The boycott announced by the American Studies Association had sparked vigorous and, it seems to me, instructive debates about the definition and limits of academic freedom, the exertion of political influence by academics and their organizations, and the obligations scholars have to issues of justice. The ASA explains on its website that the resolution passed by a majority of voting members at its most recent conference was “to honor the call from Palestinian civil society to support the academic boycott of Israel.” Doing so was “an ethical stance,” the representatives of the ASA argued, “a form of material and symbolic action. It represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.”
How and when will change come to the political crisis described by the ASA? The ASA recognizes it has little institutional power to create sweeping political change. It does not influence votes in Israel, just as it is relatively powerless to influence votes in the United States. The ASA does not hold diplomatic status or speak for any political organization. It has influence because of the power that scholarship possesses to build persuasive arguments and, significantly, to teach students. As a voluntary organization in a community of diverse scholars, the ASA has the ability to make scholars think twice before embarking on any relationship with Israel. And so as the ASA states plainly, it will not prevent scholars from pursuing research with Israeli institutions; after all that would mean employing the same tactics against American scholars that it claims Israeli institutions have used against Palestinian scholars.
The ASA has demanded that we see research and teaching as politicized acts. A staunch and prominent supporter of the ASA boycott, John Carlos Rowe explained this position in a book published digitally last year that “knowledge is never free of political values, and it is wisest for us to encourage our students to debate the political connotations of whatever field they study.” I wonder, though, where specifically we find the politics of the knowledge—in the subjects to be studied or the application of such subjects? Are the politics the same when we choose to study empires or we choose to study the United States or Israel or the occupation of the West Bank? Is the choice of subject the political act or is it what we hope to do with our research about a topic?
As I have written here before, there is a fascinating intellectual history of American Studies as a field. At the center of this history is the relationship the field and its scholars have had to American exceptionalism, a relationship that manifested itself in a desire to change the name of the field and the society that represents it. So it is not surprising that the ASA has lumped Israel into a complex often attributed to the United States. In a way similar to how the United States chooses to understand its role in world history, Israel also seems to fail to account in its national memory for the shocking ways it has chosen to be on the wrong side of justice.
By choosing an academic boycott against Israel, has the ASA then pushed the debate from the politics of knowledge to the politics of scholarship? Over time, the ASA as both an organization as well as the leader of field of scholarship has de-legitimized subjects studied and assumptions accepted by scholars. Look at the development of its flagship journal American Quarterly and the program of the annual conference. I have argued that such changes have been wrought as much by the Culture Wars as by trends in scholarship. Thus, this boycott fits into the general movement of American Studies as understood within the ASA from being concerned with explaining the composition of America, both in myth and material conditions, to an organization of scholars determined to leverage the nationalist connotations of its name to decry the political operations of the United States. The ASA made that connection apparent on its website:
We believe that the ASA’s endorsement of a boycott is warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and the support of such a resolution by many members of the ASA.
It would be empirically wrong to argue that the United States and Israel do not at time act like imperialist behemoths. But are they not also more than that? And if so, what then is our obligation to scholarship that exists outside the politics of a particular academic society? Judging from the machinations over its boycott, the ASA has limited its mission yet again by reducing the size of the “tent” under which scholars and their subjects might congregate. As an academic association, that action is among the very few profound moves it can make, and in light of its particular history, it is an action with the potential—real and intended—to force scholars to further politicize their scholarship.