by Meredith Jacobs
Lately, college is the 24/7 conversation topic in my house. Much to my daughter’s chagrin. Mere weeks away from completing her first semester as a high school senior, the turmoil and stress of the college application and acceptance process is in full swing. And while she may be checking out what sororities are on campus and what study abroad offerings are available, I’ve added a question to my list of what we should consider in deciding where she’ll ultimately end up. Namely, is the school a member of the American Studies Association.
Chartered in 1951, the ASA, according to its website, “is the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.” It has 5,000 members and 2,200 library and other institutional subscribers. Recently, its members voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Of the 5,000 members, 1252 voted with 66.05 percent endorsing the boycott, 30.5 percent voting no and 3.43 percent abstaining. The ASA announced that this is the largest number of participants in a call for votes in the organization’s history.
Essentially, the boycott calls on its members not to work with Israeli academic institutions (careful wording that they claim leaves room for individual scholars to still work together). They are protesting the “documented impact of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian scholars and students” as well as “Israel’s violation of international law and U.N. resolutions.” They hope that the boycott will free up those academics wishing to engage in research and speak about support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Among the supporters of the boycott is Eric Cheyfitz, Ernest I. White professor of American Studies and Humane Letters at Cornell University who writes, “I am a Jew with a daughter and three grandchildren who are citizens of Israel. I am a scholar of American Indian and Indigenous studies, who has in published word and action opposed settler colonialism wherever it exists, including of course the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It is worth noting in this respect that just as the myth of American exceptionalism seeks to erase the genocide and ongoing settler colonialism of Indigenous peoples here in the United States so the myth of Israeli exceptionalism seeks to erase Israeli colonialism in Palestine and claim original rights to Palestinian lands. It is from these personal and professional positions that I applaud the decision of the NC [National Council] to support the Academic boycott of Israel, which I support, and urge ASA members to affirm that support with their votes.”
As of press time, four colleges and universities have withdrawn their membership in ASA: Brandeis, Kenyon, Indiana University and Penn State at Harrisburg. Many more have spoken out publicly against the boycott including Maryland, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Wesleyan, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Boston University, University of Connecticut and University of Texas at Austin. It should also be noted, that even though Professor Cheyfitz supports the boycott, his employer, Cornell University has slammed it.
The Association for Asian American Studies and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association have endorsed similar bans. According to an article in The New York Times, the Modern Language Association will be considering a motion “critical of Israel” during its meeting next month.
This all sickens me. When I was looking at colleges, my parents ordered a book from B’nai B’rith that listed the percent of Jewish students on campus. If it had a comfortable number of other Jewish kids, it was okay to apply to. When my daughter first started looking, we made certain there was a Hillel or rabbi on the campus. When I started learning about BDS on campuses, I kept a mental list of “nos” — no to the University of California schools, no to Oberlin, no to Rutgers. I don’t want her to have to walk past an “apartheid wall” or be lectured about Israel’s human rights violations. I have tried to prepare her for conversations she might have about Israel on campus, but there is no way I will send her to an institution that supports efforts to delegitimize Israel.
I want to start hearing from more schools. Are they members of ASA? Did they vote? Are they outraged? If so, I want to know. Those of us with high school- and college-age students know there are those schools that are very popular with the kids — that same list of 10 that they all seem to apply to. College tuition is extraordinarily high. If they want our kids, they’d better be willing to provide them in a safe, supportive learning environment. And that means supporting Israel.