The American Studies Association annual meeting, which started yesterday, had a panel of faculty opposed to the ASA’s anti-Israel academic boycott.

That panel came against the backdrop of ASA being forced to abandon its previous written policy of excluding representatives of Israeli academic institutions under threat of legal action against the hosting hotel.

Apparently, the anti-BDS panel’s mere existence was upsetting to some boycott supporters, including Micki McGee of Fordham, who was in the spotlight when she filed a university religious discrimination complaint against a fellow professor who objected to the boycott. Fordham rejected the charge.

Inside Higher Ed reports:

It was just the first day of the American Studies Association’s annual meeting here Thursday, but tensions surrounding the organization’s year-old academic boycott of Israel were already flaring.

The flashpoint was an anti-boycott panel that sought to explore such questions as the role of political ideology in academic debate, whether the Israel-Palestine conflict is within the purview of the ASA, and whether academic boycotts are a legitimate means to political ends. But while some attendees said they appreciated the panelists’ thoughts, others accused them of perpetuating a “for” or “against” line of thinking they said has done irreparable damage to the discipline.

Micki McGee, associate professor of sociology and director of the American studies program at Fordham University, may have put it most succinctly when she advised both pro- and anti-boycott ASA members to, “Step up and have a fucking conversation.” She said she was frustrated after working “assiduously” within the past year to maintain a “neutral space” for her students regarding the boycott, only to be criticized– including in harassing emails – for her position.

She said she resented that the larger boycott conflict was being played out within her small program as, in her view, members of the ASA remain entrenched in their own ideology. So while McGee said she appreciated the anti-boycott panelists’ attempt at broadening the debate, their single perspective reproduced the “politics of dichotomization that I am vehemently opposed to.”

June Howard, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and chair of American Culture at the University of Michigan, also expressed dissatisfaction with the level of debate. “I came here looking for a better argument [against the boycott], but I didn’t get any,” she said.

Well, at least good for ASA allowing the panel to take place at all, but these reactions demonstrate that, perversely, opposing an academic boycott now has become controversial.

The problem is not necessarily the overall membership, but the highly aggressive BDS activists who now control the ASA’s national agenda. Inside Higher Ed contintues:

Another panelist, Michael Aaron Rockland, a professor of American studies at Rutgers University, said those numbers suggest that “a small group that’s armed and aggressive can virtually accomplish anything” – in other words, that most members don’t actually support the boycott.

That is a point we have made repeatedly — the takeover of the ASA by anti-Israel activists is a textbook example of how a relatively small number of highly organized and motivated people can tak over an organization through control of committees. A commenter to the Inside Higher Ed article noted:

A new book that’s just out (Nelson and Brahm’s edited set of essays; “The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel”) includes a chapter by Sharon Ann Musher that lays out all the manipulative shenanigans the ASA leadership pulled in order to get a BDS win which they now use to justify their boycott as representing membership opinion (even though it was only ever approved by 16% of those members after the most embarrassingly lopsided campaign in the history of academia). It’s worth checking out.

Nelson’s book (see featured image) is available. I hope to have a more formal review at some point.

In a related development, which we have mentioned before, Inside Higher Ed further reports on the busting of the boycott by the University of Haifa:

The University of Haifa plans to send an administrative representative on Saturday. The university isn’t releasing the name of the scholar, citing security concerns, but he or she will “report back with ideas about new directions in American studies,” Hanan A. Alexander, a dean of students and professor of educational philosophy at Haifa, said in an email interview. The university has a growing American studies program, including its Center for the Study of the United States and the Ruderman Program for the Study of American Jewry.

Of course, there is symbolic meaning in the representative’s attendance. Despite early boycott guidelines against working with scholars representing Israeli institutions – which recently were changed after some boycott critics accused the site of the annual conference, the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, of discrimination if it was complicit in barring representatives of Israeli institutions from its grounds – the Haifa representative will wear the university name on his or her badge. Alexander said that’s in part to protest the “morally offensive position” that the ASA took initially. He said there’s been no trouble thus far in registering the representative.

That’s important, he said, since Haifa is one of Israel’s most diverse institutions. Some 22 percent of the university’s 18,300 undergraduate and graduate students are Arab (the proportion is higher among undergraduates, at 35 percent; 45 percent of dormitory residents are Arab, including Muslims, Christian and Druze). The university is also home to the Arab Jewish Center, Hanan said, “which conducts cutting-edge research on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, and number of leadership programs for students in these diverse communities to promote coexistence.”

Echoing sentiments expressed by Wattad and others on the ASA panel, “The boycott would certainly harm our Arab students as well as our Jewish students.” More importantly, Alexander said, the boycott “undermines the freedom of expression basic to serious academic research and teaching, is based on fundamental misconceptions of Israeli society in general, which grants equal rights to all citizens, and of our university in particular, which takes great pride in advancing research at the highest level in a context of diversity and respect for difference.”

Shame what the activists have done to the ASA.

A Brandeis professor of American Studies wrote an op-ed for the L.A. Times about it, The Israel boycott that backfired:

Once the [boycott] motion passed, the ASA discovered that beyond its ideological cocoon the notion of an American scholarly group boycotting Israel was perceived as deeply un-American. Longtime members resigned, and many of the universities that were institutional sponsors withdrew their support, including mine, Brandeis University. Two branches — the California ASA and the Eastern ASA — declared their non-compliance. The dispute spilled into the mainstream media, and the heretofore obscure academic group found itself condemned by newspaper editorialists and Op-Ed writers for shutting down the very kinds of dialogue it was created to foster….

It is in this role that the ASA’s anti-Israel policy has serious consequences for up-and-coming scholars in the field. The tenured elders can walk away in a righteous huff, but the stakes can be career-altering for graduate students and untenured professors. If you oppose the anti-Israel stance of your disciplinary mother ship, do you pay dues to a group whose foreign policy you abhor — and thus forgo the professional validation and collegial networking?

If there is any silver lining here, it is that the ASA has become so notorious as a shill for the BDS movement that university deans who might once have turned to the group for an imprimatur for new hires may now look upon its seal of approval with a jaundiced eye.

I have no doubt that the activists are undeterred. The ASA Activism Caucus has a full day program on Sunday in conjunction with the national BDS movement devoted to training faculty to spread the academic boycott.

If destroying any credibility the ASA has is the price of anti-Israel activism, it is worth the price the Propagandists with Ph.D’s.