Boycott Israel Movement Erupts in the US Academy: A Statement on the ASA vote to endorse the academic boycott of Israeli Universities

USACBI congratulates the American Studies Association (ASA) for its unprecedented vote endorsing the Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israeli universities. The overwhelming support of the ASA membership who voted by a significant margin (66.05% “yes” to 30.5% “no”) in favor of the academic boycott resolution is sending shockwaves through US academia and the media. This act of solidarity with Palestinians constitutes a historic breakthrough among US-based academics. It signals an increased tendency to challenge the normalization of Israeli exceptionalism and the old norms of censorship and self-censorship, which have inhibited open criticism of Israel”s oppression of Palestinians.

At its 2013 convention in Washington DC, the current leadership of the ASA, following the example of the Association of Asian American Studies, responded to the Palestinian grassroots call for an academic boycott by unanimously endorsing the resolution proposed by the Academic and Community Activism Caucus in 2012.  This action on the part of the ASA National Council builds on years of work by scholars and students aligned with USACBI, which organized a delegation of American Studies scholars to Palestine in 2012. The outcome of the ASA membership vote is in part a result of USACBI efforts to educate university communities and the US public about the conditions of Palestinians and build a movement for an academic boycott of Israel. Modeled on the anti-apartheid struggle of South Africans in an earlier era, USACBI”s mission is to build networks of US solidarity with Palestinians by advocating for Palestinian rights and freedoms and contesting Israeli settler colonialism and militarism.

From the day when the ASA National Council announced its decision to put the academic boycott resolution to an unprecedented membership vote until December 15 when voting closed, thousands of people and hundreds of organizations voiced their support for the ASA on social media sites,  demonstrating further opposition to Israel”s unchecked violation of Palestinian rights. This movement is not marginal to American Studies or academia, but found incredible support among many recognized scholars who connected their concerns with social justices issues to the struggles of Palestinians:

“The similarities between historical Jim Crow practices and contemporary regimes of segregation in Occupied Palestine make this resolution an ethical imperative for the ASA . . . it should be clear that a mass movement in solidarity with Palestinian freedom is long overdue.” (Angela Davis)

“I realize this is a controversial resolution, but it is in keeping with our activist history. It is not directed at individual citizens and academics in Israel, but at academic institutions that have been demonstrated time and again their complicity with state policies intended to discriminate against the Palestinian people.” (John Carlos Rowe)

“I am a Jew with a daughter and three grandchildren who are citizens of Israel. I am a scholar of American Indian and Indigenous studies, who has in published word and action opposed settler colonialism wherever it exists, including of course the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.” (Eric Cheyfitz)

The ASA”s resounding endorsement of the academic boycott of Israel, now ratified by the membership vote, has produced a long-awaited public discussion of boycott politics in the United States. Not surprisingly, the ASA and many pro-boycott American Studies scholars have since come under significant attack by the defenders of Israel, whose campaigns of intimidation, harassment and bullying no longer work. The failed efforts to defame the ASA, by the likes of Larry Summers, reveal the ever-weaker condition of anti-boycott foes. While Israel”s apologists hurl insults, the ASA leadership and many of its members have elaborated subtle, sensitive and remarkably eloquent statements that seek to address concerns of scholars and students, university administrators and peer organizations, Palestinians and Israelis, who may not fully understand the logic behind the academic boycott of Israel or why the ASA would endorse it.

Alex Lubin, an ASA member, explains on The Nation“s website in an essay titled “Why I”m Voting to Boycott Israel”: “Boycotts are the weapons of the dispossessed; they are pleas for global solidarity from people who have few other forms of power. They are peaceful attempts to disrupt business as usual by setting up a global picket-line and by asking us not to cross that picket line. The ASA National Council has heeded Palestinians” call for an academic boycott, and ASA members have been asked to give their endorsement.”

The ASA has now broken the through the walls of silence in academia, transforming the terms of debate and challenging US official policy on Israel and Palestine. Given the long history of overwhelming American military, financial and diplomatic support of Israel, the ASA membership vote is especially meaningful. As noted by the National Council in the preamble to the boycott resolution, “the United States plays a significant role in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the expansion of illegal settlements and the Wall in violation of international law, as well as in supporting the systematic discrimination against Palestinians.”

While the opening created by the ASA marks a watershed in public criticism of Israel in the US, it must be recognized as still a modest victory in our ongoing efforts to educate and mobilize faculty and students in this country. There remains much work to be done to build on this remarkable advance. USACBI urges other academics beyond ASA to take the initiative within their professional associations and begin a discussion on endorsing the academic boycott of Israel. In the meantime, academics can join the ranks of US colleagues across the nation who have already shown support for the Palestinian struggle by signing our call for an academic boycott of Israel. We urge you to please sign now.

As the anti-apartheid boycott and divestment movement illustrated, popular protest by students and professors can contribute to historic changes. In the absence of other organized actions in opposition to Israel’s apartheid policies and war crimes, endorsing the call for an academic and cultural boycott is without question the most effective means for university professors in the United States to express solidarity with Palestinians. When Israel”s apartheid wall is brought down, when the occupation ends, when Palestinian refugees are granted the right of return, and when Palestinians achieve equal rights with Jewish Israelis, historians will look back at this moment in late 2013 and note that the American Studies Association were at the forefront of that change in the United States.

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