The American Studies Association (ASA) isn’t ranked among the largest professional academic organizations in the US, nor is it considered to be one of the most influential, though some portray it as the most radical. In practical terms, its’ decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions may have only a negligible effect, if at all.
Nonetheless, ASA’s announcement on Monday that its members had voted in favor of a decision “to endorse and to honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions” marks a significant and symbolic landmark for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. It should also be viewed as a serious cause for alarm by policy-makers in Jerusalem as well as by Israel’s supporters in the US.
The decision further erodes what remains of the U.S. taboo on boycotting Israel: this is America, for God’s sake, not Europe or Asia or Africa. The boycott decision will spark controversy and inflame tensions, injecting the contentious issue Israel and its policies into the heart of American academia. It transforms the hitherto marginalized April, 2013 boycott precedent set by the Association for Asian American Studies from a negligible curiosity to a potentially worrying trend.
It’s not that other professional academic associations are waiting in line to boycott Israel, though some minor groups may now follow in the ASA’s footsteps. The ASA has long been considered by many of its members as well as their peers as an outlier in terms of its general political outlook, devoted as it has often been to challenging accepted American “myths”, exposing racism and discrimination throughout U.S. history, debunking American “exceptionalism” and questioning its role in the world.
As the New Republic put it, somewhat bluntly, in a 2003 article entitled Anti-American Studies: “They have also developed a hatred for America so visceral that it makes one wonder why they bother studying America at all.”
It’s also true that the ASA’s announcement ten days ago that it would put the boycott decision up for a general vote was greeted by widespread protest by many of its own members – including eight previous presidents - as well as other academic groups. The American Association of University Professors, which has ten times as many members as ASA’s estimated 5000, published an open call to the ASA to reject the “disappointing” boycott decision. Former Harvard University President and Obama confidante Lawrence Summers said a boycott was “anti-Semitic in effect, if not in intent” and called for a counter-boycott of the ASA itself.
And it’s also true that individual Israeli academics are exempted from the boycott, according to the ASA decision, and the group’s opportunities to implement its own boycott of Israeli academic institutions in practice are minimal, if they exist at all.
In fact, it may not be the decision itself that causes the greatest fallout, but its aftermath. Jewish and non-Jewish supporters of Israel will surely and understandably protest the decision and possibly launch their own “counteroffensive” against the ASA and its members. American campuses could turn into an arena for thrashing out not only the issue of boycott but the pros and cons of Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territories. Such a clash is sure to generate the kind of publicity that would spread news of the boycott far and wide.
It’s the kind of publicity that Israel can do without. It the kind of melee that could turn into a battle over the hearts and minds of America’s future elites. Even those who find such comparisons odious must surely take into account that the anti-apartheid campaign also started on American campuses, before it overtook the country as a whole.
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