The Boycott That Backfired

By Doherty, Thomas | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), November 18, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Boycott That Backfired


Doherty, Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


For about a year, the American Studies Association has been offering a very public object lesson in how to destroy a scholarly organization. Ostensibly devoted to the study of all things American, the 5,000-member academic cohort has ventured outside its natural borders and into the crossfire of Israeli-Palestinian politics by voting to bestow pariah status on Israel. The decision to morph from a scholarly association into a political action committee has proved disastrous for the group and the discipline it purports to represent, undermining its credibility, alienating many of its practitioners and betraying what should be a bedrock commitment to the American values that used to define the field.

Here's the back story. Last November, the ASA put forward a motion to its membership, backed unanimously by its national council, "to honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions." Instigated by activists rallying under the BDS banner - boycotts, divestment and sanctions - the resolution was part of a coordinated international movement dedicated to isolating Israel economically and culturally.

The BDS campaign has made serious headway into the academic precincts of Europe, a region with a richer tradition of anti- Israel, not to say anti-Semitic, agitation than the United States, but it had lacked a major beachhead on this side of the Atlantic. What the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had to do with American studies or why Israel should be so singularly toxic was never convincingly articulated. "One has to start somewhere," said then- ASA president Curtis Marez. (Needless to say, the ASA boycott- mania that started with Israel has also ended there.)

Once the motion passed, the ASA discovered that beyond its ideological cocoon the notion of an American scholarly group boycotting Israel was perceived as deeply un-American. Longtime members resigned, and many of the universities that were institutional sponsors withdrew their support, including mine, Brandeis University. Two regional branches - the California ASA and the Eastern ASA - declared their non-compliance. The dispute spilled into the mainstream media, and the heretofore obscure academic group found itself condemned by newspaper editorialists and op-ed writers for shutting down the very kinds of dialogue it was created to foster. …

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