Breaking “America’s Last Taboo”

by Alex Lubin | published November 27, 2013 - 12:28pm

American Zionism has made any serious public discussion of the past or future of Israel -- by far the largest recipient ever of US foreign aid -- a taboo. To call this quite literally the last taboo in American public life would not be an exaggeration. Abortion, homosexuality, the death penalty, even the sacrosanct military budget can be discussed with some freedom. The extermination of native Americans can be admitted, the morality of Hiroshima attacked, the national flag publicly committed to the flames. But the systematic continuity of Israel’s 52-year-old oppression and maltreatment of the Palestinians is virtually unmentionable, a narrative that has no permission to appear.

—Edward Said, “America’s Last Taboo” (2000)

During the four days of the American Studies Association (ASA) annual meeting at the Washington Hilton, conference attendees were buzzing with talk about an Israel boycott resolution proposed by the Caucus on Academic and Community Activism. The resolution, based on the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel call for solidarity, was proposed to the National Council of the association at the previous conference, held in Puerto Rico in November 2012. Over the last year the caucus website featured the resolution as well as a place to sign as an endorser. Amidst the normal chaos of a large academic conference the BDS resolution was everywhere a central theme. The executive committee of the ASA organized two large events to consider the resolution, including a town hall discussion featuring panelists who supported the resolution and an open forum in which attendees put their names in a box in the hopes that they would be selected to speak for two minutes. At the open forum 44 names were selected. Of these speakers, only seven opposed the resolution. Moreover, petitions circulated throughout the conference, with the “pro-” resolution group adding approximately 450 names and the “against” petition carrying 50 signatures including seven former presidents of the association. Both sides have many more signatures from petitions collected outside of the conference.

Although there are only a few active academic and cultural boycotts of Israel, discussions about boycotts within universities seems to be more common. In 2005 the Association of University Teachers (AUT) in Britain passed a boycott resolution against the University of Haifa and Bar-Ilan University. These institutions were singled out because of the ways that they limited the academic freedom of Israeli scholars critical of the occupation and because of academic programs they operate in illegal West Bank settlements. Within the United States the AUT boycott was fiercely condemned by the Anti-Defamation League as well as by the AAUP (and a bit more mildly reproved by the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association). The AAUP responded to the AUT boycott by drafting a policy statement opposing academic boycotts as “prima facie violations of academic freedom.” The AAUP has maintained this position amidst growing boycott movements within the American academy. In April 2013 the Association of Asian American Studies became the first academic association in the American academy to endorse a boycott resolution. The ASA boycott resolution was raised in a context of growing political awareness of the politics and possibilities of boycotts, including a controversial special issue of the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom in which most of the articles, many of which were authored by ASA members, made compelling endorsements of academic boycotts.

I am a co-founder of the ASA’s caucus on academic and community activism and I spoke in support of the resolution on the town hall panel and in the open forum. What struck me about this year’s conference was how quickly the impossible became possible. When the caucus first raised the question of Palestine in America many years ago, only a small handful of ASA members joined our conversation. At the 2012 conference we were amazed to see 80 people attend a meeting to discuss the boycott resolution. At the 2013 conference the issue took off, in large part because of the ways that the issue of boycott adheres to a vision of the ASA as an anti-racist organization. We saw nothing less than the breaking of what Edward Said called “America’s last taboo.”

In order to understand why the resolution gained the overwhelming support of conference attendees we have to understand a longer history of scholarly transformation within the ASA. The support for the BDS resolution represents a conjuncture between at least four ongoing social movements and the academic formations surrounding them. The ASA has recently been shaped by Native American and indigenous studies and its theorizing of settler-colonialism; activism coming out of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its related analysis of debt and the neo-liberal university; the slow but steady march of the Palestinian freedom movement that has led to the formation of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters across academia; and the creation of American studies programs in the Middle East in which the question of Palestine can be discussed outside of the constraints imposed on discourse in America.

The interest within the ASA on studies of settler-colonialism are not new; yet they have been invigorated by a cohort of rigorous scholarship within Native American and indigenous studies who have unraveled the history of settler-colonialism within the US. This scholarship has been especially adept at theorizing the connection between US territorial expansion across North America and US extra-territorial expansion throughout its empire. Native American and indigenous studies scholars have always been active within Palestinian solidarity circles, but the recent growth of settler-colonial studies has provided the intellectual scaffolding through which to better understand settler-colonialisms rooted in liberal nation-states. Moreover, studies of settler-colonialism and indigeneity have allowed scholars to make comparison across time and space that bring into focus transnational processes of colonialism, as well as make evident new forms of anti-colonial solidarities. Recently, for example, Palestinian activists joined Idle No More, a global protest movement in support of indigenous rights.

Scholars who took part in Occupy Wall Street have contributed new insight into the relationship between neo-liberalism and the university. This scholarship has identified the university as being at the front lines of economic neo-liberalism, as tenure, state funding and the humanities have been embattled in the push for new efficiencies, downsized departments and outcomes assessments. In addition, this scholarship has linked higher education to the military-industrial complex in ways that reveals how universities participate in imperialism. What these insights reveal are the ways that higher education participates in the perpetuation and maintenance of inequality and therefore, that “academic freedom” takes place within local and global contexts that are always and already unequal and exclusionary. True academic freedom can only exist in a context devoid of social and political inequalities.

