New York State Assembly. (Wikipedia)
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Don’t Defund the American Studies Association

Opponents of the ASA’s wrongheaded boycott risk committing the same sins

Yair Rosenberg
February 04, 2014
New York State Assembly. (Wikipedia)

The American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel has earned it widespread condemnation and ridicule. Since the boycott’s passage, over 20 percent of the organization’s institutional members have disassociated and over 200 universities, including the entire Ivy League, have rejected its stance as antithetical to academic freedom. Yet for some supporters of Israel, this wall-to-wall walloping was not enough. They have put forward bills in the state legislatures of New York and Maryland that would effectively curtail such academic boycotts by restricting colleges and universities from using state money to fund any association which supports a boycott of Israel. For now, the New York legislation–after passing decisively in the State Senate–has stalled in the State Assembly and is being reworked.

This is wrong. It should be killed outright. To do anything else would be to commit the very sins which have rightly turned the American Studies Association into a cautionary tale.

First, the bills are a serious threat to unfettered academic discourse. Opponents of the ASA have correctly pointed out that its boycott is diametrically opposed to the ideal of academic freedom. Yet withholding public money from ASA members for airing their opinions in an institutional setting is just as problematic. One can’t defend academic freedom by curtailing it. In fact, that’s exactly the sort of tortured and disingenuous argument that earned the ASA–which claimed to be protecting Palestinians’ freedom by punishing Israelis–so much scorn in the first place. One cannot claim to be an advocate for academic freedom while restricting it for those one doesn’t like. This is as true for the ASA as it is for its opponents.

Second, the bills risk turning the ASA into a victim, rather than a victimizer. Until now, the ASA’s boycott, which relied on dubious arguments for singling out Israel for opprobrium, as well as “experts” infamous for their anti-Semitic rhetoric, has painted the organization in a decidedly unflattering light. As the New York Times put it, the ASA has become “a pariah of the United States higher-education establishment.” But putting the ASA on trial for its unpopular opinions risks casting its members as martyrs for academic freedom, rather than its enemies, as they have rightly been portrayed until now.

Third, the bills give undeserved publicity to the ASA’s fringe views, rather than consigning them to the discourse’s dustbin where they belong. When the ASA voted to boycott Israel, not only did hundreds of university presidents and academic associations forcefully reject it, but not a single one came to their defense. In fact, the ASA’s action proved so toxic that even boycott proponents at the Modern Language Association convention last month took pains to disassociate themselves from the ASA. By any measure, the ASA’s boycott proved to be a publicity stunt that backfired miserably, discrediting its own cause rather than advancing it. And that is where the story should end.

What, then, should responsible supporters of Israel do? They should lobby universities and their American Studies departments to voluntarily withdraw from the ASA. And they should work to combat any similar measures that might arise on the edges of acceptable discourse. As the ASA affair shows, those seeking to boycott Israel know they cannot win the argument on the merits, and so instead seek to shut down the other side of the conversation. Opponents of Israel, in other words, have to choose between their political agenda and academic freedom. Supporters of Israel, on the other hand, don’t have this problem.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.