How NOT to Oppose the Academic Boycott of Israel (Again)

Back on January 2 of this year I posted to this blog a piece entitled “How NOT to Oppose the Academic Boycott of Israel.”  As should be well known to readers, the AAUP takes no position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but does oppose all academic boycotts as a matter of principle.  Hence, when the American Studies Association (ASA) last year proposed and ultimately endorsed an academic boycott of Israel we spoke out against the effort.  As I wrote in an op-ed piece at the time, “the whole idea of boycotting academic institutions in order to defend academic freedom is utterly wrongheaded.”  “Not only is it the wrong way to register opposition to the policies and practices it seeks to discredit, it is itself a serious violation of the very academic freedom its supporters purport to defend.”

Unfortunately, soon after the ASA vote a number of overzealous opponents of the boycott proposed actions that would themselves also violate academic freedom in the name of its defense, and my January 2 post was directed at these efforts.  Since then, it has become clear that however problematic the ASA boycott may be for academic freedom, attacks on the rights of faculty members to advocate such a boycott — rights that the AAUP defends — have become at least equally troublesome, if not more so.

And now comes the latest wrong-headed attempt to inappropriately silence boycott supporters.  Three days ago the conservative legal advocacy group, the American Center for Law and Justice, posted the following on its website:

The American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ) today called on a California company to reject a planned boycott of Israeli academics and academic institutions at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association (ASA) in Los Angeles in November. The ACLJ contends that enforcing the ASA’s anti-Israel boycott would cause Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites, which is hosting the ASA convention, to discriminate on the basis of national origin, race, and religion in violation of California law.

“The ASA’s exclusionary, functionally anti-Semitic policy has been condemned by academics across the political spectrum,” said David French, Senior Counsel of the ACLJ. “Invidious discrimination has no place in American higher education, and it certainly has no place in public accommodations. We’re calling on the Westin hotel to do the right thing and ban unlawful discrimination on its property.”

In a letter sent to Westin Bonaventure today, the ACLJ argues that no other nationality other than Israelis is subject to an exclusionary policy, and since the overwhelming majority of Israelis targeted by the boycott are Jewish, the policy is also exclusionary on the basis of race and religion.

French added: “California law prevents hotels from discriminating on the basis of national origin, race, and religion. We’re calling on the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, which is hosting the ASA’s annual meeting in November, to take steps to ensure that the ASA will not enforce its anti-Semitic policy during its annual meeting scheduled for November 4-9th. Simply put, we’re demanding that the Westin obey California law.”

The ACLJ letter gives the Westin five days to respond on whether it will change its discriminatory and unlawful boycott rules to be applied or face possible legal action.

The letter concludes: “We hope that the situation will not culminate in litigation, and the Westin Bonaventure and Interstate Hotels will do the right thing, and fulfill their legal obligations to prevent unlawful discrimination before it happens at the Westin Bonaventure.”

And here is the response from ASA Executive Director John F. Stephens:

The allegations in the letter of complaint are completely false. No one will be prohibited from participating in the annual meeting, which includes Jewish/Israeli scholars on session panels. There will be no violation of the law or discrimination of any kind. Furthermore, no one has been turned away, and no Israeli institution or anyone acting in a representative capacity has tried to register for the conference and been denied, nor been denied any other opportunity to attend or participate.

The ASA claims that its boycott does not violate academic freedom because it targets institutions and not individuals, a view that I find unpersuasive.  But Stephens’ response suggests that ASA takes this claim seriously and has not turned anyone away from their meeting.  Presumably the meeting is still open to those who oppose as well as those who support the ASA boycott stance.  As I wrote back in January, “Both individual members of ASA and American Studies departments affiliated with the ASA have the right to support or oppose the ASA’s boycott policy.  Members who disagree with the boycott will have to determine whether they wish to end their affiliation or remain part of the organization and work within it for change.  But that should be up to them to decide as scholars, not the subject of an administrative dictate.”

Nor, of course, should this be the subject of a lawsuit by an outside organization.  California’s Unruh Act does indeed bar discrimination in hotel accommodations and does permit an institution to be considered a “person” suffering discrimination and hence eligible to bring a lawsuit.  But such a legal claim requires actual incidents of discrimination, and apparently the ACLJ has as yet identified neither an individual nor an institution that can be said to have been a victim of the alleged discriminatory behavior.

