Mixed Motivations

12.04.13

What Does the ASA Boycott Mean? They Don’t Know.

As expected, the leadership of the American Studies Association voted—unanimously—to recommend that its membership approve a formal boycott of Israeli educational institutions.

Cue the music now: handwringing from American Jews, sweeping generalizations from left-wing academics. 

Amid the sound and fury, the ASA leadership’s decision is at once measured and confused.

Measured because the resolution now being put to the ASA’s membership is not a true boycott. Israeli academics—and those, like me, who have degrees from Israeli universities—would still be allowed to participate in ASA-sponsored conferences, give lectures on campus, and so on. The ASA boycott only extends to “formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions” and “scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions.” 

As such, the limitations the ASA boycott resolution places on academic freedom are, themselves, quite limited. It is an institutional boycott, rather than an individual one.

But the boycott measure is also confused, chiefly because of its bouillabaisse of motivations. This is to be expected, of course, particularly given the supposedly robust and “generous” debate for which the ASA heartily congratulated itself in a press release. (Colleagues of mine who are members of the ASA have reported a less rosy atmosphere, but I’ll leave that aside.) But this mixture of motives gives many moderates pause. What, exactly, is being protested? Israel’s policies in the West Bank, or its very existence? What is the ultimate goal? And why this tactic?

The ASA statement is a case study in the slippery slope. Its first rationale is one that many BDS supporters have stated: it is “to honor the call from Palestinian civil society to support the academic boycott of Israel.” In other words, to be in solidarity with Palestine means to take the actions that Palestinian leadership have requested. We in the West are not going to tell Palestinians what non-violent tactics to use; we are going to take our marching orders from them. And this is what they’re telling us.

But who, exactly? Does Palestinian “civil society” include Hamas, which has called for limiting women’s access to higher education? If not, why not, particularly since Hamas won its first major election, and is polling ahead of Fatah in the West Bank? Who decides which representatives of Palestinian civil society are those we’re supposed to obey?

And the ASA isn’t following in lockstep anyway. The BDS calls that I’ve seen aren’t nearly as nuanced as the ASA’s. They are total, and have been used as the basis for excluding Israeli academics from conferences. Solidarity is not nearly as simple as “honoring the call.”

An hour after I received the ASA’s official press release, another email appeared in my inbox, this time with individual council members explaining why the boycott is a good thing. Here things unravel. ASA’s president, Curtis Marez, says “the boycott is the best way to protect and expand academic freedom and access to education.” Lisa Duggan noted the nuanced debate and limited resolution. Matthew Frye Jacobson noted that the resolution “singles Israel out only for that country's very special relationship to U.S. aid,” as opposed to any more nefarious reasons. Sunaina Maira said that “the Israeli state’s settler colonial and apartheid policies, and ongoing occupation” justified the call. J. Khaulani Kauanui said that “the connection between Israeli and U.S. settler colonialism is not merely analogous, but is shaped from many of the same material and symbolic forces.” 

These are all articulate points, and obviously, academics are meant to articulate various opinions. It’s what we’re paid to do, and if we agree too much, we get fired. But you can see why the large boycott umbrella makes “Supporters Of Israel But Opponents Of The Occupation” uncomfortable. Coalitions like the ASA’s—and I can only imagine how much “respectful debate” was necessary to get a unanimous recommendation—are temporary. Right now, they’re united in the call for a boycott, but for very different reasons, which makes the actual meaning of the boycott debatable.

Consider this hypothetical. Suppose that tomorrow, a two-state solution were agreed upon by Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Suppose that many academics opposed it, from the left and the right. Some on the ASA’s national council would now say that the boycott should be rescinded. Others, who believe that Israel itself is a colonial enterprise that must be dismantled, would not. Who would win is anyone’s guess, but the prospect of an open-ended boycott is worrisome to those who defend the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Middle East but oppose that state’s occupation of 2.5 million Palestinian non-citizens.

This is not to debate that legitimacy; clearly, some members of the ASA national council believe it exists, and others do not. The point is that mixed-motive, open-ended moves like this make it impossible to know what, exactly, one is supporting.

It also makes the boycott difficult for moderates to defend against conservative attacks. I am quite sure that AIPAC and its ilk, if they bother to acknowledge the news at all, will condemn the measure as anti-Israel and perhaps anti-Semitic. Leaving aside the latter charge, how would I, as a J Street two-stater, say that they are wrong? After all, many BDS supporters are, indeed, anti-Israel. They believe, for quite coherent reasons, that Israel as a Jewish state is inherently racist and/or colonialist, and should not exist in its current form. Doesn’t that prove the AIPAC crowd right?

Unlike the boycott against South Africa in the 1980s, the endgame of the BDS movement (and the ASA resolution) is not well defined. For some it’s an end to the occupation, for others an end to the Israeli state itself. That big a tent makes sense from the perspective of coalition politics, but it renders symbolic acts like this boycott empty of meaning. By obeying this boycott, I am saying...well, what, exactly? Different boycotters will ascribe different meanings to the same act. Which is why those of moderate positions have good reason to worry.