The Best of Intentions: Debating the ASA Boycott

The Best of Intentions: Debating the ASA Boycott

Tel Aviv University students commemorate the Nakba, May 13, 2013 (

Last December, the membership of the American Studies Association voted to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Has the boycott effectively challenged the Israeli state’s discrimination and violence against Palestinians? Or has it only further isolated voices of dissent in Israeli society? We host a debate between Michael Zakim, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University, and Feisal Mohamed, a professor at the University of Illinois. —Editors


The Best of Intentions
Michael Zakim

Nearly a year after the American Studies Association (ASA) adopted a formal resolution—supported by a minority of the association’s membership but avidly embraced by the organization’s leadership—to boycott Israeli academia, the results are readily apparent. In fact, the boycott’s repercussions were felt almost immediately here in Tel Aviv, where I teach history. They clearly point to the boycott’s success. At the same time, they also raise questions about what such success means, both in terms of the Palestinian cause and the future of Israeli policy towards Palestine. These questions have become even more relevant in the wake of this summer’s fighting in Gaza, whose attendant war crimes have incited new demands by American academics to boycott Israeli universities.

The ASA boycott is, admittedly, a marginal event. The field of American Studies constitutes something of a backwater in Israeli academic life; world history (principally, medieval and early modern Europe, as well as the Middle East since the rise of Islam), western and eastern philosophy, and both Hebrew and comparative literature constitute the traditional core of the humanities at Tel Aviv. On the other hand, American Studies has proven to be something of a growth industry. It was recently accorded departmental status by the university, for instance. Enrollments have since more than doubled, a particularly noteworthy achievement in an age of declining student (and institutional) interest in the humanities. And while American Studies remains a small department, sharing introductory courses and administrative staff with the English literature program, these same limitations have also served as an effective impetus for building a wide-ranging, multidisciplinary undergraduate program resting on a talented faculty, most of whom were trained in the United States (at Brandeis, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Stanford, etc.). In addition to the B.A. program, the American Studies department also organizes graduate student symposia, a regular research forum for faculty throughout the country, a guest lecture series that brings foreign scholars to Tel Aviv, and international conferences devoted to such recent topics as “Bartleby and Modernity,” the “Sovereign Economy,” and the “History of Privacy.”

The ASA boycott’s first victim was a PhD student at Tel Aviv who recently completed his doctoral dissertation. His advisor was unable to recruit qualified outside readers to review the thesis due to its Israeli provenance. The fact that this same student is Palestinian (in this case, an Arab citizen of Israel) contributes an element of black comedy to an already unhappy situation. I imagine that the militant cadre within the ASA would dismiss his predicament as the just deserts due any collaborator. The more liberal membership, assuming that they’ve given any thought to the practical ramifications of their boycott, might suggest that the student instead write his PhD in a Palestinian university. They would no doubt be happy to then read it. His transfer out of the Israeli system, ironically enough, would serve the same goal of ethnic cleansing that drives much of the racist politics within Israel. But this is an entirely hypothetical issue anyway, since there are no doctoral programs in American Studies in Palestine or anywhere else in the Arab world. (The founding director of the only degree-granting American Studies program in the region outside of Israel, at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, has gone on record in opposition to the ASA boycott.) Indeed, if the ASA were more interested in practicing rather than in performing politics, mobilizing its resources to create such a doctoral program in an Arab university would be a most worthy project.

Not long after this debacle, Dr. Milette Shamir, a former chair of American Studies at Tel Aviv, failed in her efforts to organize an international conference on the subject of “Realism and Faith” in the American literary imagination. Dr. Shamir, who has written extensively on the emotional life of Victorian-era men and has recently embarked on a new research project exploring the history of American Protestantism in the Holy Land, reported that none of her invitations to American Studies scholars working in the field had been accepted. True, no one explicitly based their refusal on ideological grounds. And yet, strong suspicions arose regarding the reasons for their blanket refusal. The resulting paranoia and second-guessing were an obvious and direct effect of the boycott.

Most recently, Dr. Yael Sternhell has undertaken steps to organize another conference in Tel Aviv, this one to be devoted to the history of segregation. The intention is to generate a comparative discussion about racial and ethnic discrimination as practiced over the past century in the United States (which is Sternhell’s own specialty as a historian of the American South) as well as in Europe, India, Africa, and Israel. It is not yet clear whether her efforts will bear fruit, though recent experience raises serious doubts.

I think it is fair to say, based on these three cases, that the ASA boycott has achieved pointed success in crippling American Studies at Tel Aviv University, both for faculty and students. What does this mean in terms of the future of the Palestinian struggle? Will the ASA boycott, for instance, deter Drs. Shamir and Sternhell from continuing their own activist politics against the Israeli occupation of Palestine? I expect not. Will the ASA boycott demoralize them, politically as well as professionally? It already has.

