‘No discrimination here,’ US academics say after Israel boycott

American Studies Association denies its conference banned Israelis, saying even Netanyahu could attend if he did not represent his government — but not everyone buys that argument

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

In December 2013, the American Studies Association approved a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, such as the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (pictured). (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
In December 2013, the American Studies Association approved a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, such as the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (pictured). (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — An American academic group under fire for reportedly barring Israelis from its conference says its boycott of Israel is not discriminatory and does not include sanctions against individual Israeli academics.

The statement by the American Studies Association came after the Los Angeles hotel hosting its annual conference was threatened with a discrimination suit over the group’s anti-Israel policies.

The Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles, California, came under scrutiny last week, when the American Center for Law and Justice sent its management a letter warning that the hotel may have exposed itself to civil action by hosting the ASA’s annual conference.

The legal watchdog group said that it was “deeply concerned that unlawful discriminatory exclusionary policies will be implemented by the ASA as to who is permitted to attend the Annual Meeting at the Westin Bonaventure,” due to the organization’s academic boycott of Israel.

A public petition calling on the hotel to refuse to host the organization was also initiated on the website.

During its annual conference in 2013, the scholarly organization made headlines when its members voted in favor of a resolution that would “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”

Cast by both opponents and proponents as a watershed moment for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, the well-established academic organization did not include the parameters for the boycott in the initial resolution.

The group said in a statement at the time that the boycott was limited to banning “formal collaborations” with Israeli institutions or scholars “expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors” of Israeli institutions or the government.

“The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange,” the statement said.

The difference between a “representative or ambassador” of an Israeli academic institution and an “individual Israeli scholar” who is affiliated with an Israeli academic institution remains vague. In at least one letter addressed to the administration at the University of California – San Diego, the ASA explained that it meant “deans, rectors, presidents and others.”

Although the Westin has not issued any statement about the conference, the academic organization took to the blogosphere recently to defend itself against charges of discrimination.

Last week, in response to a blog post by Northwestern University Law School Prof. Eugene Kontorovich, an ASA official explained that even a government official – in fact, even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – could attend the group’s annual conference – provided they represented themselves and not the boycotted institution.

Kontorovich believes that even though it does not preclude the participation of all Israeli academics, the ASA’s version of the academic boycott constitutes “facial discrimination” – discrimination which is enshrined in the organization’s rules rather than simply carried out on a de facto basis.

“The ASA’s argument that it does not bar Israelis, but only Israelis who attend as representatives of their academic institutions, will not likely help them much, as the normal way for academics to attend academic conferences is as representatives of their institutions,” Kontorovich wrote in the Washington Post’s Volokh Report, adding that the current argument “amounts to saying the [ASA] is not discriminating as much as they could have, which is not an advisable defense in discrimination cases.”

Later, however, ASA President Elizabeth Duggan responded to a blog post at Legal Insurrection documenting this exchange by claiming that “the boycott never applied to attendance and participation in the conference by Israelis. We invited several to participate, and they are on the program.”

“The boycott never has applied to individual scholars, or to university officials participating as individuals. Our boycott applies only to official ASA collaborations by ASA *as an association* with Israeli universities, all of which are state supported. Our members and depts are free to act according to conscience, the boycott applies only to the associations [sic] official actions,” she wrote.

Duggan denied that additional wording placed on the organization’s website that explained that the boycott did not include a boycott of most Israeli individuals constituted a “backtracking or a change” from the pro-boycott resolution passed by the ASA’s members during last year’s annual conference.

“We do not discriminate against any individuals at our conference. We never did, and never would have,” Duggan wrote. “We will not engage institutions of the Israeli state on an official basis, and that is a protest against the abridgment of Palestinian academic and other freedoms by Israel.”

The ASA did not respond to requests by The Times of Israel to clarify its position regarding the academic boycott of Israel, and in what capacities specific Israelis would not be allowed to participate in the organization’s annual meeting.

There is, in fact, at least one Jewish-Israeli academic whose primary affiliation is with an Israeli university on the program for the ASA’s annual conference next month. Neve Gordon of Ben Gurion University of the Negev is scheduled to participate, as are Ahmad Sa’di of the same institution and Mohammed Wattab of the Zefat College School of Law.

But Kontorovich said that the overall impact of the organization’s “strong statements” on BDS would naturally have a “chilling effect” on the participation of Israeli academics. Even if the ASA has clarified its stance toward Israelis, he added, to do so less than a month before the conference means that it would be too late for would-be participants to register to present papers.

While the American Studies Association’s primary focus is interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, the organization’s newfound focus on Palestine figures prominently in the conference.

Session titles include “Political Imaginings of Palestine Beyond the Here and Now”; “Encountering Zionism: From Academia to Queer Activism and BDS”; “Teaching About Palestine: Changing the Pain and Fury of Ignorance to the Pleasures of Knowing”; “Students For Justice in Palestine: Awakening the US Campus”; and others.

Panels on more general topics, too, such as the carceral state in transnational perspective and settler colonialism, mention Israel in over half of the cases. Even the session entitled “Chican@/Native American Relations: Post-colonialism and Contradictions in the Spanish-Anglo Colonized Borderlands” includes a paper comparing “Common Resistance: Indigenous, Chican@, and Palestinian Articulations of Sovereignty, Nation, and Recognition, 1974-1982.”

Only the panel in which Wattab is a participant – “The Party’s Over: A Panel and Open Discussion on the Aftermath of the ASA’s Boycott Resolution” – takes a critical view toward the BDS resolution.

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