A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Boycott
Its leadership appears a bit shell-shocked that its vote to oppose the free exchange of ideas (because that is what an academic boycott accomplishes) wasn't hailed across academia. Quite the opposite, in fact: University presidents have announced their opposition by the dozens. The American Association of University Professors has lambasted the group. And in an obviously unintended consequence, a number of universities have quit the ASA in protest.
Clearly wounded by the criticism, the ASA’s Caucus on Academic and Community Activism has defended itself in language that is simultaneously Orwellian and grammatically troubled: “The association’s endorsement of the boycott is an expression of the academic freedom, whose commitments to social equality, anti-racism and anti-colonialism have been at the forefront of critical transformations in the humanities and the social sciences.”
As a bonus, this defense of the ASA cites the support of one Richard Falk, a prominent Sept. 11 truther, who serves -- against the wishes of the U.S., Israel and, notably, the Palestinian Authority -- as the United Nations special rapporteur for the Palestinian territories. As Yair Rosenberg details in Tablet, Falk has written on his blog about “the ‘apparent cover up’ of 9/11, and the ‘eerie silence of the mainstream media, unwilling to acknowledge the well-evidenced doubts about the official version of the events.’” Falk also has a history of promoting the work of “scholars” who question the “historicity” of the Holocaust.
Falk isn't the sort of person the ASA would want in its corner, if it is indeed trying to convince more mainstream academics to join its boycott of Israel, or at least to temper the criticism its decision has provoked. Four academic institutions -- Brandeis, Indiana University, Kenyon College and Penn State Harrisburg -- have already quit the organization, and dozens of universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Brown -- have condemned the boycott. Particularly strong and impassioned denunciations have come from the presidents of Kenyon College and Middlebury College. Their thoughts are worth highlighting at length.
This is from a statement by Kenyon’s president, Sean Decatur: “From its origins in classical civilization, the study of the traditional liberal arts is meant to deepen our understanding of the human condition, including moral and ethical dimensions of our society, in order to enhance our capacity as citizens. Through the study of literature, history, and philosophy, scholars, faculty, and students struggle to arrive at a deeper understanding of their own worlds. One can look at the course offerings at the American Studies Department at Tel Aviv University and find courses similar to what one would find at Kenyon, including, for example, 'The Age of Thoreau' and 'African-American Literature.' And I am certain that the readings and topics of these courses stimulate discussions that are simultaneously similar to those at Kenyon, but, due to the context, fundamentally different. Imagine discussions of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in the context of a nation facing ethnic and religious strife, or reading Thoreau and Emerson in the context of a nation struggling with both existential challenges and the process of defining for itself concepts of justice and equality. As the leader of an academic institution, I consider this an excellent example of the potential transformative power of the liberal arts, raising questions and generating discussions that both transcend time and place and also brightly illuminate current issues.”
Decatur goes on to state, “This is among the most powerful arguments in opposition to the decision of the ASA to boycott institutions from Israel. Regardless of one’s views on the political solutions to Israeli/Palestinian relations, the cultural transformation needed to find peace in the region will depend on these types of discussions, which in turn require strong academic institutions with free and unfettered exchange of ideas with scholars from around the world. Collaborations among individual scholars and among institutions have the potential to support and nurture this cultural transformation. We should not be shutting out one side or the other, but rather open ourselves to engage in meaningful, substantial dialogue on fundamental questions with all sides.”
Middlebury’s president, Ron Liebowitz, issued a statement earlier this week that grappled with the consequences of the ASA boycott for academic freedom, but also criticized it as representative of a “an extreme and hateful ideology of some members of the academy.”
“In supporting the boycott, the ASA is attacking the fundamental principles of academic freedom and association that all colleges and universities should hold dear,” Liebowitz wrote. “In addition, the singling out of Israel for this action is astounding given the rationale for the resolution.”
The American Studies Association has never before voted to boycott the academic institutions of another country. The organization’s president, Curtis Marez, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at San Diego, told the New York Times, when its reporter asked him why his group was singling out Israel, that, “one has to start somewhere.”
Historically, of course, it has often been easiest to start -- and end -- with the Jews. The ASA resolution is an abomination to those who believe in intellectual freedom, but what gives it its special piquancy is its chosen target.