Academic Subservience to the Palestinians

The disgraceful resolution of the American Studies Association (ASA) on December 15, 2013 honoring the call from "Palestinian civil society" to support the academic boycott of Israel has brought to the forefront a problem that ought to disturb all concerned with the educational system in the United States and elsewhere. Once upon a time one assumed that college faculty were paid to address and make statements on subjects on which they had some competence.

The ASA has shown that this is no longer the case. With the enthusiasm of short-sighted detectives the members of ASA have obeyed the call of a Palestinian lobby group to pursue the academic boycott of a country of which they have little or no knowledge. Moreover, that pursuit has no real relevance to their supposed academic concerns of American Studies. Parents of the students attending the classes of the misguided 1252 of the eligible 3853 members who voted for the resolution might legitimately inquire about what goes on in the supposed learning and teaching behavior of this faculty.

The problem is acute. Of the 18 members of the ASA National Council who voted unanimously to endorse the boycott resolution, at least seven appear to have gender studies and sexual politics as a major, or one of their major interests. The others state their main interests as race, film, imperialism, and Hawaiian and Latino cultural studies. None appear to have any scholarly connection with Middle East studies.

Nevertheless, at their 2013 convention,the National Council and the ASA members with distorted perspective were concerned with issues other than their stated scholarly interests. The National Council endorsed and recommended panels on "Palestine in crisis," and "Academic Freedom and the Right to Education: the Question of Palestine." At the convention, eight sessions were devoted to something called "Middle East American Studies," another four on "United States/Israel/Palestine," another two on "settler colonialism that discussed the Israeli occupation of Palestine," and yet another on "Boycott as a non-Violent Strategy of Collective Dissent."

Over eight days the members of ASA, none of whom has taught a course on the politics, economics, and culture of the State of Israel, or history of the Middle East, attended these sessions and eventually passed the boycott resolution.

It is important to note that the ASA boycott follows the call, if not the exact words, of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. This campaign, started in 2004, is a remarkable demonstration of the Palestinian Narrative of Victimhood with its half-truths and falsehoods. Referring to the democratic State of Israel, and ignoring the increasing role of Israel Arabs including many who attend Israeli universities, in the life of Israel, it speaks of the "entrenched system of racial discrimination and segregation against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, which resembles the defunct apartheid system in South Africa." Disregarding the offensiveness and inaccuracy of this assertion, the campaign therefore called for no participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions.

Everyone concerned with educational issues must be distressed that a body called the American Studies Association follows the call from a foreign lobbying body in almost identical and seemingly obsequious fashion. Since the members who voted for boycott have no knowledge, and seem to be uninterested in any other country, what can be their motive in voting this way? It is not unfair to wonder if they have become infected by the virus of anti-Semitism.

The obsequiousness continues. It is now announced by the Chadwick Allen, professor at Ohio State University and president of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), a group with 747 members, that the association has decided to boycott Israeli academic institutions. He states that the association will support the boycott that "was initiated by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel." In total ignorance of the reality of life in Israel and areas occupied by Palestinians, of Israeli protection of free speech and assembly, the NAISA speaks of the "legal structures of the Israeli state that systematically discriminates against Palestinian and other indigenous peoples." Apparently it is unaware that the only "indigenous peoples" in the area are Jews.

There appear to be further anticipated attacks on Israel. The convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA) is to be held in Chicago in January 2014. A panel there will be on "Academic Boycotts: a Conversation about Israel and Palestine." The "conversation" will apparently be a one-sided one. On the panel will be Omar Barghouti, a leading advocate of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, David Lloyd, professor of Irish Studies and a founding member of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, Barbara Harlow of Texas University who has endorsed the boycott, and Richard Ohmann of Wesleyan University who states that "our taxes have for years supported Israel's project of ethnic cleansing." Ironically, Barghouti, the boycott leader, has been listed for some time as a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University. Did he and the others on the panel know that Israeli Arab students at Tel Aviv University had recently hosted a Nakba (catastrophe) ceremony on the campus?

The intellectual subservience of these supposedly independently minded academics to a foreign, Palestinian body is depressing in itself. It is also a reminder of the pressure in recent years exerted on those unwilling to be subservient to the Palestinians. One interesting demonstration of courage in refusing to obey the Palestinian line was by Joy Harjo, the 61-year-old poet and feminist writer of Cherokee descent and member of the Muscogee or Mvskoke (Creek) Nation. She had not only accepted the invitation in December 2012 to read her poetry at Tel Aviv University, where she had appeared twenty years earlier, and remembered the occasion with great fondness. She also opposed the cultural boycott of Israel. She was immediately bombarded with messages to change her mind and not attend the event.

The wheel comes full circle. Some of the messages came from a member of the board of the American Studies Association, from those involved in the Electronic Intifada, and from Robert Warrior, of the U. of Illinois and founding president of the NAISA, mentioned above, who has openly called for boycott of Israel.

In defying the pressures and going to Tel Aviv University, Joy Harjo was a profile in courage. Appropriately, she performed "I give it Back: A Poem to get Rid of Fear."

Will the members of the MLA and the forthcoming convention of the 62,000 members of the American Library Association show a similar disposition to get rid of the fear of orders coming from a foreign body?

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.