Analysis & Opinions - Agence Global

American Academics Stand Up for Justice

| Dec. 11, 2013

When the National Council of the American Studies Association last week passed a motion recommending to its membership to endorse and honor the Palestinian drive to boycott Israeli academic institutions, the expected furor broke out, including accusations of anti-Semitism and other such routine smears of any individual or institution in the United States that criticizes Israel’s occupation and mistreatment of Palestinians. A battle is underway on an issue that pro-Israeli zealots in the United States have tried to avoid entering the public realm at all costs: a debate on holding Israel accountable for its behavior and its adherence to the international rule of law, notably its treatment of the Palestinians whom it occupies, expels or otherwise treats as second-class citizens.

The American Studies Association (ASA) is not one of the biggest or most powerful groups in American academia, but its endorsement of the Palestinian academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions is significant for several reasons—which is why the pro-Israel extremists in American lobbies and institutes are working overtime to try to dampen the significance of what would otherwise be a marginal symbolic move by a small academic association.

The council recommendation that is now being voted on by the full membership reads simply:

“The American Studies Association endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It is also resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.”

The ASA boycott endorsement is significant first of all because this is a mainstream American institution, not a specialized Arab or Middle Eastern one with built-in biases. ASA’s endorsement of the academic boycott of Israeli institutions is similar to the moves by the American Presbyterian and some other churches to debate whether they should divest from investments in Israeli companies that profit from or do business in the occupied Palestinian areas. When mainstream American institutions like these assess Israel’s treatment of Palestinians on the basis of universal legal and ethical standards, and raise a public debate and even bring resolutions to a vote among their national memberships, then we have passed an important milestone on what had always been, in the United States, a closed road regarding the public discussion of Israeli colonial conduct in the occupied territories.

This ASA resolution mirrors the convergence of several other grassroots dynamics that all affirm the desire by more and more Americans to take action against what they see as illegal, unethical and unacceptable Israeli conduct. To understand this better I spoke this week with one of the organizers of the ASA resolution effort, Dr. Alex Lubin, who is director of the Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut and also a professor at the University of New Mexico. He first noted the speed and momentum of this effort—just ten people attended a meeting of the ASA caucus on community and academic activism when they started a few years ago, but 80 people attended the caucus meeting last year, and 750 participated in the general assembly gathering to discuss the issue this year, with a strong majority in favor of the action.

He also noted the convergence of several other trends, including: academics feeling the need to speak out about the role of universities; the impact of Students for Justice in Palestine groups across many campuses, where it has become easier to debate Israel-Palestine issues in public; the influence within ASA of Native American and indigenous studies and its theorizing of settler-colonialism; the impact of Occupy Wall Street movement activism and its related analysis of debt and the neo-liberal university; the opening up of the debate on Israel-Palestine by American studies academic centers around the world; and, the growing realization that “academic freedom” cannot be isolated from other freedoms that most Palestinians are denied because of the Israeli occupation and colonial-settlement activities.

He explained that caucus members “felt that universities do not exist outside of imperial contexts, and that academic freedom is a privileged category achieved by very few scholars in Israel-Palestine. The boycott resolution affirms academic freedom in two important ways. It will help to open up debate in Israel and Palestine about uneven access to academic freedom, and it opens up space within the U.S. to finally have an open discussion about Israeli policy and the Palestine question.”

He adds the important point that the boycott does not discriminate against individuals because it targets institutions. The national membership voting ends December 15. Israelis should be worried, because increasingly their treatment of the Palestinians is being addressed in the same manner as was the Apartheid regime’s treatment of blacks in South Africa, where boycotts and sanctions were applied as the last resort measures to push back, and ultimately reverse, colonial and racist policies.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Middle East Initiative
For Academic Citation: Khouri, Rami.“American Academics Stand Up for Justice.” Agence Global, December 11, 2013.