When the American Studies Association adopted its Israel boycott in February, it was “credited… for giving moment to the boycott campaign.” Now the ASA has significantly reversed its boycott of Israeli scholars – and is indeed trying to claim it never happened.
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.”
While having the revolutionary vanguard of the boycott movement disclaiming such efforts is welcome, their rewriting history to claim the boycott never happened is less so. When the boycott was being considered earlier this year, some members favored a broad boycott of all Israeli academics, while others were uncomfortable with that. Ultimately the group adopted a watered-down compromise that would exclude only some Israelis – those who are “expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors” of Israeli schools, but not “individual Israeli scholars.” This distinction is not terribly clear (more on this later).
What is clear is tat 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.”
The worst part of the story is, of course, the fact that the boycott was launched in the first place. But almost as bad is the display of the ASA’s utter intellectual cowardice, now that the boycott has been criticized and now that it has failed. Pretending that the ASA never meant to boycott or discriminate is beyond absurd, and the organization shouldn’t be allowed to get away with rewriting history. In related news, maybe this attempt to whitewash the ASA’s efforts to discriminate indicates that being discriminatory and bigoted is a bad idea, one that should not be adopted by others. I realize that this is a revolutionary thought, but it has the virtue of being intellectually defensible.