The ASA Academic Boycott of Israel

This is old news by now, but the American Studies Association has decided on an academic boycott of Israel. This is the only country in the world that the American Studies Association boycotts, and to my knowledge, they have never boycotted any other country (although apparently they have boycotted parts of the US before). As you might imagine, this has generated some controversy.

In my circle—which, admittedly, contains zero American studies scholars—the boycott has been roundly panned. More than one friend has called for a boycott of American studies. In principle I support the idea of academic organizations boycotting things that their members find distasteful. But here is what jumps out at me about this boycott: how low the stakes are. Here is the ASA’s statement:

Our resolution understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.

So it’s not boycotting Israelis, or Israeli researchers, or Israeli researchers employed at Israeli universities or think tanks, or even Israeli researchers at Israeli universities who come to the ASA’s meetings and present their work. In other words, the stakes in this boycott are low. I wonder if there are any concrete implications for the ASA, and changes that will have to be made, programs that will have to be suspended, partnerships that will end.

In all, while the ASA describes the boycott as “an ethical stance, a form of material and symbolic action,” and while I can see the first and third of these I am skeptical of the second. I can’t help but wonder if the ASA’s boycott would be more meaningful if it had some bite. True costly moral action would be a boycott of the United States, and I say this quite seriously.