While the global anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has officially hit America's scholarly associations over the last two years, even considering academic boycotts is a dramatic rupture with the past.
In 2005, the prestigious American Association of University Professors (AAUP) wrote that it "condemned any such boycotts as prima facie violations of academic freedom." This bedrock principle was so valued that the AAUP opposed academic boycotts of apartheid South Africa. Three-hundred university presidents signed a letter in 2007 declaring that academic boycotts are "utterly antithetical to the fundamental values of the academy, where we will not hold intellectual exchange hostage to the political disagreements of the moment."
That consensus, however, began to crack in 2013. Anti-Israel animus started becoming academically fashionable with the rise of post-colonial, critical studies theory, and Israel's self-defense after the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) in 2000 stoked these views.
In 2009, an American faculty arm of BDS was formed: the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USCACBI), which shares extremist agenda of the BDS movement—defaming Israel and advocating policies that would lead to the elimination of the Jewish state. USCACBI refurbishes old Arab arguments against Israel's establishment, but reframes them in contemporary paradigms of social justice. USCABI activists have worked patiently and methodically to mobilize support. They even supply templates for anti-Israel resolutions, which is why so many of the recent divestment resolutions proposed in student governments resemble one another. BDS activists try to make the resolutions seem relevant to academia under the pretext that Israel impedes Palestinian higher education.
The first association to succumb to this pressure was the small Association of Asian-American Studies (AAAS), which voted unanimously for an academic boycott of Israel in April 2013. That resolution was presented at the tail end of the AAAS conference, when many attendees had already left—a tactic frequently used by BDS activists. Only 10 percent of AAAS members voted, but USCACBI trumpeted the victory.
This breach was followed by a more significant one. In October 2013, the AAUP's annual journal was devoted to academic boycotts of Israel, with all but one contribution advocating that step. Contributors included prominent USCACBI members and boycott advocates such as Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement. Scholars opposed to boycotts were able to publish rebuttals, but the formerly inviolable principle had been assailed.
This trend escalated in December 2013, when the American Studies Association (ASA)—an established, moderately sized organization of 4,000 members—voted for an academic boycott of Israel. The backlash was immense, as more than 250 university presidents condemned the ASA's vote, as did major academic organizations. During the same month, the small Native American and Indigenous Studies Association followed suit with a pro-boycott declaration.
The strong reaction against BDS had a chilling effect. Only one association voted for an academic boycott in 2014: the new and marginal Critical Ethnic Studies Association. But the anti-Israel activists simply adopted more incremental tactics.
The well-established Modern Language Association (MLA) debated a resolution in 2014 condemning Israel for allegedly impeding Palestinian education in the West Bank, but did not call for a boycott. When the general MLA membership voted, the resolution failed. In January 2015, the MLA decided not to consider boycotts until 2017.
In November 2014, the National Women Studies Association issued a statement of support for BDS and condemnation of Israel, but not a boycott resolution. In December 2014, the Middle East Studies Association, long a bastion of anti-Israel views, tentatively opened the door for academic boycotts with a resolution affirming the right to advocate for them—a dramatic break from its 2005 resolution, which stated that it is "thoroughly objectionable... to refrain from any and all scholarly interaction with the entire professional staff... because of the policies of the state in which they are situated."
Anti-Israel activists in the American Anthropological Association (AAA) also took this slower approach. They didn't introduce a boycott resolution, but organized five panel discussions supporting BDS and only one panel opposing it. One discussion included BDS leaders as well as the president of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace. A resolution that condemned some of Israel's policies, but opposed academic boycotts of Israel, was soundly defeated by a vote of 653-28 at the AAA business meeting.
In January 2015, knowing that a boycott resolution would not pass, BDS advocates at the well-established American Historical Association presented a diluted resolution condemning Israel for impeding Palestinian education, using the same false accusations as the MLA resolution. In the typical manipulative fashion of BDS, they presented the resolution at the last minute and moved for the rules of order to be suspended. The ploy failed in a 144-55 vote.
The American Library Association will debate a resolution for divestment from companies that assist Israel's self-defense at its mid-winter meeting at the end of January. Even the ASA had to walk back its boycott measure. When it held its convention in 2014 in Los Angeles, the American Center for Law and Justice warned the hotel hosting the ASA's gathering could be liable for violating California anti-discrimination laws. The ASA then conceded that even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could attend, as long as he did not officially represent the Israeli government.
Several conclusions can be drawn from these events. First, BDS is well-organized and well-orchestrated. BDS activists often belong to several different academic organizations, and they push their agenda in each one. They also put on one-sided panels featuring major BDS activists who are not scholars in the association's field.
Second, these resolutions degrade academia. They do not meet elementary scholarly standards. They are cookie-cutters of one another, repeating the same false claims and suspect sources. It is extremely disappointing to see scholars supposedly trained to weigh evidence and examine context stoop to supporting what amounts to little more than propaganda. In passing these resolutions, they sacrifice their scholarly and moral standing. But we have seen it happen before: academics provided justification for the anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime.
Third, BDS does have momentum. Being anti-Israel is fashionable in academia, and many scholars sincerely worry about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Young and even well-established scholars need courage to stand against the anti-Israel consensus, and can risk losing promotions, career opportunities, and respectability if they speak against this prevailing zeitgeist.
Fourth, the BDS movement can be halted. Many academics worry about the politicization of their scholarly associations, which were founded to deal with matters of concern in their fields and not to make pronouncements on international affairs. Furthermore, most attendees of annual conventions are simply not interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They attend the conventions to present papers, to keep up in their field, and to network. When a core of scholars mobilizes and resists the hijacking of their organizations by anti-Israel ideologues, they can prevail, as they did at the American Historical Association.
The debate on academic associations and Israel is not being held in a vacuum. It is part of a concerted effort by the BDS movement to erode American public support for Israel—despite the fact that a majority of Palestinians oppose BDS. Scholars need to mobilize to resist the hijacking of their associations by ideologues, to preserve their intellectual integrity, and to fight bigotry. Fortunately, many are beginning to do so. We need more to join the battle.
Roberta P. Seid, Ph.D is director of research-education for StandWithUs, a 13-year-old international Israel education organization.