Indeed, by deepening the sense of beleaguerment among Israeli academics, the American Studies Association finds itself in bed with a sordid group of political allies determined to delegitimize the humanism and internationalism that predominates on Israeli university campuses. This campaign is part of a highly organized effort to isolate the Israeli left and so prevent it from forging alliances in Palestine and the Arab world, as well as with western political parties and NGOs. For instance, legislation has been proposed in the Knesset that would prohibit Israeli organizations that are openly critical of the country’s foreign policy from receiving contributions from foreigners. Meanwhile, groups that are openly supported by neoconservative and fundamentalist Christian organizations in the United States have been pursuing a neo-McCarthyite program of intimidation and surveillance—inspired by such American-born initiatives as Campus Watch—against university faculty suspected of what they contend to be politically subversive behavior.

The crusade to discredit Israeli academic culture finds numerous other expressions as well. One recent incident focused on Tel Aviv University’s president, Professor Joseph Klafter. Last year, Klafter’s office gave official permission to student organizations to organize a demonstration on campus commemorating the Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic). Nakba Day, May 15, has emerged as a public remembrance for the mass displacement of Palestinians after the war of 1948. The anniversary has a particularly powerful resonance within Israeli public life since it effectively seeks to turn the establishment of the state—a redemptive moment in most secular Jewish narratives—into a cause of mourning. It was very significant, then, that Klafter—the recently appointed president of a public university whose funding is almost entirely controlled by the state (there are no private universities in Israel)—saw fit to include Nakba Day within the boundaries of legitimate political expression on campus. Needless to say, he came under withering fire from the Israeli right for this affront to patriotic sentiment (if not “betrayal” of the national interest). They had good reason to target him. Recognition of the Nakba’s place in Israeli public culture—a program embraced in recent years by the Israeli left—will go a long way toward conciliation and the possibility of future coexistence. But instead of congratulating Klafter for his courageous stand, the ASA has declared unconditional war on his institution, offering succor to the Israeli right and their allies in the United States who have laid siege to our universities. Indeed, if and when Klafter eventually caves in to the right and bans such commemorations, I fully expect the ASA to point to his capitulation as further justification for its boycott.

What is the source of such inanity? Why is the ASA determined to aid the forces of reaction in Israeli society while weakening those struggling on behalf of peace and coexistence? Is it a case of muddled thinking and a stubborn dissociation from the world of concrete political experience. (Anyone who reads American Studies scholarship will know what I am talking about.) Is it an updated version of the Ugly American, a globalized version of an American politics of black and white as applied to the rest of the world? Or is the fate of Israelis, and even Palestinians, entirely besides the point in what should best be understood as an exercise in radical chic? I suspect that all these motives are at play. They certainly all found expression in one of the more prolix documents that circulated on the eve of the ASA vote in support of the boycott. Signed by Robin D.G. Kelley, a historian at the University of California at Los Angeles, the missive rehearsed a laundry list of Israeli aggression and transgression. Sure enough, among those crimes against humanity justifying the banishment of Israeli universities from the international community of teachers and scholars was Israel’s attack on… its universities. I must confess that such dialectics are beyond my more elementary grasp of politics. However, the results are as plain as can be, and are wholeheartedly endorsed by the ASA’s allies on the rejectionist front in both Israel and Palestine.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is no place for foreign intervention in bringing about an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, assuming that this is the ASA’s objective. Divestment, for instance, should continue to be one of its goals. The efficacy of such a campaign is open to question, of course. It remains far from clear what role, if any, such efforts played in ending South African apartheid. But international economic sanctions are a potentially powerful tool for change. And Israel is far more vulnerable to them than are Iran and Russia. Secretary of State James Baker’s mere threat to withhold loan guarantees in the early 1990s—can anyone imagine Barack Obama doing the same?—forced a viciously right-wing and recalcitrant Israeli government to recognize the PLO, for instance, paving the way to the Oslo Accords less than two years later.

Admittedly, following the money trail offers less ideological catharsis than the steadfast refusal to review a graduate student thesis. But there are other avenues of political action on the academic front that would well serve the cause of peace and justice.

I myself took part in one such project that brought together American, Palestinian, and Israeli students for a three-week seminar devoted, in fact, to the history of American democracy. Sponsored over the course of three summers, from 2010 to 2012, by Oberlin College, American mediation effectively filled a dual role in this instance. In addition to the institutional generosity—and territorial neutrality—of an American college campus, America’s own long experience with political violence, racism, and war, together with its ongoing struggles to address and rectify that sorrowful history, provided both Israelis and Palestinians with an alternative grammar with which to think and talk to each other about politics and, more specifically, about their own mutual cycles of hate and hurt.

