American academics break the last taboo

November 29, 2013
Sarah Benton

At American Studies Association, boycotting Israel finds wide favor

By Ron Kampeas, JTA
November 26, 2013

WASHINGTON — 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.[see below]

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 that almost filled a room that seats 745 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.

Andrew Kadi, activist for Palestinian (and general human) rights. He is credited with having delivered the Boycott Israel petition to Alicia Keys. Unconfirmed.

“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.

Breaking “America’s Last Taboo”

By Alex Lubin, MERIP
November 27, 2013

American Zionism has made any serious public discussion of the past or future of Israel — by far the largest recipient ever of US foreign aid — a taboo. To call this quite literally the last taboo in American public life would not be an exaggeration. Abortion, homosexuality, the death penalty, even the sacrosanct military budget can be discussed with some freedom. The extermination of native Americans can be admitted, the morality of Hiroshima attacked, the national flag publicly committed to the flames. But the systematic continuity of Israel’s 52-year-old oppression and maltreatment of the Palestinians is virtually unmentionable, a narrative that has no permission to appear.

—Edward Said, “America’s Last Taboo” (2000)

During the four days of the American Studies Association (ASA) annual meeting at the Washington Hilton, conference attendees were buzzing with talk about an Israel boycott resolution proposed by the Caucus on Academic and Community Activism. The resolution, based on the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel call for solidarity, was proposed to the National Council of the association at the previous conference, held in Puerto Rico in November 2012. Over the last year the caucus website featured the resolution as well as a place to sign as an endorser. Amidst the normal chaos of a large academic conference the BDS resolution was everywhere a central theme. The executive committee of the ASA organized two large events to consider the resolution, including a town hall discussion featuring panelists who supported the resolution and an open forum in which attendees put their names in a box in the hopes that they would be selected to speak for two minutes. At the open forum 44 names were selected. Of these speakers, only seven opposed the resolution. Moreover, petitions circulated throughout the conference, with the “pro-” resolution group adding approximately 450 names and the “against” petition carrying 50 signatures including seven former presidents of the association. Both sides have many more signatures from petitions collected outside the conference.

Although there are only a few active academic and cultural boycotts of Israel, discussions about boycotts within universities seems to be more common. In 2005 the [then] Association of University Teachers (AUT) in Britain passed a boycott resolution against the University of Haifa and Bar-Ilan University. These institutions were singled out because of the ways that they limited the academic freedom of Israeli scholars critical of the occupation and because of academic programs they operate in illegal West Bank settlements.

American students call for boycott. [This photo by Reuters accompanies several online articles about the AAAS though without captions to affirm its location.]

Within the United States the AUT boycott was fiercely condemned by the Anti-Defamation League as well as by the AAUP [American Association of University Professors] (and a bit more mildly reproved by the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association). The AAUP responded to the AUT boycott by drafting a policy statement opposing academic boycotts as “prima facie violations of academic freedom.” The AAUP has maintained this position amidst growing boycott movements within the American academy. In April 2013 the Association of Asian American Studies became the first academic association in the American academy to endorse a boycott resolution. The ASA boycott resolution was raised in a context of growing political awareness of the politics and possibilities of boycotts, including a controversial special issue of the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom in which most of the articles, many of which were authored by ASA members, made compelling endorsements of academic boycotts.

I am a co-founder of the ASA’s caucus on academic and community activism and I spoke in support of the resolution on the town hall panel and in the open forum. What struck me about this year’s conference was how quickly the impossible became possible. When the caucus first raised the question of Palestine in America many years ago, only a small handful of ASA members joined our conversation. At the 2012 conference we were amazed to see 80 people attend a meeting to discuss the boycott resolution. At the 2013 conference the issue took off, in large part because of the ways that the issue of boycott adheres to a vision of the ASA as an anti-racist organization. We saw nothing less than the breaking of what Edward Said called “America’s last taboo.”

In order to understand why the resolution gained the overwhelming support of conference attendees we have to understand a longer history of scholarly transformation within the ASA. The support for the BDS resolution represents a conjuncture between at least four ongoing social movements and the academic formations surrounding them. The ASA has recently been shaped by:

• Native American and indigenous studies and its theorizing of settler-colonialism;
• activism coming out of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its related analysis of debt and the neo-liberal university;
• the slow but steady march of the Palestinian freedom movement that has led to the formation of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters across academia; and
• the creation of American studies programs in the Middle East in which the question of Palestine can be discussed outside the constraints imposed on discourse in America.

