The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

ASA policy reversal delegitimizes BDS, but does not reverse past discrimination


When the American Studies Association adopted its Israel boycott in February, it was "credited… for giving moment to the boycott campaign." Now the ASA has significantly reversed its boycott of Israeli scholars—and is indeed trying to claim it never happened.

If the ASA's original action was important for popularizing such boycotts (at least in the narrow quarters of area studies), its reversal is equally important for showing them to be beyond the pale. It will be extremely hard for other academic groups to now put a good face on adopting a boycott that the ASA has done so much to distance itself from. This is underscored by the ASA's dodgy and frantic triangulation about its boycott policy. In the past week it has issued what the observers have described as inconsistent statements, "uncomfortable clarifications," and further "clarified clarifications."

While having the revolutionary vanguard of the boycott movement disclaiming such efforts is welcome, their rewriting history to claim the boycott never happened is less so. When the boycott was being considered earlier this year, some members favored a broad boycott of all Israeli academics, while others were uncomfortable with that. Ultimately the group adopted a watered-down compromise that would exclude only some Israelis—those who are "expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors" of Israeli schools, but not "individual Israeli scholars." This distinction is not terribly clear (more on this later).

What is clear is tat the ASA decided, in a widely-publicized move, to discriminate against some Israeli academics. Now, the ASA says it will not discriminate against any Israeli academics. The Conference is open to "everyone," the group says, even, as the ASA's executive director explained to me, "representatives of Israeli institutions."

That is a clear revision of the original boycott action. Indeed, as David Bernstein noted at the time, the boycott was always narrow potentially to point of irrelevancy; narrowing it further constitutes a complete retraction of the boycott as applied to academics. The remaining portion of the boycott bars formal relationships with Israeli institutions, which required no change in the group's action—the boycott is a null set.

But the ASA does not just say that they've jettisoned their discrimination against Israeli academics. Worried about potential civil rights litigation threats from the intrepid American Center for Law and Justice, they claim there never was any boycott of any Israelis at all. As evidence of this, the say no one falling within the parameters of the boycott tried to participate in the conference, and thus no one was subject to national origin discrimination.

This argument is beyond silly. When one hangs a sign on the door, "No Blacks Allowed," or in this case, "Entry by Israelis Restricted," it is not a defense to a civil rights action that none ever try to get in. The purpose of the policy is to turn them away before they even knock. The deterrent effectiveness of their policy does not eliminate its discriminatory nature.

The ASA also says that even its original ban on Israel academic "representatives and ambassadors" was quite narrow. This would not be clear to an outside observer. Academics typically go to conference as representatives of their schools—going to conferences is part of their job. The institution's name appears on their name tag. People who are not at schools may be identified as "independent scholars," but people who are at an institution are not independent, they are with that institution.

Indeed, applicants for slots at the ASA conference must list their "affiliation." The ASA says that one if its criteria for putting together the program is participants from a variety of "institutions." It is quite clear that in the standard run of things, academic speakers are regarded as representing their institution to some extent. While the ASA might pretend otherwise for the purposes of avoiding boycott blowback, the message of their original boycott measure to Israelis was clearly "stay away."

So here is the short history of how the boycott has played out for the ASA. First, it lead them have a policy that discriminates against scholars based on their national origin. Second, it got them to engage in an embarrassing and artless spinning of their actual policy. And finally, it lead them to abandon the policy. They got the worst of both worlds: exposure to liability and embarrassment for past discrimination, without the pleasure of continued discrimination.

UPDATE: THE ASA HAS RELEASED A RESPONSE to the charges of national origin discrimination. They astoundingly claim their policy has not changed; that the "boycott" was always limited to "on an institutional level will not engage in collaborative projects with Israeli research institutions."

The claim is demonstrably false. Their written explanation of their policy clearly stated that scholars who are "representatives" of institutions would be barred based on their national origin. Now they say no one will be barred. If they do not understand the difference between someone and no one, it will be hard to explain.

It is also demonstrable that their policy changed—because they actually changed the text of their policy explanation, as evidenced through screen shots.

Finally, their "response" characterizes the American Center for Law and Justice as an anti-gay organization founded by Pat Robertson. This is doubtless an appeal to their base—they are under attack by the right. Ironically, they quote this characterization of ACLJ from the Electronic Intifada, which has been denounced even by ardent leftist critics of Israel as anti-Semitic, and would certainly be described as anti-Israel in the conventional senses of the phrase. But maybe this is a meant to rally the troops as well.