Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Vote Against Israel and Academic Freedom

A Vote Against Israel and Academic Freedom

American Studies professors have decided that democratic Israel deserves a U.S. boycott.


With American colleges and universities imperiled by a bad economy, declining enrollment and persistently high costs, a group of scholars gathered last month in Washington, D.C., to discuss the crisis. No, not that crisis. I mean the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

That's right. The most talked-about question at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association was a resolution to boycott Israel. After the meeting, the ASA's national council voted unanimously to endorse a boycott resolution and send it to the full membership for a vote. On Monday the ASA announced that 66% of the votes were for the boycott.

Evidently, while the rest of us scholars were teaching classes and conducting research, some other professor-activists were figuring out how to take over the American Studies Association. Well, hats off to them. They succeeded.

The executive committee of the national council has six members. Five of them have previously endorsed the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Four signed a 2009 letter to President Obama that described Israel's treatment of the Palestinians as "one of the most massive ethnocidal atrocities of modern times" and declared that a one-state solution, which would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state, is "almost certainly" the only road to peace.

Make no mistake: Supporting the U.S. boycott campaign is not merely a way of criticizing Israel or expressing solidarity with Palestinians. The campaign calls for boycotting "Palestinian/Arab-Israeli collaborative research projects or events." In other words, it actively discourages opportunities for cooperation and mutual understanding. And while the campaign does not condone a blacklist of Israeli academics, it does warn that "all academic exchanges with Israeli academics do have the effect of normalizing Israel and its politics of occupation and apartheid."

It is heartening that eight past presidents of the American Studies Association, along with more than 50 other members, signed a letter calling the resolution "discrimination pure and simple." But the association's current president, Curtis Marez, refused repeated requests from opponents of the boycott to communicate their arguments to the membership. Instead, the ASA's national council posted a 1,200-word manifesto in favor of the resolution on its website.

Yes, four days before voting ended, the association's Facebook FB +0.13%  page opened a thread welcoming "posts addressing the ASA National Council's unanimous endorsement of the academic boycott of Israel—from all sides of the issues involved." But that only came after a week of administrators exclusively posting pro-boycott material.

The ASA's Facebook administrators made the concession to welcome posts from "all sides" hours after the online magazine InsideHigherEd, widely read among academics, published a blistering piece by Henry Reichman of the American Association of University Professors decrying the "one-sided and disingenuous presentations sadly offered on ASA's website." The same day, InsideHigherEd reported on another letter, signed by the eight former association presidents, exposing how the "membership vote [was] being undertaken with only one side of a complex question presented."

What's remarkable is that supporters of the boycott thought they needed to rig the game in an organization that has long had a powerful radical left-wing. Over a decade ago, the sociologist Alan Wolfe wrote about the rise of a cohort of American Studies scholars who had "developed a hatred for America so visceral that it [made] one wonder why they [bothered] studying America at all." There is good reason to think that the resolution would have won without the leadership stacking the deck. By doing so, boycott supporters have thoroughly discredited their victory.

Does the ASA boycott vote matter? Scott Jaschik of InsideHigherEd reports that boycott supporters have "talked about taking the proposal to other disciplinary associations," like the American Historical Association and the Modern Languages Association. So we can expect to continue to be distracted from the profound problems facing American higher education by the attempts of a determined minority to ensure that scholars who have no special knowledge of or insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict put their credentials in the service of the anti-Israel fringe.

True scholars, unlike activists, are for the most part not joiners. But if we—myself included—do not join together to save our professional associations from anti-Israel activists, we will bear part of the blame for erasing the line between scholarly work and propaganda.

Mr. Marks is a professor of politics at Ursinus College.