Posh LA Hotel at Center of Latest BDS Storm

A group is threatening to sue the hotel for hosting an academic conference that it says is discriminatory.

A BDS demonstration in Melbourne, Australia, 2010.
Mohammed Ouda/Wikimedia Commons

Academic boycotts of Israel are an undeniable trend across Europe and the United States. The players are no longer merely individual universities: various national and international associations have been debating - and in some cases, passing, resolutions endorsing BDS measures.

So what happens in the real world once such a resolution is passed in a large umbrella organization?

In the case of the American Studies Association, it has resulted in a threat to sue a Los Angeles hotel for racial discrimination, a flurry of uncomfortable clarifications from ASA representatives and ultimately, an unusual invitation to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the group as long as his name tag reads “Benjamin Netanyahu” and not “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu."

The drama playing out surrounds the annual ASA conference, slated to take place at a Los Angeles hotel, the Westin Bonaventure in the first week in November. The first shot was fired last week when a conservative Christian organization called The American Center for Law & Justice hit the group with a lawyer’s letter stating:

“The ACLJ is deeply concerned that unlawful discriminatory exclusionary policies will be implemented by the ASA as to who is permitted to attend the Annual Meeting at the Westin Bonaventure in connection with ASA’s Academic Boycott of Israel ('Boycott'), all Israeli academic institutions and academics acting in a representative capacity will be barredfrom participation in the ASA’s Annual Meeting. No other national origin group is subjected to this exclusionary policy and litmus test as to representative capacity. Moreover, since the overwhelming majority of Israelis targeted by the boycott are Jewish, the exclusionary policy is likely to have a disparate impact on Jewish Israelis—thereby discriminating on the bases of race and religion.”

The letter, clearly implied it was considering filing suit, was aimed at putting the hotel “on notice of the nature of the Boycott and, more importantly, the liability under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act for aiding the ASA in enforcement of this unlawful discriminatory policy at the Annual Meeting on the premises of the Westin Bonaventure.”

The story shot to wider public attention on Friday when it was analyzed in the Washington Post blog The Volokh Conspiracy by Northwestern University law professor Eugene Kontorovich, who said he believed that the odds would not be in the ASA’s favor if, in fact, the case went to court - even though the ASA has consistently stated that it doesn’t boycott Israeli individuals, only representatives of institutions. He wrote:

“The ASA’s argument that it does not bar Israelis, but only Israelis who attend as representatives of their academic institutions, will not likely help them much, as the normal way for academics to attend academic conferences is as representatives of their institutions. In any case, this argument amounts to saying the ACA is not discriminating as much as they could have, which is not an advisable defense in discrimination cases.”

The next day, Kontorovich reported that John Stephens, the executive director of the ASA had responded to his blog post and had demanded a correction insisting that the conference was not discriminatory and that “our conference is open to anyone, including Israeli academics and non-academics.” Stephens wrote that “Our conference is open to anyone, including Israeli academics and non-academics. If someone were to register for the conference as a representative of an Israeli institution, he or she would not be turned away.”

Kontorovich stood by his argument, countering the letter with a highlighted quotation from the ASA’s online FAQ which says (as have previous ASA statements) that the ASA boycott of Israel “targets institutions and their representatives, not individual scholars, students, or cultural workers who will be able to participate in the ASA conference or give public lectures at campuses, provided they are not expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or of the Israeli government.”

He wondered out loud exactly how Prime Minister Netanyahu - or a professor or department head at a government-funded Israeli university could possibly be viewed NOT as an “representative or ambassador” but as an “individual scholar.”

He further noted that the ASA, after his post, had added to its website a footnote that “Israeli academics will be in attendance at the 2014 convention. The ASA will not prohibit anyone from registering or participating in its annual conference.”

Kontorovich concluded that Stephens had “tried to mislead me about the ASA’s policy, and is likely trying to mislead the Westin. The clear policy is to restrict participation by Israeli scholars in a way that no other nationality is subject to.” He added that “the ASA’s attempts to deny their policy, and then belatedly modify it on an ad hoc basis says little for their integrity. Having adopted their boycott to much public fanfare, they want to be able to quietly deny it – when it suits them. Their reaction also suggests they understand the weakness of their legal position.”

In follow-up correspondence on the Inside Higher Education, in a post aptly titled: “Clarifying or Waffling?” Stephens clarified his clarification regarding the difference between an “individual and a representative.” He wrote to the IHE blogger that "I should emphasize that the ASA will not recognize anyone who seeks to participate as an official representative In other words, PM Netanyahu can come but we will write his title as Mr. Netanyahu in the program, or Benjamin Netanyahu on his name badge."

Lisa Duggan, president of the ASA and professor of American studies and gender and sexuality studies at New York University admitted to the IHE blog that "our original statements on the website were not clear enough, and so we clarified them as questions arose. But all along during the planning for the 2014 conference upcoming, we actively invited Jewish Israelis to participate in the conference, and we did not turn one person or panel proposal from a Jewish Israeli away. We welcome the participation of Israeli colleagues. We are not curtailing their academic freedom. We are protesting the curtailing of the academic freedom of Palestinian colleagues and students by the Israeli government, by refusing to officially collaborate, 'as an association,' with Israeli universities via their official representatives."

In the meantime, there have been at least two efforts to put pressure on the hotel and intensify the effect of the ACLJ letter.

The Israel advocacy group StandWithUs issued a statement that said the group “commends the ACLJ for taking this bold step against the bigotry and short-sightedness of the ASA. The ASA must realize there are serious consequences for their irresponsible vote to boycott Israeli academics. We hope the Westin Bonaventure sees through there divisive actions and does the right thing."

In a Change.org online petition, a New York lawyer named Iris Richman is trying to rally public opinion against the hotel to “say NO to illegal discrimination against Israeli academics. Tell the American Studies Association that they can NOT hold their November 4-9 annual meeting while practicing this illegal discrimination at your hotel, which is a public accommodation.”