Six days after its membership voted to implement an academic boycott against Israeli universities, the American Studies Association's Caucus on Academic and Community Activism on December 21, 2013 hurriedly issued a defensive appeal for support bemoaning, in the wake of a tsunami of backlash and censure against the boycott, what it defined as a "campaign of intimidation against the ASA."
Instead of taking responsibility for the significant and profoundly damaging action it collectively took by approving the boycott in the first place, the ASA saw the wide-ranging negative response from the academic community to their action, not as justifiable criticism of an intellectually-defective boycott, but as an attack on the organization's integrity, its stated solidarity with the Palestinians, and its overall credibility as an academic organization. The ASA also struck back with a well-worn, fatuous tactic used by those individuals and groups who have participated in the demonization and delegitimization of Israel before as part of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign: instead of acknowledging that any of the criticism was justified from the many individuals and groups who immediately denounced the boycott, the ASA reflexively, and disingenuously, accused "powerful and well-funded academic and non-academic organizations" of "mount[ing] a public campaign aimed at destroying the Association."
The paranoid notion that "powerful and well-funded" interests had any desire to even notice, let alone seek to destroy, the ASA, is ridiculous. More troubling is that this statement reveals that ASA members naively believed that they could institute a broad academic boycott against Israel, call for Jewish academics to be shunned from the community of world scholars while simultaneously singling out and attacking the Jewish state as an illegal, colonial occupier on stolen Palestinian land, and tar the reputation of Israeli scholars by making them complicit in, and responsible for, the actions of their government in perpetrating what the ASA defines as an "illegal occupation" without anyone with opposing views answering back these slanders with counter-arguments and opposing views.
The ASA claimed that the wide condemnation came after the boycott vote, not because the boycott's concept was intellectually defective and ran counter to academia's values, but "because it dared to express criticism of Israel." In other words, for the ASA, the issue is not that the boycott itself was based on historical distortions, post-colonial guilt, half-truths, and a misreading of law, politics, and facts; instead, asserted the ASA, presidents and faculty members from many of the world's finest universities, other academic associations, Jewish organizations, and other clear-thinking people from around the world who loudly denounced the decision to call for an academic boycott did so, not because they actually thought an academic boycott was morally and intellectually wrong, but because they were all only interested in deflecting criticism of what the ASA sees as Israel's many and chronic transgressions.
More significant is that, in singling out Israel, and Jewish academics, to be boycotted, many, including former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, observed that the ASA boycott was possibly ant-Semitic, "if not in intent, then in effect." "These organizations falsely accuse the ASA membership of being anti-semitic [sic]," the ASA message said, "bent on the destruction of Israel. But the goal of the boycott is to show solidarity with the beleaguered Palestinians, who have been subject to decades of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip."
The motivation of the boycott may well have been to "show solidarity with the beleaguered Palestinians," but several working definitions of anti-Semitism, including those by the U.S. State Department and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, suggest that such actions, in targeting Israel and holding it to a different standard of behavior than all other nations – something which this boycott clearly does—is one criteria by which speech and actions can be considered anti-Semitic, which of course the ASA vigorously denies.
Whether or not the ASA feels it is being anti-Semitic is not relevant; anti-Semites rarely admit to their behavior, or to the consequences of their actions and speech. And the ASA's accusation that outsiders attacked its boycott, not on its own merits, but in a furtive attempt to stifle criticism of Israel was also consistent with a pattern that David Hirsh of Engage in Britain has termed the "Livingstone Formulation," part of which is "the counteraccusation that the raisers of the issue of antisemitism do so with dishonest intent, in order to de-legitimize criticism of Israel. The allegation is that the accuser chooses to 'play the antisemitism card' rather than to relate seriously to, or to refute, the criticisms of Israel." So not only did the ASA reject some of the claims of underlying anti-Semitism in the boycott itself, it also decided that those organizations and individuals who made efforts to expose that anti-Semitism were not authentic, but merely attempts to promote their own, pro-Israel agenda. "Intimidation and frivolous legal arguments against boycott," the ASA appeal claimed, "are part of a long-standing history of repression of Palestinian human rights activism in the United States."