Students for Justice in Palestine march alongside Latin@/Chican@ student activists at the University of New Mexico (credit: UNM SJP)

The interest within the ASA on studies of settler-colonialism are not new; yet they have been invigorated by a cohort of rigorous scholarship within Native American and indigenous studies who have unraveled the history of settler-colonialism within the US. This scholarship has been especially adept at theorizing the connection between US territorial expansion across North America and US extra-territorial expansion throughout its empire. Native American and indigenous studies scholars have always been active within Palestinian solidarity circles, but the recent growth of settler-colonial studies has provided the intellectual scaffolding through which to better understand settler-colonialisms rooted in liberal nation-states. Moreover, studies of settler-colonialism and indigeneity have allowed scholars to make comparison across time and space that bring into focus transnational processes of colonialism, as well as make evident new forms of anti-colonial solidarities. Recently, for example, Palestinian activists joined Idle No More, a global protest movement in support of indigenous rights.

Scholars who took part in Occupy Wall Street have contributed new insight into the relationship between neo-liberalism and the university. This scholarship has identified the university as being at the front lines of economic neo-liberalism, as tenure, state funding and the humanities have been embattled in the push for new efficiencies, downsized departments and outcomes assessments. In addition, this scholarship has linked higher education to the military-industrial complex in ways that reveals how universities participate in imperialism. What these insights reveal are the ways that higher education participates in the perpetuation and maintenance of inequality and therefore, that “academic freedom” takes place within local and global contexts that are always and already unequal and exclusionary. True academic freedom can only exist in a context devoid of social and political inequalities.

Students for Justice for Palestinians in a public manifestation at MacLeans university, California

Although the Palestinian solidarity movement has existed for a long time, it has been the growth of SJP activism across American university campuses, more than anything else perhaps, that has expanded the possibilities for discussion of Palestinians within the American academy. Like many non-violent student movements, SJP is dedicated to analysis as well as action; it therefore is committed to spreading knowledge about the occupation throughout higher education, while also dedicated to protesting the occupation in various non-violent forms of civil disobedience. One notable action of SJP has been to link Palestinian solidarity activism to indigenous and migrant justice movements. In mid-October, for example, SJP activists in Arizona protested that state’s deportation policies. SJP should be understood as a community of scholarly activists whose knowledge contributed greatly to the BDS movement with the ASA.

And finally, new academic formations of American studies beyond the US have been open spaces within which the question of Palestine has not been a taboo but a central concern. The Palestine question was at the center of the formation of the Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) at the American University of Beirut (AUB). When Mayor Rudy Giuliani refused Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal’s donation to the City of New York following the September 11, 2001 attacks because the prince dared to criticize US policy regarding Palestine, the prince formed two American studies centers in the Arab world in order that the Arab world could better understand and study America. Throughout its ten-year history CASAR has organized conferences and hosted visiting scholars who discussed the Palestine question openly, in ways that were unavailable in the US where there was supposedly academic freedom, but also a vigorous campaign to silence and prosecute those who discussed Palestinian solidarity. Moreover, in Beirut, American scholars interacted with Middle East Studies experts as well as Palestinian intellectuals and activists. Thus, while the Palestine question was a third rail in the US, CASAR provided a “third space” beyond the US and Israel where the Palestine question could be debated and theorized and the nature of American imperialism could be viewed through a new lens.

Students from the University of Maryland on a Free Palestine walk

The combined academic and activist developments discussed above came together at this year’s ASA conference. The caucus organizing table became a meeting area for young SJP activists in their kaffiyyas, veterans of the Occupy movement, and faculty and graduate students of all ages and backgrounds. For the first time ever ASA members declared themselves on this issue and an overwhelming majority of conference attendees endorsed the resolution. Trailblazing scholars of African-American studies, Chicano studies, Asian American studies, American literature and history endorsed the call for the boycott, suggesting that intersectional analysis is also leading to intersectional politics. Many said they were relieved that they could finally voice in public their analysis of Palestine question without fear of retribution. One Palestinian activist told me that the ASA conference was the first time, outside of Palestinian events, that she felt that she was in the majority.

There were members of the association, and many non-members of the association, who signed a counter-petition. These scholars argued that the resolution unfairly targeted one nation and that the boycott resolution would have a negative impact on academic freedom. They often cited the AAUP statement against academic boycotts. Celebrity Israel supporters, such as Alan Dershowitz, are now on the prowl. Other opponents were sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians, but felt that there are better ways to engage the occupation — such as divestment campaigns — that do not implicate institutions of higher education. Much of the criticism of the boycott concerned confusion about the difference between an institutional boycott (like the one proposed by the ASA caucus) and an individual boycott (which the ASA caucus did not propose). It would be a mistake to argue that the divide over the question of the boycott was generational; it seemed to have more to do with how different groups conceive of the role of activism in scholarship.

