Studies Association were also mixed. More than 80 college presidents came out in opposition to the boycott, as did the American Association of University Professors and other higher-education organizations. Several universities withdrew their institutional membership. But the association said that its membership grew by about 1,000 and that fund raising was at record levels.

Controversy has continued to follow the ASA. In November at its first meeting after the boycott vote, the subject dominated the conversation, and the organization was accused of planning to bar attendance by representatives of Israeli universities. (That did not happen.)

It’s unclear how many people changed their views in the course of the yearlong debate. And questions remain. The most obvious one is whether the boycott has had any effect. In one specific sense, no. The ASA said it would not work with any Israeli universities, but it has not yet had any offers to do so.

On a broader level, though, the vote has left an indelible mark. “We got into the mainstream press and triggered a number of conversations not visible before about Israel-Palestine,” says the ASA’s president, Lisa Duggan, a professor at New York University. “In that sense we had done what we wanted to do.”