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‘What happened there was historic’: A report from the American Studies Association boycott debate

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The American Studies Association held their 2013 Annual Conference at the Washington Hilton in Washington, DC November 21-24. Among the many sessions were two landmark events — a “Town Hall Meeting on Palestine” and an “Open Discussion on Palestine.”These forums where to discuss and debate a boycott resolution proposed by the “ASA Activism Caucus” urging the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions.

What happened there was historic. It was historic because every second I stood at the 2013 ASA conference I thought of every single activist I knew, every single Palestinian I knew, and I wished that they could be standing right next to me witnessing it. I wanted those people next to me because I knew what I was feeling was an empowerment that we very rarely feel in this particular setting. A setting I now realize is crucial for activism work and Palestinian solidarity alike. It was historic because now as I sit to try and write what happend at ASA, I struggle, as words just can’t do it justice.

It’s always a controversial thing to talk about being Palestinian, even more controversial to talk about Palestinian solidarity activism, in most American settings, especially an academic one. This has always seemed strange to me because academia is a place for trusted study, for trusted truths, not a place where social issues can somehow find a way to escape criticism and unrestricted discussion, the way Israel has overwhelmingly been able to do in American academia which has directly distorted the Palestinian narrative and its related activism in the US. The 2013 American Studies Association not only challenged this notion, but completely crushed it, as it gave an undergraduate student like myself enough inspiration to last me until well after graduation.

ASA Activism Caucus table. (Photo: Lena Ibrahim)

ASA Activism Caucus table. (Photo: Lena Ibrahim)

The ASA Activism Caucus set up their table right next to registration at the ASA conference. Members of the Activism Caucus and various SJP students from the DC-Maryland-Virginia area took turns sitting at the table. I spent most of the conference at the table because it was quickly becoming the coolest place to be at the conference (in between workshop and panels). The table had literature on Palestine and BDS as well as various articles of support for the ASA academic boycott. Hundreds of copies of the boycott resolution (written by the ASA Activism Caucus) were available on the table as well as hundreds of sheets with frequently asked questions about the resolution and the BDS Movement.

By the second day of the conference I had noticed that those opposing the ASA boycott of Israeli academic institutes had set up an incredibly inaccurate counter petition on the “Message Board” directly across from our table. There was a small list of it’s supporters and then space for ASA members to sign on. They managed to gain about 3 signatures on the board.

Meanwhile at the seriously busy Activism Caucus table, our petition sheets were filling quickly. 500 signatures were added to the boycott petition at the ASA conference.The petition in support of an ASA academic boycott of Israel reached over 850 signatures. Each day of tabling dozens of members of the ASA stopped by the table to either ask how they can sign the petition or for more resources on BDS. I, as a student, was completely in shock. I met some of the most incredible professors who not only supported the Palestinian cause, but were eager in wanting to share their outspoken support. I spoke with professors and scholars from all around the country who wanted me to know they were working hard on their campuses to empower SJP students like myself and to finally break the deliberately set up barrier in discussion on Palestine/Israel in academia.

At the ASA’s Town Hall meeting for Palestine (open to the public) the ballroom at the Washington Hilton was completely filled up. We heard from 6 ASA scholars who took turns discussing various issues relating to Israel/Palestine, completely uncensored. Angela Davis, one of the panelists, opened her discussion with “This is a historic moment, historic but long over due.” I looked around at the 200+ people listening to this eye opening and disturbing panel on Israel, realized I wasn’t at an SJP event, and thought “this really is historic.” This was not historic because of how many people were in attendance and their cheering whenever the boycott was brought up, but because of the very discussion being held. We were talking about things like Israel’s various apartheid systems that discriminate against its non jewish citizens, Israel’s illegal settlements/ wall/ occupation, Israel’s various war crimes in Gaza, and most emphasised- Israel’s academic institutes and their complicit role in the illegal occupation. And that is, I believe, one of the strongest goals of Palestinian activism and BDS, to simply bring this kind of discussion to the places it has always been deliberately ignored.