In its eagerness to deflect any further accusations of anti-Semitism, the ASA also deployed another favorite tactic of those wishing to act in an anti-Semitic way while disavowing any involvement with such behavior, namely, trotting out Jewish fellow travelers, generally exhibiting paroxysms of self-loathing, who support their mission—in this case, the boycott of Israeli universities.
"Many Jewish members of ASA support the resolution," the appeal proudly announced. "These include Eric Cheyfitz, who posted this comment to the ASA website: 'I am a Jew with a daughter and three grandchildren who are citizens of Israel.'" Cheyfitz, who seemingly is repulsed by both Israel and the U.S. for their imperialism and genocidal impulses towards indigenous populations, is a professor of American Studies at Cornell University and, not coincidentally, one of the defenders of discredited academic fraud, Ward Churchill. In his essay, "Why I Support the Academic Boycott of Israel," Cheyfitz articulated very clearly the prevailing ideology of the ASA – that is, that America and Israel are imperialistic, militaristic powers who have and continue to exploit Third-world victims, and that these countries' self-pride is misguided and undeserved. "It is worth noting in this respect that just as the myth of American exceptionalism seeks to erase the genocide and ongoing settler colonialism of Indigenous peoples here in the United States," Cheyfitz pontificated, "so the myth of Israeli exceptionalism seeks to erase Israeli colonialism in Palestine and claim original rights to Palestinian lands."
Another Jewish supporter of the ASA boycott was the virulent Richard Falk, whose view was that "The ASA outcome is part of a campaign to construct a new subjectivity surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict." Falk, former Princeton professor and now United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur in the Occupied Territories, has claimed that "to divest from companies profiting from business with Israel... is to express solidarity with victims of massive crimes against humanity and to call upon Israel to respect UN authority and the elemental rules of international law by withdrawing from occupied Palestinian territory." Morally-incoherent views are business- as-usual for Falk, whose repeated comparisons of Israelis to Nazis have made it quite clear that he was clearly ideologically ill-equipped in his UN role as an impartial observer. "The recent developments in Gaza," Falk wrote in 2007, "are especially disturbing because they express so vividly a deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty. The suggestion that this pattern of conduct is a holocaust-in-the-making represents a rather desperate appeal to the governments of the world and to international public opinion to act urgently to prevent these current genocidal tendencies from culminating in a collective tragedy."
Falk constantly looks for ways to condemn Israel and accuse it of perpetrating genocide. He is similar to professor Cheyfitz in one important way: both have "in published word and action opposed settler colonialism wherever it exists, including of course the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem."
Protestations and defenses aside, the issue is far more obvious than the members of ASA care to realize, and much less insidious. Those who speak back to ideologues do so not to suppress criticism of Israel; academic freedom grants the professors the right to spew forth any academic meanderings they wish, but it clearly does not make them free from being challenged for their thoughts.
The collateral notion that, in siding with "Palestinian solidarity," the ASA can inoculate itself from any accusations of anti-Semitism or even ill-advised academic behavior is another example of the defective reasoning frequently used by those engaged in the cognitive war against Israel. Feeling empowered by the moral self-righteousness they claim in pursuit of Palestinian self-determination, in assisting the victim, they feel free to malign Israel and accuse it of being the world's primary purveyor of evil.
The core issue is that just as the pro-Palestinian activists within the ASA have the right under the umbrella of academic free speech to express their views – no matter how factually inaccurate, vitriolic, or repellant they may be – those within and outside academia with opposing views also have the right, under the same precepts of free expression, to question the ASA's views, and to call them anti-Semitic, or racist, or genocidal, or merely historically inaccurate or incorrect if, in fact, that is the case. It is naïve and unrealistic, at best, for ASA leadership to think it could call for such a potentially damaging boycott, which seriously violates fundamental academic principles, without any response from a great many people with opposing views about the wisdom of such an action. That the academics of the ASA do not understand, or choose to ignore, such a fundamental concept is troubling.