Quick Reactions: Kenyon Pulls Out of ASA

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Recently, the American Studies Association (ASA) chose to endorse an academic boycott on all Israeli institutions of higher education. In response, the American Studies department at Kenyon rescinded its membership in the ASA, and President Sean Decatur, in a written statement, rejected the principle of academic boycotts. Over the past two weeks, the Observer compiled reactions to the decision from students, alumni and professors. Their responses are posted here in the order in which we received them.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are solely those of each individual, and do not represent the editorial positions of the Kenyon Observer. Furthermore, each individual speaks on behalf of only themselves and does not represent the views of any organization or group.

Some responses have been edited for clarity.

Qossay Alsattari ’16

Regardless of where one stands on the issue of an academic boycott of Israel, we need to acknowledge the reason behind the ASA’s decision in endorsing the boycott movement: the Israeli occupation and its practices in denying academic freedom to Palestinian scholars and students. Thus, we need to recognize and not undermine the fact that Israeli academic institutions and scholars are not subjected to an occupation which grants them numerous privileges that Palestinians do not have.

Jess Lieberman ’14

While there is much to be said about the larger BDS movement that the ASA’s recent decision is a part of, political opinions about Israel aside, the proposed boycott of the Israeli academic community overtly violates the ideals of intellectual freedom upon which institutions like Kenyon are founded. The misguidedness of its fundamental suggestion that excluding a country from intellectual discourse is an appropriate way to bring about an expanded notion of social justice (wouldn’t the opposite to be true?) exposes the boycott as a thinly veiled attempt to isolate Israel and delegitimize its right to exist. This is made even more transparent and disturbing by the fact that Israel is the only target of such a boycott by the ASA. Further, even if one opposes Israel’s right to exist, it must be recognized that the proposition infringes upon the freedom of every academic in America and elsewhere by virtue of curtailing the free exchange of ideas—a value that spaces like this blog promote—as a result of an unfair double standard.

Sydney Watnick ’14

You know, I think it’s good that we have cut ties with the ASA. Academia has the power to start social change, as President Decatur poignantly mentioned in his blog about American studies as a discipline itself. I think in cutting ties we are starting a dialogue that is long overdue. This is a discussion I am eager to delve into and learn more about as I start my last semester as an American studies major at Kenyon.

Max Dugan ’14

I reject President Decatur’s juxtaposition of academic freedom and academic boycotts, because although freedom of ideas is essential to Kenyon, the intellectual products of our institution are valueless if they ignore sociopolitical injustice. I am hesitant regarding the ASA’s boycott of Israeli institutions of higher learning because it may not be the best way to address the injustices outlined in the third paragraph of the ASA’s statement on their boycott. However, the notion that the boycott’s error lies in its censorship may be a red herring intended to distract us from the persistently controversial ideological discussion regarding human rights violations in Israel-Palestine.

Fred Baumann
Professor of Political Science

The campaign to boycott Israel is part of a worldwide campaign to make Israel’s existence seem illegitimate. This campaign dishonestly singles out the only Jewish state, a democracy that affords its minorities rights undreamt of by it neighboring populations, in order to treat her as a pariah among nations, one beyond the pale of civilization. This campaign is indecent beyond words, and I congratulate President Decatur and Professor Peter Rutkoff for dissociating Kenyon from it.

Derek Foret ’17

Putting both the political and academic issues aside for a moment, I am completely bewildered by both the Kenyon Department of American Studies’ decision to withdraw from the American Studies Association, and President Decatur’s agreement with it. Whether or not this specific boycott and the political tool of academic boycotting is justified, withdrawing from the ASA seems to be counter-intuitive. The ASA states on their website that “the National Council further recognizes the rights of ASA members to disagree with the decision of the National Council” and that “the ASA exercises no legislative authority over its members.” As the ASA can not control what its members do, the act of withdrawing from the organization instead of staying in it and fighting against the resolution not only seems crybaby-ish (we didn’t get what we wanted, so we’re just gonna quit!), but seems to go against the very ideals of the free exchange of academic ideas that President Decatur talked about in his response. Furthermore, whether intentional or not, the decision to withdraw (as opposed to just disagreeing) seems to continue the trend of American overreaction whenever our relations with Israel are questioned.

Muhammed Hansrod ’17

Kenyon, by rescinding its membership in the American Studies Association (ASA), has done the very thing it opposes: it boycotts an academic organization. Although I disagree with ASA’s decision to boycott all Israeli institutions of higher education, I believe that Kenyon should engage with organizations that choose to protest against something for an informed reason. Conversations critical of Israel, or of any other country for that matter, should not be stifled.