The following evening came the ASA Open Discussion on Palestine (only for ASA members). As we entered the ballroom, a few ASA members strongly against the boycott resolution were already there placing their counter petition on each seat. The 12 members of the ASA council were all in attendance. At the door you could grab a piece of paper, write your name on it and place it in a box, if you wished to speak. Names would be taken from the box and the ASA member called would have 2 minutes at the mic to say whatever they felt about the ASA boycott resolution. A total of 44 members were called to speak and only 7 spoke against the boycott. We heard from 37 members of the ASA who were not only supportive of the boycott, but passionate in a way I had never seen before. Professors spoke up in support of the Israeli academic boycott, linking the Palestinian struggle to various struggles of oppressed people and various social issues of war, imperialism, colonialism, occupation. It was a moment of true solidarity, speakers in support of the boycott were diverse in expertises of studies as well as diverse in their race and ethnicities. Applause in the room spoke for itself, the second an ASA member reached the mic to say ‘“I support the boycott of Israeli academic institutes” the room filled with cheers and loud applause. The 7 who spoke against the boycott received applause … but only from each other.

It was clear, it was indisputable even to those who looked like they were ready to scream with anger, almost all of the ASA members in the ballroom believed in the responsibility of their academic organization to take a stance of justice for Palestinian human rights, rights that include education and academic freedom.

After the 2013 ASA conference and working with the incredible ASA Activism Caucus, I feel more empowered than ever not only as a Palestinian American- but even more importantly as a student. The ASA Activism Caucus has reflected well on the ASA, they have bravely created a space in American academia for students like myself who strongly believe that the power of academia cannot be devoid of social activism or issues of justice.

An official decision on the Israeli academic boycott resolution has still not been released by the ASA Council who is still in session on the issue.

Link to the boycott petition (for American Studies Association members only):

Link to the FAQ sheet we passed out:

Lena Ibrahim
About Lena Ibrahim

Lena Ibrahim is a first generation Palestinian-American and sophomore in college studying Global Affairs. Follow her on [email protected]

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24 Responses

  1. Cliff
    November 27, 2013, 3:43 pm

    Hi Lena, did anyone record the event? Great news and I hope the ASA doesn’t give in to Zionist pressure.

    • Krauss
      November 27, 2013, 11:37 pm

      As an addition:

      While many of us are engaged in this issue, it’s critically important to do what Lena is doing. The actual work of going out there and putting the issue on the table – literally – in front of audiences like the ASA. Even if you lose the vote, you raise consciousness of the issue and can come back next year, stronger. This is what we’ve seen with the mainline churches every year. It’s only a question of time before the BDS movement wins with them.

      The Asian Studies Association has already passed pro-BDS motions. As the situation worsens in I/P, this could spread to more academic organizations.
      But it can only be spread if people do the hard work Lena does. I’m doing my share of activism in my small corner of the world.
      But we can all do better and the best way is to take concrete steps like Lena.

      • HarryLaw
        November 28, 2013, 8:11 am

        Krauss @ “This is what we’ve seen with the mainline churches every year. It’s only a question of time before the BDS movement wins with them”
        This should help them along, “Catholic Church razed, in East Jerusalem.” “This act is against the law, against justice and against humanity, against any ideology upon which peace can be built and increases segregation and hate,” Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Tawwal told journalists at the site of the demolition.

      • Blaine Coleman
        Blaine Coleman
        November 28, 2013, 9:10 am

        To Krauss:

        Exactly. Publicly putting the boycott of Israel on the table for debate is a gigantic victory by itself. Don’t be surprised when you win the debate too.

  2. bilal a
    bilal a
    November 27, 2013, 4:12 pm

    Besides the issue of Apartheid, which mainly effects the native Arab population, there are other issues of concern to the population as a whole, which might warrant commercial human rights boycott, especially the issue of Israeli social -political norms on human trafficking, as the Times of Israel alerts:

    nfortunately, this story of the pedophilic singer and his young victims constitutes only one small piece of the massive mosaic that is underage prostitution in Israel. We have all heard the stories of minors participating in the sex trade: the group of 16-year old boys whose idea of a party includes strippers; the 15-year old girls in Be’er Sheba who spend their summer vacation in Eilat selling sex; or the high school students who visit the local brothel after class. These stories are discussed on our Facebook walls, in our newspapers and even in our Knesset. Yet, one place you won’t find these stories discussed is in our schools.

    “In 2003, ATZUM joined forces with Kabiri-Nevo-Keidar ( and established the Task Force on Human Trafficking (TFHT) to help Israel put an end to human trafficking within its borders. The TFHT works tirelessly to engage and educate the public and government agencies to confront and eradicate modern slavery in Israel, and lobbies for reform in the areas of prevention, border closure, protection of escaped women, and prosecution of traffickers and pimps.”

    UJA-Federation of New York conference on human trafficking
    ““Trafficking,” seduction by sweet words followed by violence, “isn’t happening [only] to ‘those’ people,” to outsiders, to non-Jews, she told the overflow crowd at the daylong conference. Young Jewish women fall into that life also, she said.”