Moreover, ACLJ’s claim that the ASA boycott is anti-Semitic rings hollow, since not all Jews — indeed, not all Israelis — support the policies the boycott purports to resist.  An attorney consulted by the ASA is no doubt correct when she writes that, “ASA’s action could not be considered discrimination, let alone discrimination based on animus toward the religion, race or national origin of any individual or institution; ASA’s actions are undertaken because of the policies of politically-accountable leaders in the Israeli government.”  One wonders whether, for instance, the ACLJ would find discrimination if the California Republican Party held a meeting at the Westin Bonaventure and sought to exclude Democrats, or vice versa.  The ASA’s boycott may be ill-advised and inimical to academic freedom, but its convention is hardly discriminatory in any meaningful sense of that word.

I seriously doubt the ACLJ letter will lead to a lawsuit, however, especially if the organization fails to identify any alleged “victims” in the case.  But that obviously is not the purpose of this letter, which is brazenly aimed at intimidation.  In response to the ASA’s boycott, ACLJ and their ilk now simply propose an illegitimate boycott of their own, aimed at any organization that may endorse the Israel boycott and even at neutral businesses that may contract with such organizations.  I surely hope that the management of the Westin Bonaventure will ignore this crude bullying and permit the ASA to conduct its meeting without obstruction.

And I continue to hope that the members of the ASA will reconsider their support of this academic boycott.  In the meantime, those like the ACLJ who seek to “fight fire with fire” and violate academic and intellectual freedom in the name of these values should be exposed as the hypocrites they apparently are.

UPDATE:  Not long after I posted this entry, ASA Executive Director John Stephens emailed me under the subject line “In case there is any doubt that the meeting is open to opposing views,” a description of a roundtable panel scheduled for the ASA meeting in Los Angeles on November 6 entitled “The Party’s Over: A Panel and Open Discussion on the Aftermath of the ASA’s Boycott Resolution.”  Here is the panel description:

Participants at this roundtable will discuss, evaluate, and consider responses to the December 2013 A.S.A. resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Its hosts oppose the political tactic of academic boycott on principle. Nor are we alone in this understanding. Since the vote, the A.S.A. has been the subject of immense criticism and ill will overseas (including in Palestine), in American higher education, and within its own ranks. Academic boycotts punish colleges and universities for the policies of the governments they depend on to exist and do their work. Such institutions are essential to democracy, and their efforts are easily thwarted when their members are judged guilty by association.

The discussion’s hosts will each offer a brief (5 minute) position paper on one aspect of the boycott in light of the A.S.A’s charter and of our common cause and responsibilities as teachers and scholars. Then with attendees, we will collectively consider the many intellectual and  pedagogical aims of American Studies, and discuss activist efforts that are consistent with those  aims. We plan to develop a position paper to circulate among the larger membership. As a result  of this meeting, we hope to offer a way forward to the voting members of the A.S.A., and to colleagues in the field who are not able to afford memberships. We invite all interested conference attendees to participate.

Among the panelists is a scholar from an Israeli institution (Mohammed Wated).  The panel description speaks for itself and suggests that ASA continues to be open to divergent views on this issue and that the discussion continues, which is certainly welcome news.

8 thoughts on “How NOT to Oppose the Academic Boycott of Israel (Again)

  1. In response to Hank Reichman’s praise for ASA for being open to divergent points of view, a claim I think that doesn’t comport with reality, a colleague has informed me of a call for contributions recently from ASA to fund Middle Eastern scholars to come to the ASA meeting. The colleague of course had a question about which scholars would be funded. So he turned to the ASA conference program ( to assess the matter, and reported that there are multiple panels that prominently incorporate Israel/Palestine into the fold; yet almost every panel is chaired by a prominent BDS supporter. He also reported that, of 6 scholars from Israel/Palestine, 5 are Palestinian (some Palestinian Israelis, others from the West Bank) and the one Jewish Israeli is Neve Gordon of Ben Gurion, a BDS supporter. One wonders how he funds his trip?. My colleague also reported that there are about 6 panels that incorporate Israel/Palestine, over half self-congratulatory panels on “why boycott?” or linking Israel/Palestine struggle to the struggle of other minorities, like African-Americans or (most ironically) LGTB struggles…” Finally, there is an afternoon workshop run by PACBI, apparently a training session. If this is what Hank Reichman calls being open to divergent views, it is a strange idea of academic openness at play.

