American Studies Scholars in Israel Criticize Boycott Decision

Boycott backfires by hindering dialogue between Isralis and Palestinians, scholars say.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

When her membership in the American Studies Association expired several years ago, Marcela Sulak never bothered to renew it.

“Honestly, it’s a pretty small organization and not very academically rigorous,” said Sulak, a senior lecturer in American Studies at Bar Ilan University and director of its graduate program in creative writing.

So when the ASA voted a few weeks ago in favor of an academic boycott of Israel, she, like other local American studies scholars who agreed to be interviewed, was not concerned that the decision would affect her personally or professionally. Neither did she have any plans to attend upcoming conferences sponsored by the association or collaborate with any of its members. The Modern Language Association, a much bigger and more influential academic organization, is slated to vote on a resolution Thursday that would urge the U.S. State Department to oppose Israel’s “arbitrary” denial of entry into the West Bank and Gaza Strip of American academics, although it is not a boycott per se.

Her concerns were different. “The real problem isn’t the actual decision taken by the ASA, but the effect that it has on my relations with Palestinian colleagues and Arab-Israeli students,” says Sulak, who held a tenure track position at American University in Washington D.C. before moving to Israel three years ago.

Indeed, in a letter sent to John Stephens, executive director of the ASA, just before the vote was taken, Sulak noted that among her students were two Arab-Israeli women, one writing a doctoral thesis comparing Arab-Israelis with blacks in the American civil rights movement and another working on a new model of feminism in the context of infertility treatment. “I urge you not to use these students for political tools to make yourselves feel righteous by boycotting,” she wrote.

She also noted that at least two Palestinian colleagues with whom she had planned on collaborating “had to withdraw at the last minute and give up speaking and teaching opportunities that they had earlier pursued.” What the boycott does, she concluded in her letter, “is remove dialogue from Israelis and Palestinians and place it where? In America?”

Hana Wirth-Nesher, a professor of English and American Studies in Tel Aviv University, said she had also allowed her membership in the ASA to lapse. “In the last 10 years, I found it to be a less fruitful and productive organization,” she said.

Although the boycott resolution distinguishes between Israeli scholars and Israeli academic institutions, prohibiting collaboration just at the institutional level, Wirth-Nesher said the distinction was meaningless. “It’s unenforceable,” she said. “They say I can participate in their conferences as long as I don’t get funding from the university to participate, but nobody pays for these things out of their own pocket,” she noted. “We all have travel budgets, so of course, we’re going to be funded. Then they said that there’s no problem with American studies scholars accepting invitations to visit us as long as the invitation don’t come from the university but from individuals. How are individuals going to be able to pay for them to come?”

The effect of the boycott, she believes, will be tested in other areas. “We’ll have to see what happens next time I organize a panel at a conference and have to submit it for approval. That’s when I think we’ll start to feel it. Or when I need to find reviewers from abroad for doctoral dissertations for my students – will there be those who refuse to serve as reviewers?”

Less surprised was she by the boycott, said Wirth-Nesher, than by the backlash against it by American academics and academic institutions. “And although she personally may be opposed to Israeli government policies that have come under attack by the boycotters, she said, “I believe that boycotts of Israeli academia are unwise, counterproductive, and in most cases hypocritical.”

Emily Budick, the chair of American Studies and English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said she was also surprised by the backlash against the boycott decision – one she described as “primarily symbolic.”

“I’m not saying that the people behind this were not motivated by something positive because showing solidarity with the Palestinians is an important moral gesture,” she said. “The problem is singling out Israel.”

In an essay she had published this week in “Inside Higher Ed,” Budick wrote: ”I would ask the question of the ASA: Who, in their audience of addressees, do they imagine is NOT opposed to the idea of occupation? And who, again in their target audience, is NOT concerned with the rights of Palestinians? Not even the politically right-wing academics in Israel are pro-occupation or against Palestinians as a matter of moral belief or commitment, as were, say, slaveholders in the American South or anti-Semites in fascist Europe. The issue for them, for all of us here, is one that the boycott does not even recognize, let alone address: how do these two entities, Israel and Palestine, find a way to exist side by side?”

Budick, who gave up her membership in the ASA many years ago “because I find it more convenient to travel to Europe,” said the boycott had no direct effect on her since she didn’t have any plans to invite members of the ASA to Israel or to attend any of the organization’s conferences in the near future.

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