While much of the opposition merely reproduced talking points developed by distant federations and lobbies, within the ASA there was genuine concern among some that the academic boycott is the wrong strategy for fighting the occupation. This argument was often voiced to me in private, especially among self-described Jewish anti-Zionists who are repulsed by the occupation, but think that an academic boycott is misguided for the ASA. To these colleagues I would point out that the boycott asks each of us to prioritize the most immediate and serious political issue, which is the plight of the Palestinians, their precarious lives and the absence of their freedom. The boycott call came from within Palestinian civil society and represents how an indigenous people contending with colonialism are engaging non-violent resistance. Moreover, as Howard Zinn once wrote, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Our silence represents complicity and our boycott call represents solidarity. And finally, we spoke about the important need to disaggregate Jewish identity from Israeli state policy. The boycott call is not a boycott of Jews, or of any individuals, but of institutions that are complicit in the occupation.

Drawing on the transforming and intersecting analysis of anti-racism and anti-imperialism within the ASA, the caucus members argued that universities do not exist outside of imperial contexts, and that academic freedom is a privileged category achieved by very few scholars in Israel-Palestine. Moreover, we argued that the boycott resolution affirms academic freedom in two important ways. First, the boycott will help to open up debate in Israel and Palestine about uneven access to academic freedom. Second, the boycott opens up space within the US to (finally) have an open discussion about Israeli policy and the Palestine question. The boycott does not discriminate against individuals because the boycott is targeted at institutions. And finally, we conceive of the academic boycott as consistent with the politics of divestment; as one member of the caucus argued, a boycott extends into the realm of the academy what divestment extends into the realm of economy.

More than anything the ASA members involved in the boycott resolution felt that we had breached America’s last taboo. A broad group of scholars and students with different backgrounds and research interests worked together in a supportive atmosphere to analyze and discuss boycott in ways that were not possible in previous years. I have studied global solidarity movements, but this was the first time that I felt what it was like to be part of one. Throughout the conference I received e-mails from friends in Beirut and Cairo, as well as from scholars across the US who lent their support and wanted to know what was happening at the conference. Moreover, those of us involved in the boycott movement saw evidence of how our scholarship informs all aspects of our lives, including our activism. The boycott supporters brought to our activism scholarly knowledge about social movements in the past and present that we could draw on for comparison and for inspiration. Whether it was by contributing their insights about the United Farm Workers struggle, the indigenous struggle for sovereignty, the prison abolition movement or the South African anti-apartheid movement, scholar activists put ideas into action in ways that were both inspiring and revelatory.

Association for Asian American Studies Resolution to Support the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

By Jadaliyya
May 22 2013

[The following resolution was issued by the General Membership of the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) on 20 April 2013. Below the text of the resolution is a letter issued by the President of the AAAS on 3 May 2013 explaining his support for the resolution.] 

Resolution to Support the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions
Issued by the General Membership of the AAAS

Whereas the Association for Asian American Studies is an organization dedicated to the preservation and support of academic freedom and of the right to education for students and scholars in the U.S. and globally; and

Whereas Arab (West Asian) and Muslim American communities, students, and scholars have been subjected to profiling, surveillance, and civil rights violations that have circumscribed their freedom of political expression, particularly in relation to the issue of human rights in Palestine-Israel; and

Whereas the Association for Asian American Studies seeks to foster scholarship that engages conditions of migration, displacement, colonialism, and racism, and the lives of people in zones of war and occupation; and

Whereas the Association for Asian American Studies seeks to advance a critique of U.S. empire, opposing US military occupation in the Arab world and U.S. support for occupation and racist practices by the Israeli state; and

Whereas the United Nations has reported that the current Israeli occupation of Palestine has impacted students “whose development is deformed by pervasive deprivations affecting health, education and overall security”; and

Whereas Palestinian universities and schools have been periodically forced to close as a result of actions related to the Israeli occupation, or have been destroyed by Israeli military strikes, and Palestinian students and scholars face restrictions on movement and travel that limit their ability to attend and work at universities, travel to conferences and to study abroad, and thereby obstruct their right to education; and

Whereas the Israeli state and Israeli universities directly and indirectly impose restrictions on education, scholarships, and participation in campus activities on Palestinian students in Israel; and

Whereas Israel imposes severe restrictions on foreign academics and students seeking to attend conferences and do research in Palestine as well as on scholars and students of Arab/Palestinian origin who wish to travel to IsraelPalestine; and

