The American Studies Association is a bad joke, and its controversial new policy is a bad example of distorted thinking.
The ASA’s academic boycott of Israel "discriminates against Israeli scholars by virtue of their nationality," New York Times columnist David Brooks recently noted. The group of so-called "scholars" acknowledged that other countries have done worse things than Israel's dealing with Palestinians and have not been judged harshly. But in its candid, if revealing, admission, the group said "one has to start somewhere.” How about starting with the worst cases?
If so, thanks but no thanks for the compliment, Israel might respond. Or, forgive the paranoia if one concludes that this action looks like a version of creeping anti-Semitism, which is counterproductive because it fuels Israel's legitimate fears and occasional overreactions to critical world commentaries. Would the ASA boycott members of the Episcopal Church to protest its positions on, say, gay marriage or gay clergy?
The American Association of University Professors — a group of 48,000 members compared to the ASA's 5,000 — opposes academic boycotts, correctly concluding that they are contrary to the free exchange of ideas and expression. Boycotts stifle interaction and debate, which ought to be a primary academic goal, including differing with Israeli policies through free and open debate. That would be a legitimate way to oppose the positions of scholars from other friendly countries (unfriendly ones, as well), rather than isolating and boycotting scholars from countries (not necessarily the scholars themselves) with whom they have disagreements, such as some United Kingdom academics haughtily did recently to their Israeli counterparts.
It should be noted that of the ASA’s 5,000 members, there were only 827 votes for the resolution, 382 votes against and 43 votes abstaining, meaning that 17 percent of the total membership determined this negative course on behalf of the entire association. Former Harvard President Lawrence Summers told Charlie Rose recently, “My hope would be that responsible university leaders will become very reluctant to see their universities’ funds used to finance faculty membership and faculty travel to an association that is showing itself not to be a scholarly association, but really more of a political tool.”
Jews in the U.S., and in Israel, differ — often vehemently — over Israeli policies. To contradict some AIPAC positions, J Street was created relatively recently as an alternative to the powerful, veteran organization. The Jewish college student organization, Hillel, is considering whether it should have more open debates about issues that the national organization holds in its guidelines, so differences about hot issues can be debated openly and divergence encouraged.
We talk to each other — often passionately — when we differ. That’s democracy at work. The ASA’s policy is anti-democratic, hypocritical, and unworthy of so-called "scholars" or "intellectuals." It says more, negatively, about the ASA than it does about the Israeli policy it questions.