(October 21, 2014 / JNS) About a year after the American Studies Association’s (ASA) widely condemned vote to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, the organization’s policy on Israel is receiving renewed scrutiny over a practical application of that vote.
The ASA’s 2014 annual meeting, to be held Nov. 6-9 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, has garnered criticism for a stated (and subsequently amended) policy of excluding Israeli academics. In December 2013, a resolution passed in a vote among the 5,000-member ASA, the oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, marked the group’s initial foray into an Israel boycott. That vote was publicly criticized by more than 200 university presidents.
According to the ASA’s Frequently Asked Questions webpage, the organization’s current boycott of Israel “targets institutions and their representatives, not individual scholars, students or cultural workers who will be able to participate in the ASA conference or give public lectures at campuses, provided they are not expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents, etc.), or of the Israeli government.”
Yet the distinction between a “representative,” “ambassador,” or “scholar who is affiliated with an Israeli academic institution” is a vague one. In at least one letter, addressed to the administration at the University of California, San Diego, the ASA said that it meant “deans, rectors, presidents and others” in the explanation of its policy, the Times of Israel reported.
After the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) civil rights group contacted the Westin with a letter informing the hotel that the ASA policy regarding its conference could violate the state of California’s civil rights laws, the ASA amended its policy with the addition that “in accordance with the ‘yes’ answer immediately above, Israeli academics will be in attendance at the 2014 convention. The ASA will not prohibit anyone from registering or participating in its annual conference.”
John Stephens, the ASA’s executive director, responded to the ACLJ that the organization “does not bar Israelis, it does not bar Israeli institutions. Prime Minister Netanyahu can attend [the Los Angeles conference] if he wants to.”
The ASA has since issued a formal statement that reports of its exclusion of Israeli academics from the conference are “erroneous.”
Upon further examination of the ASA conference program, the gathering’s participants do include at least three Israelis: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Neve Godon and Ahmad Sa’di, both of whom are critical of Israel, and Mohammed Wattad of Zefat College School of Law, an Arab academic who in the past has spoken out against a boycott against Israel and the classification of Israel as an “apartheid state.”
“There will not be discrimination of any sort against anyone [at the conference],” the ASA statement said. “We welcome Israeli academics to attend, and in fact several are already scheduled to participate in the conference program. Subsequent reports also stated, erroneously, that the ASA had changed our policy regarding support for the academic boycott. We have not. Last year, after careful consideration by its membership, the ASA overwhelmingly endorsed an academic boycott to call attention to the violations of academic freedoms and human rights of Palestinian scholars and students by Israel. This limited action means simply that the ASA on an institutional level will not engage in collaborative projects with Israeli research institutions, and will not speak at Israeli academic institutions.”
Yet Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, argued in an Oct. 18 article for the Washington Post, “Even the [ASA’s] belated claim to waive the boycott for the annual conference would not preempt legal liability. Academic conferences are organized, scheduled, and registered months in advance. The discriminatory effects of their policy have already been realized.”
Additionally, the fact that the ASA’s boycott policy “was selectively not enforced” for the Los Angeles gathering “does not mean [the policy] was not otherwise enforced,” wrote Kontorovich, who mentioned Wattad’s inclusion in the conference but not that of the two other participating Israeli academics, Godon and Sa’di.
“Having adopted their boycott to much public fanfare, they (ASA) want to be able to quietly deny it—when it suits them,” Kontorovich wrote.
Pro-Israel groups, meanwhile, have been mobilizing on the ASA conference issue. The Israel Project (TIP) issued an the action alert email, calling on its supporters to tell the Westin that “playing host to bigots is unacceptable.”
“Otherwise Westin Resorts, in violation of California’s anti-discrimination laws, will rent the rooms while the ASA keeps Israelis out of them,” stated the TIP action alert. “No other country is being subjected to this exclusionary bigotry.”
Samantha Rose Mandeles, editor-in-chief of CAMERAonCampus.org for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, told JNS.org that the “recent backtracking and dishonesty by the ASA is not surprising” and represents “another example of the disingenuousness that characterizes BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) efforts as a whole.”
“As is common for BDS supporters, the ASA did not honor their own boycott policy—they invited several Israelis to participate in the conference, showing that, yet again, Israel BDSers will only abide by their own injunctions when it suits their needs,” she said. “BDS proponents will claim to boycott Israel, but actually only do so half-heartedly, when it is convenient and part of symbolic, theatrical gestures that have no effect on the conflict.”
Roz Rothstein, CEO of the Israel education group StandWithUs, said that “clearly the ASA cannot even clarify its own newfound bigotry against Israeli Academics and institutions.”
“Thankfully, the ACLJ has forced the issue into the open and placed ASA in this position where they cannot defend themselves, because there is no defense,” Rothstein said. “Time and again, when held up to practical reality, the boycott movement against Israel has proven to be incapable of sustaining itself. This shows how important it is for groups to align to fight the prejudice that the BDS movement represents.”