University of Hawai’i faculty responds to administration’s condemnation of ASA boycott resolution

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

The following statement signed by 31 University of Hawai’i faculty members is in response to the University administration’s condemnation of the ASA resolution in support of the academic boycott of Israel:

February 23, 2014

An Open Response to the UH-M Administration’s Condemnation of the ASA Boycott Resolution

ASA-logo-tiff-1-copyThis month, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Chancellor Tom Apple and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs (VCAA) Reed Dasenbrock added their voices to the chorus of university administrators who have publicly condemned the resolution passed last December by the American Studies Association to support the call from over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations to boycott Israeli educational institutions. The majority of these condemnations were issued in December or early January, and the newly released UH statement is itself dated December 23, 2013.

We write to register our strong opposition to this condemnation. The statement by the Chancellor and the VCAA is made in the name of a commitment to dialogue and academic freedom, but we find these grounds questionable.

Many of us who have signed onto this letter have already communicated our objections to a statement of condemnation, and to the arguments our administrators make. Although we had not yet seen the statement when we met with the VCAA in January, we sent letters to the Chancellor and the VCAA starting in December responding to the most predictable criticisms of the ASA resolution: that it singles out Israel; that it is inappropriate for a scholarly organization to take a political position on Israel; that it punishes individual Israeli scholars and threatens academic freedom by limiting scholarly exchange. Because these charges are as common as they are easily refutable, we provided responses to them in our communications to the Chancellor and the VCAA, supported by links to work by well-respected American Studies scholars. We also pointed to the language of the resolution itself, and to the statements and resources provided from the ASA that answer fully and carefully to these common misunderstandings and false allegations.

Our communications to our administrators are reflected nowhere in the letter released this February, and indeed the retroactive date of the letter suggests their disregard for our communications. Nor does the letter provide any acknowledgment of the environment that makes possible the kind of hate mail which some of us are receiving, which is documented here: The statement also does not engage the hundreds of letters and articles that have been written these past few months by American studies scholars (some of whom specialize on Israel/Palestine), Palestinian colleagues, and various public intellectuals who explain how and why the resolution focuses on Israeli academic institutions not individuals, and how this does not impede academic freedom, but a few quotations will suffice.

The UH administration charges that the ASA has “singled out” Israel. They wonder why the ASA did not focus on North Korea, or Saudi Arabia. This question has been asked of, and answered by, the ASA many times, and the same question has been put to Modern Language Association president Marianne Hirsch for “allowing” a panel at the 2014 MLA convention on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement. We here cite one response by Bernard Avishai, Adjunct Professor of Business at Hebrew University, who splits his time between Jerusalem and New Hampshire. Although no proponent of academic boycott, he nonetheless provides a strong response to the often-asked question, “Why focus on Israel when other countries are so much worse? Isn’t this a double standard?”:

And the answer (which we need to hear more often) is: No—this is a single standard; the question is whether Israelis really wish to be judged by it. When Chris Christie is caught using the powers of the state to muscle political opponents, you don’t expect him to say, My God, why pick on me when Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is so much worse? You expect him to know he belongs to a world-historical club. You expect him to feel the shame.

Avishai continues,

Israelis expect to mingle and compete in the West like citizens of the world. They expect to be visited and invested in like Western states. They expect to be integrated into global markets with free trade agreements. They expect to be defended by NATO states and peace-keepers as custodians of democratic values. They cannot violate their terms and then plead that tyrannies—typically shunned or merely tolerated for tactical reasons—are worse.

George Bisharat, law professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, provides another response to this question, one that also refutes our administrators’ claims that a focus on Israel constitutes a failure on the part of the ASA to “exemplify scholarly research and inquiry”:

There has never been a “worst first” rule for boycotts. Activists urging divestment from apartheid South Africa were not racist because they failed to simultaneously condemn the demonstrably worse Cambodian dictator Pol Pot. Nor were U.S. civil rights protesters required to inventory the world and only protest if our nation exceeded the abuses of others. Boycotts are justified whenever they are necessary and promise results.

There are sound reasons that U.S. citizens should respond to the Palestinians’ appeal for support: Our country is Israel’s principal — and often sole — defender in the international arena. Our diplomats have vetoed more than 40 U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of Israeli practices, including illegal settlement of the West Bank. Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, upon leaving office, described shielding Israel as a “huge part” of her work.

…Discriminatory systems are inherently unstable, as the oppressed will continue struggling for equal rights, even against daunting odds. ASA members, who study, among other topics, American slavery and its demise, are acutely aware of such dynamics. Their entry to this vital discussion is therefore to be applauded — and emulated by others.