That program contained a valuable lesson for the membership of the ASA—namely, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is itself something of a misnomer. The real schism runs down the center of both societies, dividing each of them into opposing camps of war and peace, as was illustrated in the Gaza war’s mutual bloodletting between rival messianic movements—an Israeli government controlled by West Bank settlers and the Jihadist-Hamas alliance—who held their respective populations hostage to a shared cult of death and the zero-sum politics of “all or nothing.”

If the ASA is genuinely interested in combating injustice in occupied Palestine, it should extend its hand to the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps and seek to help them surmount the nearly impassable obstacles imposed by their incendiary opponents. (And let’s face it, the Palestinians are no less trapped than the Jews in a post-traumatic cycle of death and [self-]destruction that has to be overcome before any progress is made.) This is not an impossible task. Israeli and Palestinian humanists speak in common terms of national self-determination, mutual recognition, renunciation of violence, and devotion to civil society.

But such political engagement would entail discarding the fundamentalist and nationalistic clichés that inform the American Studies Association’s own discourse regarding events on the ground, those same categories by which the conflict perpetuates itself. Only then would the ASA be able to use its good offices to compel the sides to talk to each other rather than boycott each other. It should do so, for instance, by initiating scholarly and pedagogic projects—not just in the field of American Studies, but throughout the humanities and social sciences—that are explicitly contingent on bilateral cooperation and dialogue. The ASA should establish scholarships, or even joint programs of study, in American history and culture for Israeli and Palestinian students in order to strike directly at the heart of the right-wing campaign to keep us from communicating across the no-man’s land. It should fund seminars for Israeli and Palestinian faculty on subjects of common relevance such as peace studies, pluralism, and human rights. And it should create a fact-finding mission to visit our two countries and institutionalize ongoing discussions regarding additional projects of mutual relevance.

Only by so reformulating its own woeful position can the ASA promote a political program that could also serve as a blueprint for other academic organizations in the United States who are so inclined to intervene on behalf of peace and justice in our region.

Any and All Available Means
Feisal G. Mohamed responds

We must all be grateful to Michael Zakim for his perspective on the effects of the ASA boycott of Israeli universities. I respond from a university that has itself been widely boycotted due to the summary dismissal of Steven Salaita, a result in its own way of the charged climate surrounding BDS, and I can certainly attest that the first—perhaps the only—real victims of academic boycotts are graduate students. When scholars in their field refuse to visit campus and refuse to read their work, their intellectual development is hobbled. Add to this that they must enter a highly competitive job market with a degree amounting to a scarlet letter, and a picture quickly develops of bright young people dealt significant harm for reasons entirely beyond their control. Is this not reason enough to condemn the ASA boycott?

It might be. But the ASA’s National Council would emphasize that they made a conscientious effort to avoid such consequences, so it is unfair to say that they would regard an Arab-Israeli doctoral candidate at Tel Aviv University as a “collaborator” getting his “just deserts.” As their explanation makes clear, the boycott is “limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government.” That’s it. Nothing about the boycott demands, or even recommends, that a member refuse to serve as an external reader on a dissertation or refuse to attend a conference held on an Israeli campus. One could interpret the ASA resolution to mean that one should not accept an honorarium or travel funds from an Israeli university, but many universities offer neither of these to external readers and conferees, anyway. So the effects that Zakim describes are not directly attributable to the ASA resolution; they arise from individual actions beyond the association’s control. (I say not directly attributable, because it was entirely predictable that individuals would feel encouraged to go beyond the letter of the resolution, leading to escalating isolation of Israeli scholars and programs.)

The ASA’s decision is also more scrutable than Professor Zakim allows in his snipe about the association’s “inanity.” Though I do not doubt that many of the members who voted for the boycott have inane reasons for doing so, and only the most rudimentary understanding of the region and its politics, the most informed supporters of the boycott will emphasize that the action grows out of a deep commitment, personal and intellectual, to resisting imperialism in all of its manifestations: any and all available means must be used to end an occupation. The months since the boycott was declared have seen Israel acting with especial aggression, arrogance, and impunity, both in what Professor Zakim rightly terms the “war crimes” of the summer 2014 bombardment of Gaza and in a recently announced thousand-acre expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Many Americanists would argue that they are ethically obliged to denounce the ways in which the United States has been complicit in these crimes, and that any opposition to American imperialism must take aim at material and political support of Israel.

This is also an academic issue in that boycotting Israeli universities makes visible the barriers to academic life routinely faced by faculty and students in the occupied territories, which is why such boycotts have been promoted by Palestinian civil-society groups. The pleas of organizations like the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) pose a significant ethical challenge: for many within the ASA, ignoring them would feel like the hypocritical abandonment of core principles.