    Ken Waltzer
    Michigan State University

    • My comment on divergent views at the ASA meeting was limited to the information that the program includes a session that purports to provide a critical perspective on the ASA’s endorsement of the academic boycott of Israel, a session that includes a scholar, apparently Palestinian, from an Israeli institution. I called this “welcome news,” and did not intend to offer “praise,” or for that matter censure, nor did my comment apply to any other portion of the program, which I have not reviewed. However, as I clearly stated in my post, “I continue to hope that the members of the ASA will reconsider their support of this academic boycott.”

      That said, I find it hardly surprising to learn that an organization that has endorsed the boycott lists a good number of speakers and sessions that support their position. But it certainly did seem welcome news to me that they had also scheduled (I am told in a large room and in a prominent time slot) a session critical of their own position. Had, say, the Hillel International acceded to the urgings of the Open Hillel movement and permitted one or two BDS supporters to participate in one of their meetings (which they have not), I would find that welcome news as well, even as I would continue to assume that the overwhelming majority of speakers and participants in Hillel events and any recipients of funding from Hillel remained firm opponents of the BDS movement. Neither academic freedom nor the broader principles of free expression require that opposing views always be “balanced.”

      From my perspective, reasoned dialogue on this issue is to be encouraged wherever it may occur, although such exchanges are far too infrequent and in my view advocates on both sides can share some of the blame.

  2. I share Hank Reichman’s views on boycotts, on the importance of reasoned exchange, even his hope the ASA might reconsider. I thank him for responding. But it would make more sense to see John Stephen’s claims reported here in the broader context of the ASA backing off from the consequences of its earlier actions by newly “opening” the LA meeting (to avoid litigation or the possibility of litigation), and it would make more sense to look at the ASA program as a whole and its contents before proclaiming “welcome news,” which I indeed read as “praise” for openness. I also do not see what Hillel and its behavior has to do with assessing the “openness” of a professional academic organization….

    Howard Jacobson rightly characterized most BDS folks as people who have just stopped listening. They are not listening to Israeli academics (unless they toot the line), and they are not listening to their opponents on boycott. The essence of academic life is listening, participating in conversations, hearing other points of view. From the evidence I have seen, it doesn’t look like this is what ASA is committed to doing or in fact is doing.

    • Ken Waltzer and I probably agree on more things than we disagree on, but on those latter we may have to agree to disagree, but I would hope in an agreeable manner. Unfortunately, one such disagreement may be about who has “stopped listening.” As I see it, there are too many on BOTH sides of this dispute who seem to have stopped listening to their opponents. If I can in some small way encourage a different sort of behavior, I will make the effort, however quixotic it may appear to some.

  3. Thanks for bringing this issue up for discussion.
    There are several issues that need be kept in mind here. One that the ASA resolution does not obligate any member to abide by it. Two, that those who oppose it are free to be/remain part of the ASA. Three, that those who opposed it, especially the Broner and Nelson became active in boycotting the ASA and in attacking those who pushed for the resolution including Steven Salaita.
    Four, many of those who are calling for boycott are already boycotted, Like in my case, I do not get one job offer in this country.
    Five, the AAUP censures universities that violate academic freedom, and this is exactly what the boycott is about; to censure the Israeli government for all its unethical policies including the restrictions it put on academic freedom for Palestinians both in the so called Occupied Territories and within the so called Green Line.

    • Two points of clarification on Magid Shihade’s fifth point: First, the AAUP censures universities in the U.S. for violations of our principles and policy statements on academic freedom only after a formal investigation and a vote by our annual membership meeting in June; we do not, however, advocate boycotts of censured institutions and in fact maintain active chapters at some of them. Second, the AAUP does not seek to apply its standards to universities outside the United States and generally takes no positions on international controversies.

      • I am very glad that the AAUP dos not apply its standards outside the U.S.
        But associations who do that, should be be asked to take a position on Israel, and will again briefly explain why.
        But first let me clarify again how it came and what the ASA resolution was about and what it stipulates.
        Although in the past many ASA resolutions were just adopted by the board, in the case of Israel it came in addition though membership wide vote with two thirds supporting the boycott resolution. Still the resolution makes it clear that members are free to do as they wish. It also does not prohibit cooperation with Israeli scholars as individuals. In a sens it is symbolic position. yet it is important because silencing about Israel in U.S academy is an exception. So, it is more about breaking an exception. If Steven Salaita tweeted about China, Suadi Arabia, Cuba, or any other entity, nothing would have happened to him. So, the boycott campaign is more about opening a space in the U.S academy, and it is fundamentally about promoting academic freedom.

  4. Pingback: Steven Salaita | Faculty Committee | Academic Freedom | Tweets

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