Whereas Israeli institutions of higher education have not condemned or taken measures to oppose the occupation and racial discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, but have, rather, been directly and indirectly complicit in the systematic maintenance of the occupation and of policies and practices that discriminate against Palestinian students and scholars throughout Palestine and in Israel; and

Whereas Israeli academic institutions are deeply complicit in Israel’s violations of international law and human rights and in its denial of the right to education and academic freedom to Palestinians, in addition to their basic rights as guaranteed by international law; and

Whereas the Association for Asian American Studies supports research and open discussion about these issues without censorship, intimidation, or harassment, and seeks to promote academic exchange, collaboration and opportunities for students and scholars everywhere;

Be it resolved that the Association for Asian American Studies endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Be it also resolved that the Association for Asian American Studies 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.


Mary Yu Danico, President of the AAAS

Official Statement Regarding the Resolution
Issued by the President of the AAAS

The Resolution to Support the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions was voted upon and passed at the general business meeting of the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) Conference in Seattle. The meeting was open to all members, and the conference drew approximately 700 members. We announced that the resolution vote would be held to all conference attendees and encouraged them to attend the general business meeting. Our policy is that all resolutions are voted upon at the general membership meeting by a confidential ballot, not by a ballot sent to all members in advance. The resolution was discussed as one of the agenda items at the business meeting of the conference. Approximately 10% of the membership was present at the meeting, with many members who could not attend expressing their support for the resolution.

There was thoughtful discussion about the significance of the resolution to the Association’s history. Members reaffirmed the core values of the association – its resistance to imperialism and racial discrimination, and its support for self-determination of disenfranchised peoples, academic rights and the right to education for all members of a society. That the call to boycott comes from Palestinian civil society was an important point that some members emphasized. Some members made specific mention of the ways in which Israeli academic institutions are complicit with the Occupation and the discrimination of Palestinian students. There was a careful distinction made between Israeli academic institutions and individual Israeli academics. It is the former – the institutions – that are the target of the boycott and not individual scholars. The similarity of the Palestinian boycott call to the South African boycott movement to end apartheid was also underscored. The point was

made that because the US government does not oppose or protest the illegal actions of Israel with respect to the Palestinians’ right to education and freedom of expression, it falls to civil society organizations like the AAAS to take up the call by the Palestinian peoples to boycott Israeli academic institutions. A final point was that US academics who speak out against the Israeli government’s policies are subject to intimidation and retribution, and so it is crucial that the AAAS stand in solidarity with US academics, particularly those of Middle Eastern (West Asian) and Muslim descent, who protest the policies of the state of Israel.

Specifically, the Resolution to Support the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions calls upon members of AAAS to educate, through courses, forums, and other means, the students, faculty, and staff on their campuses of the realities on the ground for Palestinians who live under the policies of the Israeli government; to discourage their campuses from entering into curricular or other partnerships with Israeli academic institutions; and to forge alliances with Palestinian academics and students.

The board believes that AAAS members, in voting for this resolution, affirmed the organization’s commitment to academic freedom for all scholars. The AAAS is opposed to all forms of discrimination, including anti-Semitism, and is committed to advocating for human rights and social justice.

Many other countries are, of course, human rights abusers and violators of international law, but there is active debate on and criticism of their actions at the levels of government and civil society. Israel enjoys special status with the United States and is immune from governmental criticism even when there is consistent violation of international law. A boycott of Israeli academic institutions by hundreds of U.S. academics and now by the AAAS is a response to this special protected status of Israel, and it is a call to civil society in both Israel and the United States to take action. We urge other U.S. academic organizations to expand debate about Israeli policy and its special status in the United States.


Mary Yu Danico, President of AAAS
Executive Board Members of AAAS

Notes and links
Journal of Academic Freedom, Volume 4, 2013
Two of the articles from the above special edition were reposted at Should intellectual products be exempt from boycott?, September 28, 2013

Why the American Studies Association should adopt academic boycott of Israel by Steven Salaita, November 220th, 2013, Electronic Intifada

See also on a 2nd broken taboo
The taboo on boycotting Israel has been broken

By David Lloyd The Electronic Intifada, 26 November 2013

Something extraordinary happened on Saturday evening at the American Studies Association’s annual meeting in Washington, DC.

At a packed open meeting called by the ASA’s National Executive Council to discuss a resolution to “endorse and honor” the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, speaker after speaker rose to express strong support for the resolution.

They urged the council to vote on it without further delay or deferral……

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