In addressing the question “Why Israel?” we can provide further answers from our particular location. The Chancellor and VCAA’s very question, and their condemnation, contradict UH’s stated commitment to being a Hawaiian place of learning. Through their statement they support academic institutions that participate in the denial of human rights, including the right to education, experienced by Palestinians who, like Native Hawaiians, live under conditions of occupation. Although the administrators’ statement, as it singles out ASA, does not reference similar resolutions recently passed by the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, or the Association for Humanist Sociology in support of the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli academic institutions, the language in these resolutions, as does the ASA’s, makes clear these resolutions’ relevance for Hawai‘i. When NAISA passed their resolution, they strongly connect the plight of Palestinians to that of other Indigenous peoples living under settler colonial state structures:

As the elected council of an international community of Indigenous and allied non-Indigenous scholars, students, and public intellectuals who have studied and resisted the colonization and domination of Indigenous lands via settler state structures throughout the world, we strongly protest the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the legal structures of the Israeli state that systematically discriminate against Palestinians and other Indigenous peoples.

So, too, the AAAS passed its 2013 resolution both as part of their “commitment to a critique of U.S. empire,” and also as an “act of solidarity with Arab (West Asian) and Muslim American communities, students, and scholars who have been subjected to profiling, surveillance, and civil rights violations that have circumscribed their freedom of political expression, particularly in relation to the issue of human rights in Palestine-Israel.” In condemning the ASA boycott resolution, the Chancellor and the VCAA put into question their commitments to indigenous rights and social justice for oppressed peoples here at home.

The administration’s second main point is that the boycott resolution “treats all the citizens of that country as if they represent the actions of that country” in a fashion that is “chilling, indeed Orwellian.” The resolution precisely and deliberately does not make this equation, and indeed the ASA has funded scholars from inside Israel to attend and speak at the ASA and will continue to do so. The administration makes this claim despite the language of the resolution and the many, many refutations of this claim that have been issued over the past few months, augmented by documentation of how Israeli institutions oppress not only Palestinian scholars and students but also, as we pointed out in earlier letters to both the Chancellor and the VCAA, Israeli scholars who dare to speak out against their government. We quote here from an article by prominent American Studies scholar Robin Kelley, in which he responds to Wesleyan president Michael Roth’s condemnation of the ASA resolution:

He [Roth] asserts that the ASA targets Israeli academic institutions merely for their “national affiliation.” This is not true. They are targeted for their complicity in the illegal occupation and government policies of dispossession, repression, and racism. He also claims that the resolution extends to individual faculty. It does not. It strongly condemns any attempts to single out and/or isolate Israeli scholars or any scholar of any nationality. On the contrary, the resolution and its authors encourage collaboration and dialogue, but outside the official channels of the Israeli state-supported institutions that continue to directly benefit from or support the occupation.

Kelley then goes on to meticulously document ways Israeli and Palestinian scholars have their academic freedom curtailed by Israeli universities and by the Israeli government, as he also makes clear that the resolution does not infringe on the academic freedom of American scholars. This piece by Roderick Ferguson and Jodi Melamed also analyzes in depth how for university presidents, “‘academic freedom’ has become a kind of mantra used to stifle debate and to squash oppositional critiques that result from scholarly inquiry.”

As we hope these few examples illustrate, despite their stated commitment to “engage in dialogue with everyone, not to shun the citizens of one nation alone as pariahs,” the letter from the Chancellor and VCAA reflects little interest in engaging with any ideas other than those expressed by their fellow administrators. Most egregiously, as they evidence their concern that Israeli citizens not be shunned, they do so in a way that excludes Palestinians from the dialogue they call for, even as their enlistment of Noam Chomsky cloaks their letter in a progressive covering. In their concluding call for dialogue and academic freedom, they invoke Chomsky, who they state has “opposed the action of the ASA.” This claim is not true: although Chomsky years earlier opposed academic boycott, it was on tactical grounds and he has not spoken out as an individual on the ASA resolution.  However, he has affirmed the resolution as part of a collective: the Jewish Voice for Peace, in their statement of support for the ASA resolution, names him as one of their active board members. Our administrators’ use of Chomsky is not simply careless in its inaccuracy. It also serves to cover over a crucial difference between the letter writers and Chomsky. However ambivalent Chomsky might be about academic boycotts, his support for Palestinian rights, and his insistence that Israel is in violation of them, has been steadfastly clear and unequivocal. By contrast, our administrators nowhere in their statement acknowledge Palestinian existence, let alone ways Palestinians’ academic and human rights are violated by Israel and with the support from the US of over three billion federal tax dollars a year in direct aid alone.

