Why the ASA is Right and President Martin is Wrong

The vote in mid-December by the American Studies Association to approve the academic and cultural boycott of Israel (as part of a larger call from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement — a movement of more than a hundred Palestinian civil society organizations that includes doctors, lawyers and teachers) unleashed a furious and punitive backlash. The resolution was years in the making, the result of open forums and a membership-wide vote. The boycott does not target individuals, only institutions. Israeli scholars of all political persuasions may visit, lecture and publish. The response to this modest and entirely democratic vote, led by individual heads of institutions and legislators, has been extreme. A number of colleges have severed ties with the ASA, and recently the New York State Senate passed a bill that would deny state funding to any academic institution that supports the BDS movement or the ASA [1]. In her letter of Dec. 30, 2013, expressing Amherst College’s opposition to the ASA Resolution, President Martin, even if unwittingly, joined this ugly attack, lending it her credibility and the credibility of Amherst College. Here is why I think she is wrong and the ASA is right.

What about Israel’s security? The settlements have nothing to do with Israel’s security. Many of them are bedroom communities (for Jews only), houses built on land violently and illegally taken from Palestinians and connected to Israel proper by overpass roads (for Jews only) that glide over the squalor of Palestinian refugee camps, choked by checkpoints [2]. Before there was a Hamas, there were settlements; before and after the Oslo accords, there were settlements. It is this relentless and continuing dispossession and occupation that the BDS movement and the ASA resolution hope to halt.

Isn’t the Resolution an assault on academic freedom? This is the central claim made by those who oppose the boycott but the claim doesn’t hold together. As mentioned, the boycott doesn’t curtail any individual’s speech or job. On the other hand, those who oppose the boycott seldom complain about Israel’s systematic curtailment of the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars. Israel uses checkpoints and closures to curtail educational access when it seeks to punish Palestinians [3]. It hinders Palestinian scholars from leaving and assuming fellowships that they have already been awarded, or U.S. scholars from collaborating with their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank (the subject of a recent Modern Language Association resolution) [4]. To worry about academic freedom without even raising these issues is to subject Palestinians to what David Lloyd and Colin Dayan have called a double injury: dispossessed of their lands and livelihoods, they are then told they do not even merit a mention in debates over academic freedom. It is possible to oppose the ASA vote while calling for academic freedom for Palestinians. President Martin’s letter does no such thing.

Why pick on Israel, the only democracy in the region, when there are states with worse human rights violations? A call for sanctions is not an abstract position on human rights in general. Rather it is a strategic and focused form of pressure to change a remediable harm. Even if, arguendo, Israel is the only democracy in the region, this makes a call for a boycott all the more sensible, for faced with international opprobrium and economic pain, Israeli citizens can pressure their government to stop building settlements and end the occupation.

It is doubtful that President Martin will change her position. I am sure the response to this letter will be that it is academic freedom that allows me to publish it — a position besides the point since neither the ASA nor I have ever called for the punishment of anyone for what they have written. However, given the concern for academic freedom, the least the President and the incoming Dean of Faculty can do is issue a public statement, affirming that junior faculty at Amherst College who engage in and support the BDS movement will not face pressure or punishment as they approach tenure. We shall see if even that statement is forthcoming. And if it is only academic freedom that troubles people then perhaps we can oppose the boycott but ask the investment committee to look into divesting endowment funds from Israeli companies

1http://www.campusreform.org/?ID=5324 and http://mondoweiss.net/2014/01/punishing-israel-boycott.html
2Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (2007).