PRINCETON, NJ-Michael Curtis
The disgraceful resolution of the American Studies Association (ASA) passed on December 15, 2013 honoring the call from “Palestinian civil society” to support the academic boycott of Israel has brought to the forefront a problem that ought to disturb all concerned with the educational system in the United States and elsewhere.
The vital question is whether academics are surrendering their intellectual standards under the hypnotic spell of the fallacious Palestinian Narrative of Victimhood.
Once upon a time one assumed that college faculty members were paid to address and make statements on subjects on which they had some competence. The ASA has shown that this practice is no longer the case. With the enthusiasm of short- sighted detectives the members of ASA have obeyed the call of a Palestinian lobby group to pursue an academic boycott of a country of which they have little or no scholarly knowledge.
Moreover, that pursuit has no relevance to the supposed concerns of American Studies. Parents of students attending classes taught by the 1252 of the eligible 3853 members who voted for the resolution might legitimately inquire about what goes on in the learning and teaching behavior of this faculty.
The problem is acute. Of the 18 members of the ASA National Council who voted unanimously to endorse the boycott resolution, none appears to have any connection with Middle East studies. At least seven appear to have gender studies and sexual politics as a major, or one of their major, interests. The others state their primary research interests are race, film, “imperialism,” and Hawaiian and Latino cultural studies.
At their 2013 convention the ASA National Council and a third of the ASA membership members by their vote showed they were concerned with issues completely outside of their stated scholarly interests and intellectual competencies. The National Council endorsed and recommended panels on “Palestine in crisis,” and “Academic Freedom and the Right to Education: the Question of Palestine.”
At the convention, eight sessions were devoted to something called “Middle East American Studies,” (a seemingly ludicrous and non-existent form of enquiry), another four on “United States/Israel/Palestine,” another two on “settler colonialism that discussed the Israeli occupation of Palestine,” and yet another on “Boycott as a non-Violent Strategy of Collective Dissent.” What did any of these have to do with American Studies or the contributions of Americans to literature, art, science, and culture.
However, over eight days the members of ASA, none of whom has apparently taught a course on the politics, economics, and culture of the State of Israel, or on the history of the Middle East, attended these sessions and eventually passed the boycott resolution against Israel.
It is important to note that the ASA boycott follows the call, if not the exact words of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. This Campaign, started in 2004, is a remarkable demonstration of the Palestinian Narrative of Victimhood with its half-truths and falsehoods. Referring to the democratic State of Israel, and ignoring the increasing visibility and role of Israel Arabs in Israeli life, including the many Arabs who attend Israeli universities, it speaks of the “entrenched system of racial discrimination and segregation against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, which resembles the defunct apartheid system in South Africa.” In addition to the offensiveness and inaccuracy of this assertion, the Campaign called for no participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions.
Everyone concerned with educational issues must be distressed that a body called the American Studies Association responds to a call from a foreign lobbying body in almost identical language and what can only be regarded as an obsequious tone. Since the members who voted for boycott have shown no interest in issuing statements relating to any of the other 192 countries in the world, what can be their motive in passing this resolution against Israel? It is not unfair to wonder if the ASA has become infected by the virus of antisemitism.
The academic servility continues. It has now been announced by Chadwick Allen, professor at Ohio State University and president of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), a group with 747 members, that the association has decided to boycott Israeli academic institutions. He states that the association will support the boycott that “was initiated by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.”
Again, an academic group is taking a stand while in total ignorance of the reality of life in Israel and areas occupied by the Palestinians. They appear unaware of Israeli basic principles such as protection of free speech and assembly, rights that extend to the Arab population in Israel as they do to everyone else. Instead, the NAISA speaks of the “legal structures of the Israeli state that systematically discriminate against Palestinian and other indigenous peoples.” Apparently, and incomprehensibly for an Association supposedly concerned with indigenous studies, it is unaware that the only “indigenous peoples” in the area are Jews.
There appear to be further attacks on Israel coming in the near future. The convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA) is to be held in Chicago in January 2014. A panel there will be on “Academic Boycotts: a Conversation about Israel and Palestine.” The “conversation” will apparently be a one-sided one, a dialogue of the committed anti-Israelis. On the panel will be Omar Barghouti, a leading advocate of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, David Lloyd , professor of Irish Studies and a founding member of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, Barbara Harlow of Texas University who has already endorsed the boycott, and Richard Ohmann of Wesleyan University who states that “our taxes have for years supported Israel’s project of ethnic cleansing.”
Ironically, Barghouti, the boycott leader, has been listed for some time as a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University. Did he and the others on the panel know that Israeli Arab students at Tel Aviv University had recently hosted a Nakba (catastrophe) ceremony on the campus? It is unlikely the panel will discuss the way in which freedom of speech and assembly in Israeli universities extend to dissenting individuals and groups.
The subservience to a foreign lobbying group by academics is a betrayal of their supposed commitment to independent intellectual inquiry and is depressing in itself. It is also a reminder of the pressure in recent years exerted on those unwilling to be deferential to the Palestinians or to accept the fallacious Palestinian Narrative of Victimhood.
Fortunately, there are courageous cultural personalities who have resisted the pressure of Palestinians and anti-Israelis. Given the proposed action of NAISA the demonstration of courage a year ago by Joy Harjo, the 61 year old poet and feminist writer of Cherokee descent and member of the Muscogee or Mvskoke (Creek) Nation in refusing to tow the critical line is particularly compelling and noteworthy. She had been invited and accepted the invitation in December 2012 to read her poetry at Tel Aviv University, where she had appeared twenty years earlier, an occasion she remembered with great fondness. She also expressed her opposition to the cultural boycott of Israel.
Harjo was immediately bombarded with messages to change her mind and decline the invitation which she refused to do. The wheel has come full circle. One of the messages to her came from a member of the board of the American Studies Association, one from the Electronic Intifada, and, most significantly, one from Robert Warrior, of the University of Illinois and founding president of the NAISA, who has openly called for boycott of Israel a number of times.
In defying the pressure of the uninformed critics of Israel and going to perform at Tel Aviv University, Joy Harjo was a profile in courage. Appropriately, she performed “I Give it Back: A Poem to get Rid of Fear.”
Will the members of the MLA and the 62,000 members of the American Library Association who will be attending its forthcoming convention also get rid of fear and show the same courage as Joy Harjo in refusing to yield to pressure coming from a foreign body? The vital question is whether academics in the United States, and in European countries, are surrendering their intellectual standards under the hypnotic spell of the fallacious Palestinian Narrative of Victimhood.