Blog Post

What the ASA Boycott Actually Says About Academic Freedom

Some of you may have been following the recent matter of the ASA’s vote for an academic boycott of Israel.  I was involved in that discussion and favor the boycott, but my blog today will not try to convince you or lobby you.  People of good conscience can disagree.  I do wish, however, to clear up some very serious misconceptions about what the resolution actually calls for.  College and university presidents and provosts, not to mention Lawrence Summers, have come out in criticism of the resolution, as has the AAUP.  This all has been covered widely in the press, including a front-page article in the 17 December print edition of the New York Times.  I’ll get back to that in a minute.

One of the more accurate and balanced pieces is this from the Seattle TimesThis dispatch from Barak Ravid of Haaretz gives an account of the larger, global actions to protest the conditions of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.  At the upcoming meeting of the MLA there will be a panel, “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine” on Thursday, 1:45 to 3 pm (Sheraton 1), and at the Delegate Assembly meeting on Saturday there will be a proposal regarding academic freedom in Israel.  Those interested should attend.

This is of course a hot-button issue, and it has touched off a number of quickly-written blogs and opinion pieces from all sides.  For instance, The Nation early on published an op-ed by Michelle Goldberg that was so full of errors that she had to revise twice.  Judith Butler, one of the targets of that piece, wrote this rebuttal.

It is precisely the issue of academic freedom that has been the key issue for us in the academy.  The most passionate critics of the resolution decry its supposed curbing of individual scholars’ abilities to engage with, work with, form partnerships with Israeli scholars.  This is where things go terribly wrong.  For the resolution only states that the American Studies Association, as an organization, is not going to engage with, work with, form partnerships with Israeli institutions.  There is nothing that prevents individual scholars from following their own consciences in this matter, from working with Israeli scholars, inviting them to their campuses, etc; there is nothing that prevents the ASA from inviting both Israeli scholars and Palestinian scholars to its events.  Furthermore, the boycott is an entirely legal means of non-violent protest: institutions do not enjoy the right of academic freedom (individuals do); the boycott is legally protected—it is considered a form of free speech.  It is ironic that in the week that this occurred Nelson Mandela passed away, someone whose cause was aided by international acts of boycott, divestment, sanctions.

The New York Times article ends with a statement from me that they unfortunately did not cite in full.  I have written them to ask for them to publish what I said in full, but in the event they do not, here is the quote they did publish, followed by the remainder in italics.  The statement originally was posted on the ASA website, along with statements from many others:

“People who truly believe in academic freedom would realize protesting the blatant and systemic denial of academic freedom to Palestinians, which is coupled with material deprivation of a staggering scale, far outweighs concerns we in the West might have about our own rather privileged academic freedoms.  There is no restriction whatsoever of individuals’ academic freedom—this is a boycott by an academic organization against academic institutions in Israel.  Individual ASA members are to follow their consciences; both Israeli and Palestinian scholars are invited to participate in ASA events.”

In closing let me say that, again, I am sure many colleagues disagree (even vehemently) with my position, and I thank Arcade for letting me publish this to make my position clear, so that if we are to disagree we know better what we are disagreeing about.  I would of course be happy to, in the comments page, converse with anyone about this.

David Palumbo-Liu is professor of comparative literature at Stanford.  His most recent publications include a volume on world-systems analysis co-edited with Bruce Robbins and Nirvana Tanoukhi entitled Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World" System, Scale, Culture (Duke University Press, 2011), and The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age (also from Duke).  He is the founding editor of Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, which is housed here on Arcade.