    • bilal a
      bilal a
      November 27, 2013, 4:28 pm

      [Israeli] Alexander Mashkevich, one of Jewish world’s biggest philanthropists, suspected of organizing sex [prostitution of minors ] party on luxurious yacht seized by Turkish police. His lawyer denies allegations, but Yedioth Ahronoth reveals what really happened on boar,7340,L-4048812,00.html

      Alexander Mashkevich Awarded by MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Former Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor at the 11th annual Herzliya Conference with the ‘Herzl Award Laureate Keynote Address’. (Feb 7, 2011)

      • Ecru
        November 28, 2013, 4:41 am

        Interesting bit of news even if the writer seems more than a tad desperate to lay all of this at the feet of Turkey and Slavs. But I especially love this bit

        Mashkevich quickly denied his involvement in the event. His spokesman, Roman Spector, told the British daily “Telegraph” that Mashkevich was indeed onboard the yacht when it was raided

        When juxtaposed with this bit

        His friends said that the Turkish press’ articles that mentioned him were driven by anti-Semitism.

        So he admits he was on the boat but then any articles that mention the fact are anti-semitic. More proof the now traditional cry is completely and utterly meaningless.

        But what’s really disturbing isn’t the crime, it’s the reaction of some of the commentators on YNET (whose readership seem particularly psychotic in their bigotry) – who don’t even see a problem. And then there’s the Zaka chair Yehuda Meshi Zahav,

        I see how he helps and gives charity. And that is above everything he may or may not have done”.

        Holy crap! I thought only the Medieval Catholic Church believed in buying Indulgences.

  3. pabelmont
    November 27, 2013, 4:48 pm

    Universities can do more than pass BDS resolutions. They can hold teach-ins (as happened during the VietNam War). They can convene conferences.

    Imagine that at each university in the USA there were, in 2014, a conference on Israel/Palestine, dealing with the illegalities of the occupation, with what the UNGA, UNSC, etc, can do, etc., convened by PROFESSORS or DEPARTMENTS or UNIVERSITIES or LAW SCHOOLS rather than by SJP students! That would be mainstream! That would stand the speak-no-evil AIPAC and the speak-no-evil Hillels on their heads.

    That is what this ASA meeting suggests to me. Let us hope that the recommendation of this meeting is accepted and confirmed at all higher levels within ASA. The Lobby will go all out to prevent this happening. The Lobby is weaker after “Iran”. This is a good time to hand them another loss.

  4. Pamela Olson
    Pamela Olson
    November 27, 2013, 5:01 pm

    This is so amazing! Was so ecstatic to hear the news. A huge push toward the mainstream for Palestine solidarity activism. Lots of respect for the professors and students willing to learn difficult things and speak their conscience.

    And for people like Phil and Max and countless others who’ve worked tirelessly to open this space up.

    • annie
      November 27, 2013, 5:14 pm

      i agree, this is incredible. i love reading about it, just makes me so excited! i could burst. and you’re one of the tireless too pamela…in a big way.

      • Daniel Rich
        Daniel Rich
        November 27, 2013, 7:06 pm

        @ Pamela & Annie,

        But will this ‘space‘ be closed by the time we’re willing to openly discus it?

      • annie
        November 28, 2013, 12:26 am

        please elaborate on what you do not feel is open for discussion daniel. perhaps a blockquote from this article. i am not sure what your point is.

      • Daniel Rich
        Daniel Rich
        November 28, 2013, 10:24 am

        @ Annie,

        I’m not referring to what’s open to discussion here at this site, I’m referring to this:

        “The latest punishment of Gaza may seem like another familiar plot to humiliate the strip to the satisfaction of Israel, Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, and the military-controlled Egyptian government. But something far more sinister is brewing.

        This time, the collective punishment of Gaza arrives in the form of raw sewage that is flooding many neighborhoods across the impoverished and energy-choked region of 360 square kilometers and 1.8 million inhabitants.

        Even before the latest crisis resulting from a severe shortage of electricity and diesel fuel that is usually smuggled through Egypt, Gaza was rendered gradually uninhabitable. A comprehensive United Nations report last year said that if no urgent action were taken, Gaza would be “unlivable” by 2020. Since the report was issued in August 2012, the situation has grown much worse. ” LINK

        By the time campus is open to discussion/s, there won’t be any viable Palestinian State left to live in.

      • Pamela Olson
        Pamela Olson
        November 27, 2013, 10:17 pm

        Definitely puts a sting of tears of joy in my eyes.

