At American Studies Association, boycotting Israel finds wide favor
By Ron Kampeas
November 26, 2013 4:35pm
WASHINGTON (JTA) — For 90 minutes in a packed hotel conference room in the heart of Washington, Israel was the colonizer, the settler state, the perpetuator of apartheid.
As the annual meeting this weekend of the American Studies Association demonstrated, participants who favored boycotting Israeli universities far outnumbered those opposed.
Of 44 speakers, 37 supported the resolution, in which the association would endorse and “honor the call of Palestinian society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” The preamble to the resolution accused Israeli universities of complicity in the occupation.
The session Saturday evening was not determinative, however; it was an open invitation to the body’s membership to influence the association’s 20-person national council. The council was supposed to take up the resolution on Sunday morning, but by Tuesday evening it had not announced a decision.
“The national council meeting to discuss a resolution calling for the association to endorse a boycott of academic institutions in Israel remains open and deliberations are ongoing,” Curtis Marez, the group’s president, told JTA in an email.
Pro-Israel groups active on campuses were watching the session closely. Until now, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — known as BDS — has made few inroads into American academe. One exception is the Association for Asian American Studies, which in April passed a resolution in favor of boycotting Israeli academic institutions.
Geri Palast, managing director of the Israel Action Network, which organizes pro-Israel activism on campus, said the American Studies Association meeting, which attracted a crowd of some 250 people, was expected to be another victory for the BDS movement in part because the American studies field is dominated by left-leaning academics who tend toward tough critiques of what they see as U.S.-enabled imperialism.
“My concern about some of these smaller academic associations is that they get amplified out of proportion,” Palast said.
Some opponents of the resolution said that however unrepresentative the session was of broader American society, it represents a growing trend on campuses toward endorsement of the BDS movement.
“They are organized and there are quite a few of them on campuses,” Simon Bonner, a professor of American studies at Penn State Harrisburg, said of academic activists who favor BDS.
Campus pro-Palestinian groups are energetic, Bonner said, and because of their single-issue focus they are likelier to get attention than Jewish student groups that are more diffuse in their activities, such as Hillel. In addition, he noted, Jewish groups tend more toward dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian issue than toward activism.
“Despite the stereotypes of Jewish power, if there is a Jewish position, it is one of dialogue,” Bonner told JTA.
The majority of speakers at Saturday’s event painted a different picture, saying their pro-Palestinian campus advocacy was likelier to result in retribution — although aside from hate mail, no one described how such retaliation was manifested.
Whatever the case, for an hour-and-a-half academics favoring boycotting Israeli universities exulted in a mirror image of the Washington in which pro-Israel often is pre-eminent. A number of the speakers, particularly Palestinians, said the American Studies Association and the field it represents is a refuge from what they describe as an American society that is uninterested in their viewpoint.
“The boycott would represent a form of cultural divestment that is perfectly in keeping with the materialist politics of much of the methodology in American studies,” said Steven Salaita, an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech.
Supporters of the resolution said its warm reception at the conference was a signal of a shift in public opinion. Prior to the session, backers of the resolution gathered around a large table and welcomed passers-by with glossy pamphlets; opponents were barely visible. Two handouts topped by a handwritten note saying “Opposed to Boycott” sat on a table otherwise crowded with an array of conference literature.
“The ASA’s open meeting was a clear indication that the time of fear and of the blockade on debate may be over — and that there is a new climate in which critical discussion of Israel’s policies towards Palestine will no longer be taboo,” David Lloyd, a professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, wrote on the Electronic Intifada website.
The War of Ideas in the Middle East
‘What happened there was historic’: A report from the American Studies Association boycott debate
Lena Ibrahim on November 27, 2013 20
The American Studies Association held their 2013 Annual Conference at the Washington Hilton in Washington, DC November 21-24. Among the many sessions were two landmark events — a “Town Hall Meeting on Palestine” and an “Open Discussion on Palestine.”These forums where to discuss and debate a boycott resolution proposed by the “ASA Activism Caucus” urging the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
What happened there was historic. It was historic because every second I stood at the 2013 ASA conference I thought of every single activist I knew, every single Palestinian I knew, and I wished that they could be standing right next to me witnessing it. I wanted those people next to me because I knew what I was feeling was an empowerment that we very rarely feel in this particular setting. A setting I now realize is crucial for activism work and Palestinian solidarity alike. It was historic because now as I sit to try and write what happened at ASA, I struggle, as words just can’t do it justice.
It’s always a controversial thing to talk about being Palestinian, even more controversial to talk about Palestinian solidarity activism, in most American settings, especially an academic one. This has always seemed strange to me because academia is a place for trusted study, for trusted truths, not a place where social issues can somehow find a way to escape criticism and unrestricted discussion, the way Israel has overwhelmingly been able to do in American academia which has directly distorted the Palestinian narrative and its related activism in the US. The 2013 American Studies Association not only challenged this notion, but completely crushed it, as it gave an undergraduate student like myself enough inspiration to last me until well after graduation.
