ASA conference revisits the boycott of Israeli institutions


Nancy Koppelman, an American Studies professor at The Evergreen State College in Washington, is well aware of how passionate things can get on college campuses over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The late pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003, had been a student at Evergreen. 

Last week, at the American Studies Association’s (ASA) annual meeting in Los Angeles, Koppelman addressed another aspect of this heightened tension that more directly involved her peers. She chaired “The Party’s Over: A Panel and Open Discussion on the Aftermath of the ASA’s Boycott Resolution,” examining the ASA’s 2013 controversial vote to forbid academic partnerships with Israeli universities. 

The criticism lobbed against the organization dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history in the aftermath of the vote came from both scholars and organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League. (The ASA is the second U.S. academic organization, after the Association for Asian American Studies, to endorse such a boycott, according to insidehighered.com.)

“The symbolic boycott harnessed the ASA to a highly partisan goal, and then its advocates tried to drive it where they wanted it to go,” Koppelman, who voted against the boycott, said during the Nov. 6 panel. “But symbols are not like streetcars  — you can’t control them by turning the wheel or slamming on the brakes; once unleashed, symbols have lives of their own.”

The panel at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel was attended by 30 people and also featured Michael Aaron Rockland, a professor of American Studies at Rutgers University; Mohammed Wattad, a legal scholar and assistant professor at the Zefat Academic College School of Law in Israel; and Lisa Armony, director of the Rose Project and community outreach at the Jewish Federation and Family Services in Orange County. 

Rockland, who helped Koppelman organize the panel, described himself as a lifelong member of the ASA. Wattad joined the organization less than one year ago, so he could present at last week’s conference. So did Armony.

Only one-fourth of the ASA’s 5,000 members — many of whom are university professors — took part in the December 2013 vote to ratify the boycott. Two-thirds of the 1,250 votes cast supported the boycott, insidehighered.com reported. 

Over the course of the conference, which took place Nov. 6-9, several panels spotlighted the boycott issue. They included “Scholars Under Attack,” “Students Under Attack,” “I Want My ASA” and “Black Radicalism, Insurgency in Israel/Palestine and the Idea of Solidarity.”

The panels were created to “help bring into sharper relief the vibrant intersection of fun and fury in relation to local and global contexts,” the conference program materials explain. “Of particular interest in the program will be the wide-ranging responses to the ASA membership’s vote to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” 

Conference presenters who were critical of the boycott were few and far between, Koppelman said.

Matthew Jacobson, former president of the ASA and a professor of African-American Studies, history and American Studies at Yale, explained to the Journal that American aid to Israel makes what happens in the Jewish state an American Studies issue. He voted last year in support of the boycott.

“I thought it was a meaningful, symbolic way to raise protest against Israeli policy and also against U.S. policies that enable it,” he said. “I wish this year had been easier both for me and the organization, but I feel it is the right thing to do.”

More than 2,250 individuals registered for the conference, according to ASA Executive Director John Stephens. The conference was titled “The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain in the Post-American Century.”

Stephens also acknowledged that tensions over the event were high. “My job is to hold this thing together, to make sure voices get heard and that we have a community,” he said, heading to the open bar at the close of late-afternoon sessions. “I’m a healer.”  

The majority of the panels had nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — exploring gender studies and depictions of slavery in popular culture, for example — but there were plenty of conference attendees who had strong opinions on the matter. 

Eric Sandeen, University of Wyoming director of American Studies, seemed to have a hard time holding his tongue during the Q-and-A portion of “The Party’s Over.” 

“Oh boy, I got something to say,” Sandeen said while leaning against a conference room wall. “I don’t deny there are people out there who want to make a statement about the situation in the Middle East, but I don’t think an academic organization is the place to do it. I think something like a political action committee, which [the ASA] has kind of turned into, is the place to do it.”

University of Michigan professor June Howard, whose area of expertise is 19th- and 20th-century American literature and culture, disagreed. 

“It feels as if the pushback is as coercive as anything you are [speaking out against],” she told the panelists. 

Howard pointed to the mistreatment and marginalization of Arab-Americans in her area of southeast Michigan — a region heavily populated by Arab-Americans — as one example of how the conflict, despite being overseas, has an impact inside the U.S. 

Koppelman, for her part, also offered ideas for how critics of the boycott may proceed, including forming a caucus within the ASA that would focus on nurturing relationships with Israeli and Palestinian academics. Or, she said, she and her supporters could form an entirely new organization. 

“But, I’m kind of busy next week,” she said, “[and] that’s a very large order, and I am sure there are other possibilities and you may have some ideas. So we are here to get that conversation started.” 

+