Although the Palestinian solidarity movement has existed for a long time, it has been the growth of SJP activism across American university campuses, more than anything else perhaps, that has expanded the possibilities for discussion of Palestinians within the American academy. Like many non-violent student movements, SJP is dedicated to analysis as well as action; it therefore is committed to spreading knowledge about the occupation throughout higher education, while also dedicated to protesting the occupation in various non-violent forms of civil disobedience. One notable action of SJP has been to link Palestinian solidarity activism to indigenous and migrant justice movements. In mid-October, for example, SJP activists in Arizona protested that state’s deportation policies. SJP should be understood as a community of scholarly activists whose knowledge contributed greatly to the BDS movement with the ASA.

And finally, new academic formations of American studies beyond the US have been open spaces within which the question of Palestine has not been a taboo but a central concern. The Palestine question was at the center of the formation of the Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) at the American University of Beirut (AUB). When Mayor Rudy Giuliani refused Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal’s donation to the City of New York following the September 11, 2001 attacks because the prince dared to criticize US policy regarding Palestine, the prince formed two American studies centers in the Arab world in order that the Arab world could better understand and study America. Throughout its ten-year history CASAR has organized conferences and hosted visiting scholars who discussed the Palestine question openly, in ways that were unavailable in the US where there was supposedly academic freedom, but also a vigorous campaign to silence and prosecute those who discussed Palestinian solidarity. Moreover, in Beirut, American scholars interacted with Middle East Studies experts as well as Palestinian intellectuals and activists. Thus, while the Palestine question was a third rail in the US, CASAR provided a “third space” beyond the US and Israel where the Palestine question could be debated and theorized and the nature of American imperialism could be viewed through a new lens.

The combined academic and activist developments discussed above came together at this year’s ASA conference. The caucus organizing table became a meeting area for young SJP activists in their kaffiyyas, veterans of the Occupy movement, and faculty and graduate students of all ages and backgrounds. For the first time ever ASA members declared themselves on this issue and an overwhelming majority of conference attendees endorsed the resolution. Trailblazing scholars of African-American studies, Chicano studies, Asian American studies, American literature and history endorsed the call for the boycott, suggesting that intersectional analysis is also leading to intersectional politics. Many said they were relieved that they could finally voice in public their analysis of Palestine question without fear of retribution. One Palestinian activist told me that the ASA conference was the first time, outside of Palestinian events, that she felt that she was in the majority.

There were members of the association, and many non-members of the association, who signed a counter-petition. These scholars argued that the resolution unfairly targeted one nation and that the boycott resolution would have a negative impact on academic freedom. They often cited the AAUP statement against academic boycotts. Celebrity Israel supporters, such as Alan Dershowitz, are now on the prowl. Other opponents were sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians, but felt that there are better ways to engage the occupation -- such as divestment campaigns -- that do not implicate institutions of higher education. Much of the criticism of the boycott concerned confusion about the difference between an institutional boycott (like the one proposed by the ASA caucus) and an individual boycott (which the ASA caucus did not propose). It would be a mistake to argue that the divide over the question of the boycott was generational; it seemed to have more to do with how different groups conceive of the role of activism in scholarship.

While much of the opposition merely reproduced talking points developed by distant federations and lobbies, within the ASA there was genuine concern among some that the academic boycott is the wrong strategy for fighting the occupation. This argument was often voiced to me in private, especially among self-described Jewish anti-Zionists who are repulsed by the occupation, but think that an academic boycott is misguided for the ASA. To these colleagues I would point out that the boycott asks each of us to prioritize the most immediate and serious political issue, which is the plight of the Palestinians, their precarious lives and the absence of their freedom. The boycott call came from within Palestinian civil society and represents how an indigenous people contending with colonialism are engaging non-violent resistance. Moreover, as Howard Zinn once wrote, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Our silence represents complicity and our boycott call represents solidarity. And finally, we spoke about the important need to disaggregate Jewish identity from Israeli state policy. The boycott call is not a boycott of Jews, or of any individuals, but of institutions that are complicit in the occupation.
 
Drawing on the transforming and intersecting analysis of anti-racism and anti-imperialism within the ASA, the caucus members argued that universities do not exist outside of imperial contexts, and that academic freedom is a privileged category achieved by very few scholars in Israel-Palestine. Moreover, we argued that the boycott resolution affirms academic freedom in two important ways. First, the boycott will help to open up debate in Israel and Palestine about uneven access to academic freedom. Second, the boycott opens up space within the US to (finally) have an open discussion about Israeli policy and the Palestine question. The boycott does not discriminate against individuals because the boycott is targeted at institutions. And finally, we conceive of the academic boycott as consistent with the politics of divestment; as one member of the caucus argued, a boycott extends into the realm of the academy what divestment extends into the realm of economy.

More than anything the ASA members involved in the boycott resolution felt that we had breached America’s last taboo. A broad group of scholars and students with different backgrounds and research interests worked together in a supportive atmosphere to analyze and discuss boycott in ways that were not possible in previous years. I have studied global solidarity movements, but this was the first time that I felt what it was like to be part of one. Throughout the conference I received e-mails from friends in Beirut and Cairo, as well as from scholars across the US who lent their support and wanted to know what was happening at the conference. Moreover, those of us involved in the boycott movement saw evidence of how our scholarship informs all aspects of our lives, including our activism. The boycott supporters brought to our activism scholarly knowledge about social movements in the past and present that we could draw on for comparison and for inspiration. Whether it was by contributing their insights about the United Farm Workers struggle, the indigenous struggle for sovereignty, the prison abolition movement or the South African anti-apartheid movement, scholar activists put ideas into action in ways that were both inspiring and revelatory.

Update: On December 4, the National Council of the ASA decided to endorse a slightly modified version of the boycott resolution and put it to a vote before the full membership of the association.