In concluding our letter, we turn once more to Robin Kelley, who responded to a statement very similar to the one made by our administrators:

The truth of the matter is that Michael S. Roth and many of the most high profile, vocal critics of the ASA resolution are less interested in defending academic freedom than defending the occupation, the expansion of settlements, the continued dispossession of land, the blockade of Gaza, the system of separate roads, the building and maintenance of an apartheid wall – no matter what the cost. Nothing in Roth’s editorial or similar statements directly criticizes these policies or suggests a different strategy to compel Israel to abide by international law and to end human rights violations. I don’t expect to persuade Roth or other university presidents to support the boycott, but I do wish they would come clean and admit that unconditional support for Israeli apartheid and occupation is not about academic freedom or justice.

As our administrators belatedly echo in their statement those made by “the most high profile, vocal critics of the ASA resolution,” they affirm their support for business as usual in the US academy and in the state of Israel, a country that the chair of the ANC, South Africa’s ruling party, recently stated is “far worse than Apartheid South Africa.” In issuing their statement, Chancellor Apple and VCCA Dasenbrock do not support, nor do they speak for, those of us who stand for an expansion of academic freedom in the United States and in Israel, and an end to human rights abuses experienced by Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Nor do they speak for all or even the majority of the UH community (faculty, students and administrators).

Hokulani K. Aikau, Associate Professor of Indigenous Politics, Political Science
Ibrahim Aoude, Professor of Ethnic Studies
Cristina Bacchilega, Professor of English
Monisha Das Gupta, Associate Professor of Ethnic and Women’s Studies
Cynthia Franklin, Professor of English
Candace Fujikane, Associate Professor of English
Vernadette Gonzalez, Associate Professor of American Studies
Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua, Associate Professor of Political Science
Ku‘ualoha Ho‘omanawanui, Associate Professor of English
Craig Howes, Professor of English
Reece Jones, Associate Professor of Geography
Noel Kent, Professor of Ethnic Studies
Karen Kosasa, Associate Professor of American Studies
Sankaran Krishna, Professor of Political Science
Laura Lyons, Professor of English
Paul Lyons, Professor of English
Davianna Pomaika‘i McGregor, Professor of Ethnic Studies
Jonathan Okamura, Professor of Ethnic Studies
Jonathan K. Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio, Professor, Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies
Gary Pak, Professor of English
Richard Cullen Rath, Associate Professor of History
John Rieder, Professor of English
Suzanna Reiss, Assistant Professor of History
Kathleen Sands, Associate Professor of American Studies
S. Shankar, Professor of English
Noenoe K. Silva, Professor of Political Science
Ty P. Kāwika Tengan, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Anthropology
Hector Valenzuela, Professor of Tropical Agriculture
Valerie Wayne, Professor Emerita of English
Mari Yoshihara, Professor of American Studies
John Zuern, Associate Professor of English

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

I hope ASA members everywhere are saving the hate mail. It would be instructive to post it all in an exhibit and not just on line. A travelling college and university show?

It’s interesting that they used the justification involving Israel being part of a group of nations which should be held to a higher standard–a “world historical club” which is mostly comprised of Western nations. There’s so much “down with us,” anti-Western animus in certain sectors of the academy–particularly ethnic studies. And to use this argument is to actually pay the West a compliment of sorts. Of course, maybe the professors didn’t see the implication of… Read more »

I too (Zionist yes, born in Brooklyn no) object to opposing BDS against Israel on the grounds of North Korea et al. being “worse.” I object to BDS on the grounds of its three explicit demands, two of which (concerning Arab citizens of Israel and refugees) are so far-fetched as to prescribe Israel’s destruction as the only acceptable outcome, i.e., violent conflict down to the last Israeli and Palestinian corpses.

the chris christie analogy was the first analogy the “answered” the charge of ASA critics and is so lame as to taint the entire debate about ‘answering’ the critics as ridiculous. If the US press focused as exclusively on Chris Christies GWB scandal to the almost complete exclusion of any other of the 49 states governors scandals-just as the UN, ASA, and all the BDS organizations focus exclusively on Israel -he certainly would have grounds… Read more »

I think this line is very telling: Through their statement they support academic institutions that participate in the denial of human rights, including the right to education, experienced by Palestinians who, like Native Hawaiians, live under conditions of occupation It is hard to imagine how a thoughtful liberalism can view the Kingdom of Hawaii in Exile as the legitimate government of the Hawaiian people. There are 0 native Hawaiians whom have ever lived under this… Read more »