David Lloyd, USACBI organising collective member
Opposition to the ASA”s resolution to honor and endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions is beginning to reveal some significant bedfellows. The recent letter signed by eight former presidents is small news: many of them are not currently active members of the Association and five had already signed a previous letter that opposed the resolution and circulated at the Association”s Open Meeting to little avail. It joins the efforts of an external organization, the American Association of University Professors, to harass the ASA”s officers into giving its letter opposing the boycott special prominence on the Association”s website, despite the fact that it spreads manifest misinformation about the resolution. What all three documents of the opposition seem to have in common is an appeal to authority–the authority of the institution or of past presidencies–that seems to believe that in the democratic deliberations of any society such authority, even when in the minority, should outweigh the democratic voice of the membership as a whole.
They are now joined in this by the National Association of Scholars, who have posted on their site a letter opposing the boycott resolution and stating that they “applaud the fifty-plus ASA members, including seven past presidents, who signed a letter opposing the boycott as an infringement of academic freedom.” Members of the American Studies Association should be wary of the National Association of Scholars, better known by its suggestive acronym, the NAS. During the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, it was the NAS that led the assault on multiculturalism and on the effort by students and faculty to desegregate US campuses and end “apartheid on campus”. Echoes of those battles are still readable on their website via its tab on “Western Civilization” and it is no wonder that they cast the current work of American Studies, with its crucial legacy of anti-racist scholarship and critiques of US imperialism, as spelling “the enervation of the discipline”. Members of the NAS were among the most active in pushing for the denial of tenure to scholars of color in the 1990s when the push-back against affirmative action began under the threadbare cover of “civil rights initiatives.” Since then, with rather more sinister import, the NAS has become an important conduit for the normalization and sanitization of Islamophobia, its defense of “Western Civilization” spilling over into its battery of postings on “Islamic Extremism”.
The NAS”s claim to be an organization that seeks “to foster intellectual freedom and to sustain the tradition of reasoned scholarship and civil debate” aligns it with the AAUP”s surprisingly vigorous campaign against the current boycott resolution in the name of academic freedom, a campaign that finds it in very partisan and proactive alliance with Zionist lobby groups. The ASA, however, does not need instruction on academic freedom from such organizations. Its members have learnt and taught that every substantial advance in real and material freedom for people subject to racism, colonization and discrimination has come through intellectual analysis that finds expression in practice and in the alliance with social movements working for justice. No more than political freedom is academic freedom the private possession of the privileged. It has meaning only if it is translated into action and only if we are not afraid to translate our understanding into collective action for justice. The present resolution in response to the call of Palestinian civil society for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions presents the ASA with such a choice and such a possibility. As the great majority of those who spoke at the open meeting affirmed, the choice for justice has no need of the sanction of authority or the approval of institutions. That has been the extraordinary and moving lesson of the open and democratic process that has been taking place within the association and that is clearly having its impact well beyond the shelter of the academy as more and more people around the country attend to this ongoing open meeting on Israel”s own version of apartheid.