The ASA Activism Caucus set up their table right next to registration at the ASA conference. Members of the Activism Caucus and various SJP students from the DC-Maryland-Virginia area took turns sitting at the table. I spent most of the conference at the table because it was quickly becoming the coolest place to be at the conference (in between workshop and panels). The table had literature on Palestine and BDS as well as various articles of support for the ASA academic boycott. Hundreds of copies of the boycott resolution (written by the ASA Activism Caucus) were available on the table as well as hundreds of sheets with frequently asked questions about the resolution and the BDS Movement.
By the second day of the conference I had noticed that those opposing the ASA boycott of Israeli academic institutes had set up an incredibly inaccurate counter petition on the “Message Board” directly across from our table. There was a small list of it’s supporters and then space for ASA members to sign on. They managed to gain about 3 signatures on the board.
Meanwhile at the seriously busy Activism Caucus table, our petition sheets were filling quickly. 500 signatures were added to the boycott petition at the ASA conference.The petition in support of an ASA academic boycott of Israel reached over 850 signatures. Each day of tabling dozens of members of the ASA stopped by the table to either ask how they can sign the petition or for more resources on BDS. I, as a student, was completely in shock. I met some of the most incredible professors who not only supported the Palestinian cause, but were eager in wanting to share their outspoken support. I spoke with professors and scholars from all around the country who wanted me to know they were working hard on their campuses to empower SJP students like myself and to finally break the deliberately set up barrier in discussion on Palestine/Israel in academia.
At the ASA’s Town Hall meeting for Palestine (open to the public) the ballroom at the Washington Hilton was completely filled up. We heard from 6 ASA scholars who took turns discussing various issues relating to Israel/Palestine, completely uncensored. Angela Davis, one of the panelists, opened her discussion with “This is a historic moment, historic but long over due.” I looked around at the 200+ people listening to this eye opening and disturbing panel on Israel, realized I wasn’t at an SJP event, and thought “this really is historic.” This was not historic because of how many people were in attendance and their cheering whenever the boycott was brought up, but because of the very discussion being held. We were talking about things like Israel’s various apartheid systems that discriminate against its non Jewish citizens, Israel’s illegal settlements/ wall/ occupation, Israel’s various war crimes in Gaza, and most emphasised- Israel’s academic institutes and their complicit role in the illegal occupation. And that is, I believe, one of the strongest goals of Palestinian activism and BDS, to simply bring this kind of discussion to the places it has always been deliberately ignored.
The following evening came the ASA Open Discussion on Palestine (only for ASA members). As we entered the ballroom, a few ASA members strongly against the boycott resolution were already there placing their counter petition on each seat. The 12 members of the ASA council were all in attendance. At the door you could grab a piece of paper, write your name on it and place it in a box, if you wished to speak. Names would be taken from the box and the ASA member called would have 2 minutes at the mic to say whatever they felt about the ASA boycott resolution. A total of 44 members were called to speak and only 7 spoke against the boycott. We heard from 37 members of the ASA who were not only supportive of the boycott, but passionate in a way I had never seen before. Professors spoke up in support of the Israeli academic boycott, linking the Palestinian struggle to various struggles of oppressed people and various social issues of war, imperialism, colonialism, occupation. It was a moment of true solidarity, speakers in support of the boycott were diverse in expertises of studies as well as diverse in their race and ethnicities. Applause in the room spoke for itself, the second an ASA member reached the mic to say ‘“I support the boycott of Israeli academic institutes” the room filled with cheers and loud applause. The 7 who spoke against the boycott received applause . . . but only from each other.
It was clear, it was indisputable even to those who looked like they were ready to scream with anger, almost all of the ASA members in the ballroom believed in the responsibility of their academic organization to take a stance of justice for Palestinian human rights, rights that include education and academic freedom.
After the 2013 ASA conference and working with the incredible ASA Activism Caucus, I feel more empowered than ever not only as a Palestinian American- but even more importantly as a student. The ASA Activism Caucus has reflected well on the ASA, they have bravely created a space in American academia for students like myself who strongly believe that the power of academia cannot be devoid of social activism or issues of justice.
An official decision on the Israeli academic boycott resolution has still not been released by the ASA Council who is still in session on the issue.
Link to the boycott petition (for American Studies Association members only): link to www.change.org
Link to the FAQ sheet we passed out: www.usacbi.org
About Lena Ibrahim
Lena Ibrahim is a first generation Palestinian-American and sophomore in college studying Global Affairs.