Attorneys: American Studies Association Packed Leadership With BDS Supporters

Lawyers claim emails show ASA violated own bylaws to pass anti-Israel measure

A tourist photographs a sign painted on a wall in the West Bank biblical town of Bethlehem
A tourist photographs a sign painted on a wall in the West Bank biblical town of Bethlehem (Getty Images)
November 13, 2017

The leadership of the American Studies Association (ASA) was "covertly pack[ed]" with professors known to be in favor of an academic boycott of Israel as part of a surreptitious effort to push the professional academic organization to adopt such a position, according to the legal team involved in a case challenging the boycott efforts.

Internal emails are alleged to reveal top ASA committee members "schemed to subvert the American Studies Association's National Council by limiting nominations to individuals affiliated with USACBI," or the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, an anti-Israel activist group. These candidates would then be trusted to promote and vote in favor of the ASA's boycott measure, passed in 2013.

These claims were outlined in a proposed second amended complaint filed last week by attorneys with the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, who are representing four former and current American Studies professors in a bid to demonstrate that the ASA violated its own bylaws as it successfully worked to pass an anti-Israel measure in Dec. 2013.

"Acting on behalf of the USACBI," ASA leaders are accused of having "misappropriated the American Studies Association's funding, name, prestige, membership lists, and respected institutional voice to suborn the American Studies Association to advance USACBI’s political interests," according to the document.

Five of the individual defendants who held ASA leadership positions have close associations with USACBI, either sitting on its advisory board or organizing collective, including Jasbir Puar, a Rutgers professor of women's studies; Steven Salaita, an academic who has blamed "Zionists" for his inability to find work; Sunaina Maira; Neferti Tadiar; and J. Kehaulani Kauanui.

Puar specifically "manipulated" the USACBI "takeover" of the ASA, according to the plaintiffs.

Puar—who published a book this month accusing Israel of purposely maiming Palestinians—while serving on the ASA nominating committee from June 2010-2013, allegedly ensured "only signed supporters of USACBI were nominated for American Studies Association President," according to the plaintiffs.

No presidential nominees were affiliated with USACBI prior to 2012, the proposed amended complaint stated.

"It is statistically impossible that this is random," Jennie Gross, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, told the Washington Free Beacon.

Alex Lubin of the American University of Beirut, nominated for the ASA national council by Puar, allegedly wrote in one of the uncovered emails, "In my conversations with Jasbir it's clear that the intent of her nominations was to bring more people who do work in, and are politically committed to . . . the question of Palestine . . . we were nominated in order to build momentum for BDS even though the question of BDS in American Studies Association may or may not emerge while we’re on the council."

According to the plaintiffs, Puar also helped ensure candidates' ties to USACBI "should not be disclosed to the general American Studies Association membership."

Even so, the USACBI-affiliated academics retained close ties with the anti-Israel movement while at the ASA, as seen in their successfully petitioning USACBI founder Omar Barghouti to assist them in writing materials for the boycott campaign, according to the proposed complaint.

Gross said that she asked defendant and ASA Executive Director John Stephens if he was aware of USACBI during his deposition.

"He said no," said Gross. "Then he volunteered that he has since gone to the [USACBI] website and seen a great deal of overlap in officers involved in passing the resolution and names on the USACBI boycott proposal. Through a simple search, he noticed the same thing we've proven."

The defendants are also accused of having "refused to post or circulate [to ASA members] letters and other information opposing the boycott."

ASA leaders allegedly discussed over emails how to put together the money to bring in Palestinian activists to give anti-Israel talks to members. Those conversations also suggested that pro-Israel speakers would not be invited.

Defendant Chandan Reddy, who has served on both the ASA national council and executive committee, allegedly wrote that ASA leaders taking such action "could be seen as 'stacking the deck.'"

Gross said the team will be looking at ASA loss of revenue that followed the vote, which might give a quantified understanding of how widespread academic condemnation of the boycott led to "sharp decline in the value of associating with the organization."

"The members of the ASA national council who were also members of USCABI did not put the interests of ASA members first," said Gross. "They had dual loyalties, and they placed their loyalties with the boycott."

Gross noted that these revelations were uncovered after sifting through only half of the thousands of documents the defendants have produced since mid-October. She said her legal team is still waiting on thousands more, months after the court order was made for the defendants to produce the documents.

The ASA remains the largest North American faculty association to adopt a pro-BDS position, though repeated attempts have been made to do the same at the Modern Language Association, American Anthropological Association, and the American Historical Association.

The attorneys for the defendants did not respond to request for comment.

Published under: College Campuses , Israel