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.