For about a year, the American Studies Assn. has been offering a very public object lesson in how to destroy a scholarly organization. Ostensibly devoted to the study of all things American, the 5,000-member academic cohort has ventured outside its natural borders and into the crossfire of Israeli-Palestinian politics by voting to bestow pariah status on Israel. The decision to morph from a scholarly association into a political action committee has proved disastrous for the group and the discipline it purports to represent, undermining its credibility, alienating many of its practitioners and betraying what should be a bedrock commitment to the American values that used to define the field.
Here's the back story. Last November, the ASA put forward a motion to its membership, backed unanimously by its national council, "to honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions." Instigated by activists rallying under the BDS banner — boycotts, divestment and sanctions — the resolution was part of a coordinated international movement dedicated to isolating Israel economically and culturally.
The BDS campaign has made serious headway into the academic precincts of Europe, a region with a richer tradition of anti-Israel, not to say anti-Semitic agitation, than the United States, but it had lacked a major beachhead on this side of the Atlantic. What the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had to do with American studies or why Israel should be so singularly toxic was never convincingly articulated. "One has to start somewhere," said then-ASA president Curtis Marez. (Needless to say, the ASA boycott-mania that started with Israel has also ended there.)
Once the motion passed, the ASA discovered that beyond its ideological cocoon the notion of an American scholarly group boycotting Israel was perceived as deeply un-American. Longtime members resigned, and many of the universities that were institutional sponsors withdrew their support, including mine, Brandeis University. Two branches — the California ASA and the Eastern ASA — declared their non-compliance. The dispute spilled into the mainstream media, and the heretofore obscure academic group found itself condemned by newspaper editorialists and Op-Ed writers for shutting down the very kinds of dialogue it was created to foster.
The declining stock of the ASA is a major comedown for what had traditionally been an all-American outfit. American studies emerged as a university-validated discipline after World War II in a postwar atmosphere of national triumphalism. During the Cold War, it was nurtured by generous funding from the U.S. State Department, which subsidized scholars eager to propagate American ideals overseas.
In the 1960s, the discipline began to challenge articles of faith such as American exceptionalism and the inherent rightness of the American cause. By the time the undergraduates of the 1960s became tenured professors, criticism of America was the default disciplinary mode. The old guard groused ("It should call itself the anti-American Studies Assn."), but at least the focus was America-centric.
Whatever the outlook, the ASA's main function was to serve as a scholarly gatekeeper and arbiter of professional standards. It wielded authority by giving a forum for American studies scholars to present papers at the annual conference and by publishing refereed work in its journal, the American Quarterly, and its encyclopedias.
It is in this role that the ASA's anti-Israel policy has serious consequences for up-and-coming scholars in the field. The tenured elders can walk away in a righteous huff, but the stakes can be career-altering for graduate students and untenured professors. If you oppose the anti-Israel stance of your disciplinary mother ship, do you pay dues to a group whose foreign policy you abhor — and thus forgo the professional validation and collegial networking?
If there is any silver lining here, it is that the ASA has become so notorious as a shill for the BDS movement that university deans who might once have turned to the group for an imprimatur for new hires may now look upon its seal of approval with a jaundiced eye.
The latest twist has led the ASA further down the rabbit hole. In a devious and rather brilliant legal maneuver, the American Center for Law and Justice served notice on the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, the site of the ASA's convention this week, that the ASA's anti-Israel policy was a clear violation of California's strict non-discrimination laws.
Faced with the prospect of being denied a room at the inn, the ASA backtracked. Its executive director insisted that the boycott was never, not for a minute, meant to discriminate against Israeli participants, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself would be welcome to participate — but only if he registered as "Mr. Netanyahu" and not "Prime Minister Netanyahu." Presumably professors from public universities in Israel might also register as Ms. or Mr., not as professors, so the ASA might avoid the taint of official contamination.
When the ASA descends on Los Angeles this week, the conference will be tweeted, blogged and reported on as no ASA conference ever has been. That spotlight derives from notoriety, not esteem, and the attention will be on the politics, not the scholarship.
Thomas Doherty is a professor and chairman of the American studies program at Brandeis University.