Something extraordinary happened on Saturday evening at the American Studies Association’s annual meeting in Washington, DC.
At a packed open meeting called by the ASA’s National Executive Council to discuss a resolution to “endorse and honor” the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, speaker after speaker rose to express strong support for the resolution.
They urged the council to vote on it without further delay or deferral.
Israel and US complicity
Out of 44 speakers, whose names were submitted in writing and then drawn at random from a box, 37 spoke in favor of the boycott. They ranged from senior professors to graduate students and even undergraduate members of the association. All recalled the association’s fundamental commitment to the study and critique of racism and the US histories of imperialism and settler colonialism.
Many made the connection between Israel as a settler colony and US complicity in politically and materially supporting its colonial projects. In doing so, several remarked that they were members of the association because its commitment to anti-racist and anti-colonial scholarship made it especially hospitable to their work. For them, the connection was self-evident between anti-racist work within the United States and solidarity work with the victims of a settler colonial project that has the fullest support of the United States.
Over and over, speakers refuted the charge that endorsing the boycott is a contradiction that engages in limiting academic freedom in the name of academic freedom. They pointed out that this assertion is simply false, in the face of a campaign of misrepresentation evidenced in the room by a “Frequently Asked Questions” flyer opposing the resolution. That campaign implied that the boycott targets individuals on account of their national belonging or identity.
If anything, the resolution stands to further academic freedom — in particular that of Palestinians whose access to normal scholarly life is continually infringed by occupation, blockade, collective punishment in the form of school closures, and the denial of the fundamental right to travel. No Israeli scholar would be denied the right to express or publish an opinion, attend a conference, do research, or travel wherever they wished.
Speaking without fear
But the most significant thing about this event was that already it showed that engaging in the boycott, and even in discussion of the boycott, is an extension of academic freedom.
Despite years of lawfare in which pro-Israel lobbies and pressure groups have tried to shut down any criticism of Israel and refused to debate the facts, those who spoke at this meeting felt free to voice their opinions and their experiences without fear of harassment or recrimination.
It was deeply moving to hear younger scholars, graduates and undergraduates, one after the other, express feelings of liberation and legitimation. They were finally able to speak and to hear others speak publicly about an issue that has for so long been the third rail not only of US politics, but of academic discourse.
Palestinian academic freedom is our freedom
Opponents of the boycott tend to focus on its potential impact on the relatively privileged Israeli scholars, who will in fact only feel an impact in so far as they act as ambassadors for the Israeli state. For once, on Saturday, it was the actually restricted academic freedom of Palestinian scholars that was on the table. And it became clear that the extension of academic freedom to Palestinians is at the same time the extension of our own academic freedom here in the United States.
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In a letter to the National Council, available at the meeting, opponents of the boycott claimed to have some fifty supporters. The petition in favor of the resolution had already amassed 850. What is missing even in that huge majority of supporters is the large number of scholars who would have wished to support the boycott, but dared not sign on for fear of intimidation or retaliation.
Ending the blockade on debate
The ASA’s open meeting was a clear indication that the time of fear and of the blockade on debate may be over — and that there is a new climate in which critical discussion of Israel’s policies towards Palestine will no longer be taboo.
But something yet more significant happened. The fifty or so opponents of the boycott claimed the support of “several former presidents, Council members, and ASA award winners.” The speakers in favor of the resolution did not appeal to such institutional or official authority, though many indeed could have.
What they appealed to was a sense of justice, of consistency with our values. They invoked the principle of solidarity with the oppressed, as the ASA encourages — and what everyone recognizes is the very condition of anti-racist work.
Time after time, speakers saw support for the resolution not as potentially divisive but as an enhancement of the meaning and significance of their association and of the relevance and value of scholarship itself. As one speaker put it, support for the boycott by the ASA would renew her belief in the meaning of scholarship itself — at a time when we are called to an increasingly professionalized separation of our intellectual work from our moral and political commitments.
Any association always runs the risk of becoming merely an institution, with its protocols and procedures and traditions. As an institution settles into its routines, it ossifies and forgets the values that brought people together to form it. What happened at the ASA on Saturday night reminded us that an association is not just a means to certain professional ends, but a voluntary gathering together of people with shared intellectual values and commitments.
To participate in that gathering was indeed a deeply re-energizing experience, renewing one’s faith both in the possibilities of that particular association and in the capacity for intellectual work to be at once scholarly and engaged with the world.
At the time of writing, it remains unsure what the ASA’s National Council will decide regarding the resolution, though there is no doubt that the open meeting gave them a ringing endorsement should they decide to pass it.
But, already and predictably, attacks on the association have commenced. Based on past experience, few of the attacks will engage with the substance of the resolution — or with the facts of Israel’s ongoing denial of academic freedom to Palestinians and its relentless assault on the rights of a people to reproduce its cultural and intellectual life.
By and large, Zionists have refused to debate and have ceded that ground to their opponents. Instead, they rely increasingly on other means, predominantly legal and institutional harassment, to close down debate, force student senates to rescind democratically approved divestment resolutions, or punish students and academics for criticizing Israel.
There is no doubt that Zionist organizations have great power and the material resources to enable them to engage in a forceful assault on the American Studies Association.
But in the intellectual world, the resort to force is not a position of strength. Saturday evening at the ASA showed the power of reasoned, moral argument. And there is no going back from that. In the struggle for justice for the Palestinian people, a turning point has been achieved.