Israel lobby groups are marshaling their formidable forces for a fierce counterattack against the American Studies Association (ASA), including calls for repressive legislation, boycotts and other measures to punish and silence solidarity with Palestinians.
Earlier this month, members of the ASA voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to endorse the Palestinian call for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions which are complicit in Israel’s occupation and other violations of Palestinian rights.
Individuals supporting the boycott have also been targets of intense vilification and hate campaigns.
Pressure on universities
Last week anti-Palestinian group StandWithUs, which works closely with the Israeli government, sent out an email blast calling on its followers to “Urge university presidents, donors and government to denounce the ASA and sever ties with the organization.”
Under such pressure two universities, Brandeis University and Penn State Harrisburg, have canceled their institutional memberships of the ASA.
Now, New York University (NYU) is under intense pressure to follow in their footsteps. A 21 December New York Post editorial called on NYU’s American studies program to “sever its ties” with the ASA, pointing out that “almost a quarter of the American Studies Association’s 17 non-student councilors are from NYU, including the group’s president-elect, Lisa Duggan.”
It was the ASA’s governing body, its National Council, that first endorsed the boycott and called for a full membership referendum to back its decision.
In a bizarre anti-Semitic twist, the Post editorial emphasizes that NYU “is supported by many Jewish donors and attended by many Jewish students. It features buildings and programs with names like Steinhardt and Tisch. It makes its home in the US city that has the highest number of Jews.”
It is unclear why any of that should be relevant unless one takes the bigoted position – as the Post appears to do – that all Jews are either implicated in or supportive of Israel’s occupation and other human rights abuses that motivated the ASA boycott.
Northwestern president’s preemptive strike
Northwestern University president Morton Schapiro was among a dozen or so leaders of academic institutions who pro-Israel activists say have issued denunciations of the ASA’s boycott call.
“While we support the right of academicians to voice their viewpoints, Northwestern University disagrees strongly with the boycott vote of the ASA. Northwestern also rejects the actions suggested in the resolution,” Schapiro wrote in a 20 December email sent to the university community.
A copy of Schapiro’s email, co-signed by provost Dan Linzer, was sent to The Electronic Intifada by Uri Horesh, a lecturer in Arabic at Northwestern.
“I myself happen to be a citizen of Israel, yet I fully support the call emanating from Palestinian civil society to boycott Israeli institutions until Israel ends its apartheid rule and recognizes the Palestinian people’s right to self determination” by meeting all the demands in the BDS call, including the right of return, Horesh wrote back to Schapiro.
Horesh added that Schapiro’s statement is “odd” given that “there has not been a public debate or discussion of these matters in any University forum.”
Princeton University president Christopher L. Eisgruber expressed his “dismay” at the ASA’s boycott decision and affirmed that “My personal support for scholarly engagement with Israel is enthusiastic and unequivocal,” in a statement sent to William Jacobson, a Cornell University law professor and pro-Israel blogger at the publication Legal Insurrection.
But, Eisgruber adds, “I do not intend to denounce the ASA, make it unwelcome on campus, or inhibit the ability of faculty members to affiliate with it … engagement may be better than a boycott.”
Bullying and intimidation
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In a 20 December press release emailed to The Electronic Intifada, the ASA Caucus on Academic and Community Activism states that “members of the American Studies Association are getting hate mail or threatening mail following the ASA membership vote in favor of a resolution calling for boycott of Israeli universities.”
The ASA Facebook page has been “subject to an avalanche of abusive postings” and “senior faculty have explicitly and implicitly intimidated junior faculty who support the boycott,” the release states.
“More generally within the academy, some are threatening to cut funds for faculty who want to attend the ASA in the future. We are also learning that individuals and groups outside the academy are threatening legal action against the ASA,” the press released adds.
Former Harvard University president Larry Summers has, for instance, called the ASA boycott “anti-Semitic in effect” and urged universities to deprive faculty of funds to participate in ASA meetings and activities.
Claire Potter, a professor at the New School University and long-time prominent critic of the ASA boycott, decided to vote for the boycott resolution in the end after careful deliberation.
Since then, “I have been receiving nasty and threatening electronic messages from those supposedly defending Israel: swastikas and pictures of concentration camps arrive daily, as well as accusations that I am promoting another Holocaust,” Potter writes at her widely-read Tenured Radical blog.
“Expressions of hate and intimidation, even if they come from isolated individuals, constitute part of a larger pattern of attack on anyone who criticizes Israel or Zionism. These disturbing messages can take the form of threats. As such, they should not be dismissed or discarded,” the Caucus on Academic and Community Activism says in its press release.
It urges ASA members to report threats and intimidation both to the caucus and to the appropriate officials at their institutions.
Call for government repression
Unsatisfied by the campaigns already underway, Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador in Washington, called for more than mere denunciations of the ASA’s action.
Oren cited as a desirable precedent a 1977 US law “making it illegal for US companies to cooperate with any boycott of Israel and imposing stiff penalties on those that did.”
It is unclear whether Oren is unaware that such laws, in an academic context, would grossly violate First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association – the very values that opponents of the boycott claim they want to protect.
Still, Oren may find a receptive audience in Congress where the leaders of the bipartisan Israel Allies Caucus have strongly denounced the ASA.
Backlash likely to backfire
Anti-Palestinian groups likely believe that with a strong counterattack they can raise the price to any other group that might want to follow in the ASA’s footsteps and thus deter anyone else from taking action in solidarity with Palestinians.
Israel lobbying groups’ outrage and bullying tactics may claim a few more victories, just as Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg moved to boycott the ASA.
Yet the repressive backlash also exposes the lie that many boycott opponents are concerned about “academic freedom.”
In the long run, the only thing such tactics are likely to achieve is to spread the debate about Israel’s abuses and the merits of boycott as an ethical solidarity strategy to campuses across the United States.
There is evidence that is already happening. In a Los Angeles Times opinion piece denouncing the boycott as “a repugnant attack on academic freedom,” Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, nonetheless had to concede that many of the Israeli policies that motivate boycott supporters are indeed “abhorrent.”
There’s something, at least, that we can all agree on.