PRINCETON, N.J.-Michael Curtis
Having your cake and eating it is usually seen as a fanciful dream. That dream has now become real and fulfilled by at least one-third of the American Studies Association (ASA) which does not believe that an academic boycott is a violation of academic freedom. A resolution proposing the ASA “endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions” was originally proposed by a Caucus group of ASA on December 4, 2013 . It was endorsed unanimously by the National Council, and in an election of December 15, 2013 in which 1252 of the total eligible 3853 voters participated, it was passed by votes of 66% in favor, 30.5% against, with 3.5% abstaining.
Instead of boycott they should be calling on Palestinians to accept the existence of the State of Israel and enter into negotiations with it.
The whole episode is not simply a demonstration of the well known inherent bias against the State of Israel held by many of the supporters of the boycott, but also one of glaring hypocrisy, disregard of the stated official objectives of the ASA, improper action on behalf of a foreign group, and violation of United States law.
The bias expressed by the ASA, a body not versed in the complexities of Middle Eastern affairs, stems from the proposal to boycott only one country, Israel. Even the current president of ASA, Curtis Marez, Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC San Diego whose main interest is U.S. Latinos, appeared troubled in explaining his tortuous logic on the issue. He confessed that many countries, including Israel’s neighbors, are generally judged to have human rights records that are worse than or comparable to those of Israel, but “one has to start somewhere.”
Curiously , the “somewhere” for Professor Marez has to be the only democratic country in the Middle East. Moreover, his dilemma went even further. He explained, without realizing what should be embarrassment in his reference to a foreign agent, that “ in countries with oppressive governments, past and present, civil society groups had not asked his association with a boycott, as Palestinian groups have.” Does he anticipate other foreign groups asking him for support?
One may indeed ask if it is the intention of ASA, or its leadership, to acquiesce in other future foreign demands of Palestinians or anyone else. Unfortunately for the ASA its members have apparently has not received the latest instructions. These came from the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, when on December 10, 2013 speaking at the funeral of Nelson Mandela he said “we do not support the boycott of Israel, but we ask everyone to boycott the products of the settlements.” Will the ASA now change its resolution?
The hypocrisy of the ASA arises with an inherent refusal to call its boycott a boycott. Supporters of the boycott have used this illogical device. Robin Kelley, Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at UCLA, and board member of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, is quoted as saying that support for “a boycott of Israeli academic institutions has been grossly mischaracterized as an assault on academic freedom.” He should tell us how exactly it would be characterized?
Another resolution supporter, John Carlos Rowe, Professor of English, American Studies, and Ethnicity at the U. of Southern California, used the specious politically correct argument that one can differentiate between an academic institution and the faculty in it. In this view the boycott was not directed against individual citizens and academics in Israel, but at “academic institutions that have demonstrated time and again their complicity with state policies intended to discriminate against the Palestinian people.” Professor Rowe does not enlighten us about who were and are the guilty ones who complied with these unstated policies; if not the faculty, perhaps the janitors or those working in the cafeterias?
The boycotters would graciously allow individual Israeli scholars to attend conferences or lecture at American universities, but do not say which Israelis would subject themselves to this vetting process of who would be considered acceptable.
It is worth repeating that the resolution of the ASA is not in accordance with its own constitution and by-laws. These laws clearly state, “The object of the association shall be the promotion of the study of American culture…the strengthening of relations among persons and institutions in this country and abroad devoted to such studies, and the broadening of knowledge among the general public about American culture in all its diversity and complexity.” It is difficult to see how this worthy objective is consonant with or relevant to the ASA resolution that aspires to enlarge “academic freedom for all, including Palestinians.” It is pertinent to remark that the “all” to which the resolution refers is never mentioned. Does the ASA mean Iran, China, Syria?
It is even more difficult to accept the absurd argument that the ASA endorsement of the academic boycott “emerges from the context of U.S. military and other support for Israel.” It takes a long stretch of imagination to accept the ASA argument that its “mission incudes the ongoing study and discussion of pressing issues faced by the U.S. and the world” when it is focused only on Israel, and not the “pressing issues” of Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is concerned about Israel’s “violations of international law and UN resolutions” but unconcerned about or ignorant of the 120,000 so far slaughtered in Syria or the slavery in so many countries or the turmoil and deprivation of human rights in Middle East countries or in the Ukraine.
The argument has been made, especially by William A. Jacobson that the ASA by advocating an outright political position is violating not only its own constitution but also the requirements of its tax exempt status, 501 (c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code. This states that an organization must be “organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific…literary or educational purposes.” We know that the IRS has been engaged for some time in examining the status of individuals and organizations it finds politically objectionable. Perhaps we can look forward to its inquiry into whether the ASA’s tax exempt status can be challenged as a result of its biased resolution for boycott of a democratic nation. Can we expect Professor Curtis Marez to be investigated?
Whether or not the ASA is investigated and loses its tax-exempt status as it should, the organization, its leaders, and those who voted for the resolution of boycott should be ashamed of displaying so obviously their prejudice. They have disgraced the concept of academic freedom. They have also handicapped the possibility of a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israel conflict. Instead of boycott they should be calling on Palestinians to accept the existence of the State of Israel and enter into negotiations with it.
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