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Academic Group Looks Beyond Israel Boycott

By / Nov 10, 2014 A screenshot of "Scholars Under Attack," an interactive map showing cases of challenges to academic freedom.

Still facing criticism over its academic boycott of Israel, the American Studies Association wants the controversy seen in the context of its mission instead of as its defining act. To that end, its new effort spotlights scholars under attack.

With its annual meeting in the rearview mirror, the toughest part of the American Studies Association’s (ASA) very tough year is over. The next challenge for the group representing about 5,000 American studies university professors nationwide? Getting people to focus on things besides its protest of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian scholars and students.

A December academic boycott of Israeli institutions became a running controversy for the organization, turning what was once an obscure higher-education association into a constant target of verbal attacks by supporters of Israel as well as other academic groups that oppose such boycotts on general principle.

It was a hot topic of ASA’s annual meeting, with numerous sessions focused on the debate the academic boycott sparked. (Even weeks before the meeting, the hot-potato topic drew scrutiny to the event.) But as Inside Higher Ed notes, it wasn’t all about the boycott, with many other sessions on topics like gender and ethnic studies.

ASA President Lisa Duggan, an American studies professor at New York University, told the Los Angeles Review of Books that the backlash caught the association off-guard, though it has had both positive and negative effects on the group: The association shows up in the mainstream media reports more often, for example, but the coverage can be quite negative.

It also taught the group a few things, including that, despite the American Studies Association’s relatively small size, its name suggests “a belief that we’re quite powerful.”

“It felt for a while that attention to just that one vote was going to just wipe out every other thing about us; it seemed like we were going to be known for this and only this, and people were going to decide whether they were for or against us based on this one thing,” Duggan told the publication. “And it was relatively disheartening. So we are trying very hard now, a year later, to climb out of that and frame what we do as including but not confined to the boycott.”

Putting the Boycott in Context

Rather than back away from the boycott, ASA hopes that it can explain how the action fits within the historical framework of the organization’s actions. To do that, the group has launched a new initiative, Scholars Under Attack, to highlight the situations of academics facing discipline, reprimand, or other consequences for such reasons as their academic work and exercising their right to free speech.

High-profile incidents in recent years, including the suspension of University of Kansas journalism professor David Guth and the cancellation of a speech by noted feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian, show up on the Scholars Under Attack map.

Duggan emphasized that ASA’s academic boycott of Israel is part of a larger existing tradition for the organization, one that includes protests against the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

“The effort here is about putting into context the boycott vote with all of the other kinds of social justice work we do,” Duggan told Inside Higher Ed of the endeavor. “There’s a very long list. The boycott is not the only thing about us.”

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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