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In Face of Legal Action, ASA Effectively Reverses its Discriminatory Boycott of Israel

A post today by legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich explained the significance of the American Studies Association’s (ASA) reversal of its policy to boycott Israeli academics.

If the ASA’s original action was important for popularizing such boycotts (at least in the narrow quarters of area studies), its reversal is equally important for showing them to be beyond the pale. It will be extremely hard for other academic groups to now put a good face on adopting a boycott that the ASA has done so much to distance itself from. This is underscored by the ASA’s dodgy and frantic triangulation about its boycott policy. In the past week it has issued what the observers have described as inconsistent statements, “uncomfortable clarifications,” and further “clarified clarifications.” …

What is clear is that the ASA decided, in a widely-publicized move, to discriminate against some Israeli academics. Now, the ASA says it will not discriminate against any Israeli academics. The Conference is open to “everyone,” the group says, even, as the ASA’s executive director explained to me, “representatives of Israeli institutions.”

Similarly, over the weekend, Prof. William Jacobson explained on his Legal Insurrection blog that while the scope of the ASA boycott was limited, its intent was not:

But make no mistake, this is a major capitulation by ASA’s national leadership.

The boycott of individuals representing Israeli institutions and the government at the Annual Meeting was a much highlighted part of the boycott. Two Regional Chapters, the California and Eastern Chapters, already had announced that they would not enforce the boycott at their regional meetings, and I’ve heard no evidence any other Regional Chapter was enforcing the boycott at regional meetings. So keeping Israelis out of the national Annual Meeting was all the pro-boycott leaders had to to show in terms of tangible results.

What is left of the ASA boycott? It always was mostly symbolic. ASA as an organization still will not interact with Israeli institutions and representatives, but there never seemed to be much of that interaction to begin with on the national level.

Rather, the ASA boycott was an encouragement to others that discrimination against Israelis was acceptable in academia.

In the end, Kontorovich concludes:

So here is the short history of how the boycott has played out for the ASA. First, it lead them have a policy that discriminates against scholars based on their national origin. Second, it got them to engage in an embarrassing and artless spinning of their actual policy. And finally, it lead them to abandon the policy. They got the worst of both worlds: exposure to liability and embarrassment for past discrimination, without the pleasure of continued discrimination.

Rather than being a model for future academic anti-Israel boycotts, the ASA’s boycott attempt will serve as a cautionary tale about the difference between activism and illegal discrimination.

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