An academic organization that drew national attention when it voted to begin a general boycott of Israeli academic institutions appears to have retreated in the face of threatened legal action.
The American Studies Association (ASA) raised a ruckus in American higher education when it voted in late 2013 to enact a boycott of Israeli academic institutions in protest of the nation’s policies in Palestine. At the boycott’s outset, ASA said it was designed to cut off collaboration with Israel’s government, universities and any academics who acted as representatives of either.
“This boycott targets institutions and their representatives, not individual scholars, students, or cultural workers who will be able to participate in the ASA conference or give public lectures at campuses, provided they are not expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or of the Israeli government,” the ASA’s explanation of the boycott reads, implying that academics who were representatives of Israel or one of its universities would not be welcome at ASA conferences.
Now, however, the organization is attempting to clarify its position in a manner that significantly limits the scope of the boycott, by limiting it strictly to direct collaboration between the ASA and Israeli universities (such as ASA participation in a conference hosted in Israel).
The cause of the backtrack is a letter sent by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a conservative legal organization, to the Westin Bonaventure hotel in Los Angeles arguing that the ASA’s boycott violated a California state law prohibiting discrimination based on religion or national origin. If the Westin went forward with hosting the ASA’s annual convention in November and the boycott policy was still in place, the group warned, legal action against the hotel was possible.
In response to the threat, the ASA is now fervently denying that any Israelis would ever have been barred from its gatherings.
“The allegations in the letter of complaint are completely false. No one will be prohibited from participating in the annual meeting, which includes Jewish/Israeli scholars on session panels. There will be no violation of the law or discrimination of any kind. Furthermore, no one has been turned away, and no Israeli institution or anyone acting in a representative capacity has tried to register for the conference and been denied,” said ASA executive director John F. Stephens in a statement sent to The Daily Caller News Foundation.
In an additional email sent to Northwestern University professor Eugene Kontorovich, who blogs for The Washington Post, Stephens said that even “[Israeli] Prime Minister Netanyahu can attend if he wants to.”
The ASA has also added a new clause to their website’s explanation of the boycott, clarifying that it was apparently never meant to exclude Israeli academics in any circumstances: “Israeli academics will be in attendance at the 2014 convention. The ASA will not prohibit anyone from registering or participating in its annual conference.”
While the ASA argues the shift is merely a clarification of existing policy, the ACLJ was quick to claim victory.
“Let’s be clear: This is a climb-down. The ASA is changing its policy while furiously claiming that its policy has remained the same,” ACLJ senior counsel David French wrote on the group’s website Monday. “The policy change is, however, quite welcome and should serve as a wake-up call to the ASA’s members. Attempting to isolate Israel, they have isolated only themselves.”
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