That said, one of the strongest arguments against academic boycotts generally is that they show a lack of faith in academic dialogue. This resembles Professor Zakim’s important recommendation that the ASA cultivate collaboration and dialogue across the “no-man’s land.” It seems undeniable that such an approach flows from our profession’s most noble impulses: to break down barriers to free intellectual exchange rather building them up. But is this also naïve? Does it have the effect of creating a theater of cooperation and collaboration that blinds us to the enormous difficulties imposed upon our Palestinian colleagues by Israeli policy? Events so conceived have something of the air of a children’s performance of the first Thanksgiving: they offer an image of amity that can distract us from ongoing injustices. But they may also be the best tools that we academics have got.

Of course the Israeli left is keenly aware of the injustices perpetuated by the Israeli right. And this is where I think Professor Zakim’s remarks are most compelling: a major shortcoming of the ASA resolution is its very scant notice of the diversity of opinion within Israel itself, noting only, and primarily for purposes of self-defense, that some Israeli students and scholars support BDS. It otherwise smears Israeli academics with the charge of complicity in the very actions that many of them vigorously, and courageously, oppose. (How would U.S.–based academics feel if the tables were turned? If they found themselves boycotted because of their complicity in this country’s militarism or spotty human-rights record?) In this way, the boycotting impulse lends unintentional support to the bunker mentality of Israel’s war parties. I find myself nodding vigorously in reading that “the real schism runs down the center of both societies, dividing each of them into opposing camps of war and peace.” At their best, Israel’s universities are firmly within the camp of peace. That is true even at the level of its higher education commission: I recently told a colleague who actively supports the boycott that Israel’s Council of Higher Education is in the midst of a five-year, 300-million Shekel ($80 million) plan to boost enrolment of Israeli Arabs; he had no response.

Like my colleague in Tel Aviv, I am somewhat skeptical of promoting divestment. The CIA’s World Factbook provides a December 2013 estimate of foreign investment in Israel of just over $86 billion, with Israeli investment abroad being just over $80 billion. Equally significant is the amount of capital generated abroad by Israeli firms: a December 2013 column in Haaretz estimated $12 billion in such business in Massachusetts alone, so that the state is nearing California figures. Even the most enthusiastic BDSnik must be aware that the movement is very unlikely to stem this economic tide. So its efforts, like those of the ASA, are largely symbolic: a political discourse conscious of its fate to be only a discourse. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Our effort to live up to the infinite demand of an impossible idea can often inspire our best actions—Jacques Derrida, following Emmanuel Lévinas, knew that. But I am not sure that any rhetoric of division—be it BDS or the “two-state solution”—can be the richest possible source of speech or action. It will tend, rather, to speak in the increasingly angry tones of an ever more frustrated nationalist cause.

The most important part of the ASA’s resolution is the clause pertaining to free discussion of BDS: “the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.” It has been noted that the resolution deals a blow to academic freedom in one breath and then seeks to defend academic freedom in the next, a criticism that overstates the reach of the boycott but is not entirely without merit. For present purposes I wish to emphasize that free discussion of BDS is under threat on many campuses, and that the ASA is absolutely and undeniably correct in voicing this concern. That concern jars somewhat with efforts to exclude journalists from the association’s annual conference. There is no point in speaking freely about BDS in an echo chamber; there is also no point in subjecting the membership to a certain kind of hostile, partisan journalism—exposure that could have the effect of chilling speech at future conferences. Perhaps a more effective approach would see some panels open to the public, and others open only to association members.

I happen to think that if exposed to what Milton called a “free and open encounter” with truth, BDS would quickly be found wanting. The more it is discussed, the more we will see that it encourages the wrong conversation, one that goes too far in vilifying all Israelis and not far enough in advancing the rights of Palestinians, one that divides various peace parties rather than uniting them. We would be on very different rhetorical terrain if we were discussing a campaign to earmark 5 percent of all foreign investment in Israel toward development of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The ugly arguments and counter-arguments occasioned by the rise of BDS have made one thing clear: it is time for friends of peace everywhere to see that the most civilized end to the occupation will extend the principle of community, or, to put it in more practical terms, advance a one-state solution. This, too, may be an idea, to refer again to Derrida, forever in the mode of “to come.” It is also an idea that might generate the discourses of cooperation and harmony that are, at present, in dispiritingly short supply.

Feisal G. Mohamed is a professor at the University of Illinois with appointments in the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, the Department of English, and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory. His latest book is Milton and the Post-Secular Present: Ethics, Politics, Terrorism. Follow him on Twitter @FGMohamed.

Michael Zakim teaches American history at Tel Aviv University.