        You are among the most tireless, my dear :)

  5. Cliff
    November 27, 2013, 5:19 pm

    Really, support for Israel always comes down to the classic JSF debating rules.

    1.We rock
    2.They suck
    3.You suck
    4.Everything sucks

  6. seafoid
    November 27, 2013, 5:26 pm

    Well Zionist darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable
    and the lightness of justice has a call that’s heard to hear
    Especially in the US , ya haram

    But it’s getting louder

    I wrapped my indoctrinated fear around me like a blanket
    I sailed my AIPAC ship until I sank it …

    • Sumud
      November 27, 2013, 10:08 pm

      I sailed my AIPAC ship until I sank it …

      Haha I love Indigo Girls and listened to that album the other day for the first time in ages. Still great.

  7. just
    November 27, 2013, 8:44 pm

    I am so grateful to you Lena, and to the ASA and the professors.

    A Happy Thanksgiving to all. Your report and excitement is something that I am truly thankful for.

    More good news will certainly follow. It’s your time. Justice will come, I know it. People like you and the good people here are part of the solution.

  8. Les
    November 27, 2013, 8:54 pm

    The ASA sounds like an ideal institution to study the racist depiction of the Palestinians by the US media.

  9. mcohen
    November 27, 2013, 9:01 pm

    I think that comment no.12 made by robertaseid pretty much refutes not only bds but all those in support
    read it yourself

    • Ecru
      November 28, 2013, 3:36 am

      Nope sorry. It’s first few sentences are highly ironic and the rest is just the same old same old “ooh don’t pick on me” rubbish.

      …the resolution assumes Israel acts out of malevolence by stripping away all context for Israel’s actions. It does not mention the wars and terrorist campaigns unleashed against Israel since its founding…

      The ironic thing (in case you missed it) is that this statement misses out the context of the wars and “terrorist campaigns” against Israel.

      Statute 5 of the International Council for Science clearly states that it “opposes discrimination based on such factors as ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political or other opinion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, or age.

      Political opinion? So they would have been happy having Nazis as respected members of the Academic community? Stupid statement if true.

      Omar Barghouti, a BDS co-founder and leader, does not observe the academic boycott of Israel. In 2009, he enrolled in a PhD program at Tel Aviv University instead of pursuing the degree at a Palestinian university. When asked about this apparent hypocrisy, he declines to answer.

      So what? One person no matter how influential at starting the BDS campaign isn’t the whole of the BDS campaign. Or in your opinion should Zionism now be thrown under a bus because Stern wanted to be chummy with Hitler?

      Despite the manifestly far worse violations of academic freedom and students’ rights by multiple nations in the region and beyond, this resolution singles out Israel alone for opprobrium.

      Ahhh, the old “quick look over there” defense. OK, let’s say we decide to boycott the DRC. What happens next? The DRC responds by saying “oh this must be racism, why aren’t you boycotting Zimbabwe.” So we let the DRC off the hook and move on to Zimbabwe. But then Zimbabwe says the same thing “look over there at Burma.” And so we cancel BDS against Zimbabwe and try Burma who then looks us square in the eye and says “No we will not accept this singling out of the only Burmese nation, look at what Israel’s doing to the Palestinians”. And lo and behold nothing gets done anywhere.

      The Hamas-controlled Ministry of Education…..YADA YADA YADA

      Irrelevant. Oh and …… context?

      And it goes on. Frankly there’s so much stupidity in this idiots comment that I feel sorry for her students and wonder how she ever got an academic career in the first place. Actually strike that – some of the most stupid people I ever met were academics.

      Oh and I love comment #16

      Knowing that undoubtedly some ASA members who support this resolution are Jewish, I would not level a charge of anti-Semitism against its backers. However……

      So not charging people with anti-semitism but then charging them with it. Classic.

      As a veteran of the civil rights movement in the United States, as well as the anti-Vietnam War movement….

      YAWN! Typical PEP then. It still amazes me people think that “ooh I’m for universal human rights except for those icky people over there” gives them any points except for stunning hypocrisy.

  10. Blaine Coleman
    Blaine Coleman
    November 27, 2013, 10:30 pm

    Thank you, Lena,

    It’s wonderful to think of people showing open, public defiance against Apartheid Israel, and voicing open demands for boycott against Israel.

    I am still waiting to see that happen on a U.S. campus this semester. Once students voice those boycott demands publicly, they will be unstoppable.

  11. James Canning
    James Canning
    November 28, 2013, 4:24 pm

    Very interesting report. I think more Palestinian activism on US college campuses is actually in Israel’s own true best interests.

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