- Throwing Stones in Glass Houses:The ASA and the Road to Academic Boycott
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The photograph shows the great Palestinian scholar Edward Said, arm reared back, hurling a rock from Lebanon across a wire-fence border toward Israel. Said was on holiday in July 2000 when he joined in a moment of communal celebration, what he called “a symbolic gesture of joy,” at the [End Page 1075] withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon.1 The eighteen-year Israeli occupation began after fascist Lebanese Christian Phalangists massacred more than two thousand Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, a slaughter coordinated and supervised by the Israeli military.2
Within days of the picture’s publication, Said was compelled to defend his actions. The Zionist Organization of America urged Said’s employer, Columbia University, and the Modern Language Association, of which he was past president, to condemn him and to take disciplinary measures. The national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith wrote to Columbia’s president, calling Said’s behavior “a crude, disgraceful and dangerous act of incitement.” A Jordan Times photo caption read “SAID VS. ISRAEL,” while Israel’s best-selling daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, devoted half a page to the episode.3
The stone that Said threw that July day hit nothing. Yet it shattered a shallow public myth that academe is a genteel retreat where disruptive ideas are never consecrated as actions, even symbolic ones. Said had for years written essays critical of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and US support for it, had served as an elected member of the Palestinian National Council from 1977 to 1991, and had been the strongest public voice for Palestinians in the US academy. But it was the publication of his rock-throwing photograph in mainstream media that put in motion a massive public apparatus to discredit anew both him and his support for Palestinians.
The 2013 vote by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli universities is resonant of Said’s fifteen minutes of public infamy. ASA scholars long dedicated to a critical analysis of US power saw their own relative political insularity shattered. Immediately after the vote, more than 250 university presidents condemned the ASA, and the state legislatures of Maryland, New York, and Illinois, as well as the US House of Representatives, took up legislation to defund or otherwise punish faculty who engage in academic boycott. Leading members of the ASA received racist, sexist, and homophobic threats of violence. In the end, none of it mattered. The organization added one thousand new members, received thousands of new donor dollars, and moved on.4
The 2013 vote to boycott was the greatest moment in the history of the American Studies Association. The vote was a refusal of complicity with any “field imaginary” in which the Israeli occupation and US support for it could remain what Said himself trenchantly called the United States’ “last taboo.” The ASA’s decision to boycott Israeli universities made clear that American studies had itself lived too comfortably within and alongside the US “special relationship” to Israel, Israeli Zionism, and settler colonialism. In this essay, I [End Page 1076] historicize this argument by briefly tracking the place of Palestine in the field of American studies while showing how the vote to boycott Israeli universities reflects a steady and dynamic escalation of anti-imperialist consciousness in the ASA. This is manifest in shifting scholarship on the US role in the Middle East; in a generational reorientation elicited by the 1991 and 2003 US invasions of Iraq; by recognition of the work of Arab and pro-Palestinian intellectuals and activists in the Palestinian freedom struggle; and more generally, by a sharpening analysis of US imperialism as it enfolds the American university.
American studies is in its own way a Zionist project: an attempt to inscribe a diasporic, messianic population onto a real and intellectual landscape of already inhabited history. In his 1999 book American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania, Hilton Obenzinger became perhaps the first...