Dan Kipp ’14

I probably don’t know enough to be commenting on this, but my gut reaction was critical. The competing forces here seem to be an abstract ideal of academic freedom and a concrete stance on a moral issue. To use the former as an excuse not to engage with the latter seems ethically flimsy to me, if not downright cowardly. However, to not support the academic boycott based on the belief that the boycott will be ineffective is another thing entirely.

Sam Bumcrot ’14

I don’t think that an academic institution or organization should take a controversial geo-political stance if it impedes the academic freedom of said institution or organization. I also don’t believe that Kenyon is taking a pro-Israel position by leaving the ASA. President Decatur simply wants Kenyon students to be able to follow their academic pursuits. If the ASA had decided to boycott Palestinian academic institutions and scholars, I am sure that the president’s decision would be no different.

Houda El Joundi ’16

I am all for the neutrality of educational Institutions. I know that once academics get in the middle of political conflict, they become tainted and lose their credibility. I think it is a transgression of the higher goals of learning to impose a biased, polarized perspective on students. It kills critical thinking and creates passivity.

However, I have to react differently to this boycott since Israeli institutions [themselves have] boycotted [others], actively engage in bias and discrimination against the Arabs of Israel, whether it is in terms of the quality of education, the funds provided, or the admission process, where a number of Israeli Arabs are denied entrance to some institutions of higher education. It is important to point out that these same institutions are prohibited by both domestic and international laws to discriminate against students (according to the Israeli Pupils’ Rights Law and UNESCO’s Convention Against Discrimination In Education).

Although various aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are far from being black or white, there are still specific laws and principles by which we have all agreed to operate. An infraction of these laws could call for drastic measures. [These are] measures that, when detached from their context, might seem regressive and sectarian, but when scrutinized within the conditions in which they were issued, might be justified and accepted. So, to sum it all up, as conflicted as my feelings are towards the whole thing, I think I will have to agree with the resolution that resulted in the boycott. As to Kenyon’s withdrawal, it is a decision that I wouldn’t have necessarily supported, but the American Studies department has chosen to dismiss the content of the resolution, and it has every right to do so. Kenyon is free to affiliate itself with whatever it perceives ideologically-fitting.

Lili Martinez ’13

From what I can gather, people are upset because it seems like the ASA is punishing Israel’s scholars — some of whom have been vocal pro-Palestinian voices — instead of addressing the real crux of the problem, which is the Israeli government’s abysmal treatment of Palestinians attempting to get an education. While I can understand that argument, it also seems strange to me that so many colleges were so quick to withdraw from the ASA following the announcement. After all, the intention was good: to draw attention to the abysmal human rights violations occurring in Israel against Palestinians. It seems to me that vehemently opposing the boycott also conveys the message that our institutions are not interested in talking about these violations by Israel because of the “special” relationship between our two countries, and to me, that’s just as bad, if not worse, than the “stifling of academic freedom” that they claim the ASA is causing.

Jennifer Nichols
Associate Professor of Arabic

First, I want to be clear that I am not a member of the American Studies Association and I don’t work in a field where, as a scholar, I would be a member. That being said, as an academic, I strongly support our ability to collaborate and work with scholars all over the world, regardless of the political practices of the countries in which they are based. I support academic freedom. I know many Israeli scholars, whom I have met at our annual Middle East Studies Association (MESA) meeting each year, who make valuable contributions to the field of Arabic language pedagogy. Without their contributions, my own research would suffer. If MESA were to follow a similar policy to ASA, we would not be able to support our colleagues’ academic freedom or research in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan — all countries where governments have committed human rights abuses.

Andrew Firestone ’14

Kenyon’s political rhetoric failed to consider the academic freedom of the Palestinian people through the lens of the occupation. At the end of the day the deeper subject matter here is not the ASA’s endorsement of the academic boycott of Israel, but the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. If folks are not prepared to have a critical conversation about “the context of US military..support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions, and the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students” (as listed in the ASA’s statement announcing their endorsement of the boycott), then they will be unable to understand the ethical position of the American Studies Association. As an American Studies major I am deeply disappointed by Kenyon’s misinformed political decision to withdraw its program from the ASA.

Daniel Harrison ’13
As someone who attended Tel Aviv University for the second semester of my junior year in college, I find this decision by the ASA to boycott Israeli institutions of higher education unfortunate. During my time at TAU I studied with and alongside Palestinians, many of whom roomed with American students in the dormitories. To say that they are not granted the right of education is simply false. Finally, this action seems to be a clear attempt at taking a political stance on the problem of Israeli-Palestinian relations, something that a true and open-minded educational organization should probably not be doing.

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