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December 19, 2013

At Least Two Schools Leave the American Studies Association

On December 16th, as I reported on this site, the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israel universities. Two days later, Brandeis University and Pennsylvania State University-Harrisburg announced that they would cancel their institutional memberships in the American Studies Association. Professor William Jacobson of Cornell University and Legal Insurrection has a list of affiliated institutions here and is spearheading a drive to persuade other colleges and universities to drop their memberships.

Brandeis's statement was eloquent.

"It is with deep regret that we in the American Studies Program at Brandeis University have decided to discontinue our institutional affiliation with the American Studies Association.  We view the recent vote by the membership to affirm an academic boycott of Israel as a politicization of the discipline and a rebuke to the kind of open inquiry that a scholarly association should foster.  We remain committed to the discipline of American Studies but we can no longer support an organization that has rejected two of the core principles of American culture-- freedom of association and expression."

Simon Bronner, chair of the Pennsylvania State-Harrisburg's American Studies program, editor of the Encyclopedia for American Studies, and a non-voting member of ASA's National Council says that his department's move is a declaration of independence from the "political and ideological resolutions issued by the ASA" and of the department's intent to "concentrate on building American studies scholarship" rather than a new Mideast policy.

Two things are notable about these statements. First, they emanate not from controversy-averse administrators or from those Professor Jacobson's campaign has reached, but from American Studies departments reacting immediately to the ASA's decision. These departments continue the surprising resistance, in a discipline heavily influenced by the radical left, to the ASA resolution, which has also been denounced by eight former ASA presidents.

Second, they make no mention of the Israel-Palestinian conflict instead taking their stand on principled objection to the politicization of their discipline. Defenders of the resolution, predictably, wish to paint their opposition as reactionaries and Zionists (for them, support for a Jewish homeland is a thought crime).

But the opposition consists instead of people like Richard Slotkin, a professor of history at Wesleyan University, who has asked his colleagues to join him in calling for the resolution to be rescinded. Slotkin is a longtime ASA member who in 1995 won the prestigious Turpie prize for "outstanding abilities and achievement in American Studies teaching, advising, and program development." Slotkin is also an opponent of Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza and has even called for disinvestment as a means of pressuring Israel. But even as strong an Israel critic as Slotkin can see the trouble with American Studies scholars taking "a partisan position in a political controversy in a foreign country, on an issue not directly related to our work."

Steven Salaita, a professor of English at Virginia Tech, a blogger for the Electronic Intifada, and a prominent proponent of the ASA boycott responded to Slotkin's call to rescind like this: "What kind of governance [of the ASA] would result from the sort of process Slotkin proposes?  Would it not look terribly different than . . . North Korea?" If only the ASA had a Self-Parody award.

In spite of the vicious attacks to which dissenting scholars can expect to be subject, I suspect that others will soon join Penn State-Harrisburg and Brandeis in leaving the ASA. No matter what their view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, many American Studies scholars will bristle when they return from break and notice that their professional association is now the propaganda arm of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

Comments (1)

Simon Bronner:

Your essay identifies a core issue. I would only add that we were motivated to act quickly to protect the interests of students. We wanted to be independent so they are not subject to harassment because of their association with the American Studies Association. They are still free to participate if they want, but we hope they will be viewed as independent as a result of their connection to our institution.

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