The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) announces a major victory for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and for Palestine solidarity activism in the United States, with the dismissal of an anti-boycott lawsuit filed by Zionist plaintiffs. On February 4, 2019, a federal judge threw out the Louis D. Brandeis Center’s 2016 frivolous lawsuit against the American Studies Association (ASA). The Brandeis Center based their lawsuit on trumped-up allegations that the ASA’s 2013 resolution to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions violated the ASA’s by-laws and that ASA officers breached their fiduciary duties in their support for the resolution. The ASA resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority of the ASA’s members (who voted 2 to 1), through a long and public process of discussion and debate, and with scrupulous attention to following ASA’s processes and its members’ mandate. Among the first to be passed by a major, national academic association in the United States, this resolution represented an important turning point in the politics of Palestine and BDS in the academy, posing a threat to the powerful status quo, which had for so long made support for Palestinian rights a taboo.
This legal victory represents a defeat for what one of the defendants, USACBI member Steven Salaita, calls the “Zionist punishment industry,” and more generally to right-wing lawfare in the Trump era. The plaintiffs, Simon Bronner, Michael Rockland, Charles Kupfer, and Michael Barton–all senior white male academics–were represented by the Brandeis Center, headed by Kenneth Marcus, the Trump Administration’s head of Civil Rights in the Department of Education, and an avowed and long-standing opponent of BDS and Palestine activism in the university.
The Brandeis Center’s lawfare initiative was clearly racist, and designed to deter the successful work of USACBI. The Center named the American Studies Association, John Stephens, Lisa Duggan, J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Chandan Reddy, Neferti Tadiar, Sunaina Maira, Curtis Marez, Jasbir Puar, and Steven Salaita as defendants — all in relation to the association’s passage of the academic boycott resolution which was spearheaded by USACBI organizers. The plaintiffs targeted USACBI in their amended lawsuit, and in both versions of the case targeted defendants who either serve as Organizing Collective and Advisory Board members of USACBI or who have endorsed the campaign–claiming that they had “conspired” to “take over” the ASA. Although white scholars (a number of them Jewish) also belong to USACBI and were active in the process to pass the ASA resolution, nearly all of those sued` were scholars of color and/or queer academics, highlighting the racist and homophobic dimensions of this legal assault.
In the Court’s dismissal of this case, Judge Rudolph Contreras makes clear its spurious claims: “the parties and the Court have danced around the key issue…for multiple rounds of briefing and opinions. The waltz has now reached its crescendo, and Plaintiffs have been found wanting.” Deputy Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights Maria LaHood underlines the stakes and outcome of this and related acts of failed lawfare: “These desperate lawsuits brought to silence advocates of Palestinian rights are not only losers—they’re helping to grow the movement by making even clearer who’s on the wrong side of history, who is the aggressor, who is unreasonable, and who wants to silence debate. Freedom, justice and equality have always been on the right side of history.”
The “key issue,” in our view, is not merely the legal questions on which the plaintiffs failed, but that the plaintiffs and the Brandeis Center were seeking to intimidate boycott activists and advocates and to create a chilling effect for the growing academic boycott movement, through this McCarthyite repression. Yet, as Maira says, “Our strategy in USACBI was to not let this lawfare divert us from our organizing and our constitutionally protected right to freedom of political expression. We wanted other activists in the movement to know that we were not and will not be silenced by such legal harassment and USACBI did not stop its organizing; on the contrary, we were determined to continue with our work, locally and nationally.” USACBI’s work is based on the principle that boycott is indeed a right, but more than that, it is an imperative: to refuse complicity with Israeli academic institutions that are part of the scaffolding of occupation and colonization in Palestine.
Today we celebrate yet another victory for the broader BDS movement, including the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, and yet another defeat for the attempt to stifle global activism for Palestine. But USACBI does not see the courts as the ultimate arbiter of justice for our movement and the struggle in Palestine. While this ruling is clearly a win for us in this legal battle, we do not depend upon the courts to know our work to be just. The ultimate victory is freedom for the Palestinian people, who called for BDS organizing in the international community in solidarity with their struggle. We will keep our sight on the Palestinian struggle for freedom and self-determination, and we will continue to challenge Israel’s oppression, which is supported by the US state, in order to advance movements for democracy and justice there and here.