In case you missed it, Wesleyan’s own Great Helmsman, Michael Roth, was all over the headlines during winter break for his crushing denunciation of the American Studies Association (ASA) and their decision to join the global academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The controversial op-ed ran in several major papers, including the Hartford Courant and the LA Times, drawing mixed reactions. Alums have responded with a petition, calling Roth out on his participation in anti-apartheid organizing at Wes in the 1970’s and critiquing his position. Roth has called the ASA resolution (it’s short, I encourage folks to read it for themselves) a “repugnant attack on academic freedom.” The ASA says their resolution is an act of scholarly solidarity with longstanding calls from Palestinian civil society for a boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against the Israeli state and the apparatus of occupation.
Roth’s basic argument is that the resolution restricts the “academic freedom” of scholars inside Israel and unfairly singles out the country. His critics have said that such restrictions are exactly what the resolution seeks to address, pointing out that the resolution in fact stresses greater dialogue with Israeli academics, albeit free of their official institutional affiliations.
The debate has caused quite a stir in American academia in recent weeks. Roth was not alone among university presidents in his scathing response to the ASA. Shortly after the decision was announced, CUNY’s president released a statement denouncing the resolution. Presidents of Amherst and other schools shortly followed. Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg cut ties with the organization entirely by canceling their institutional membership to the ASA. Trinity College president Jim Jones, just upriver, said they would do likewise. These presidents, under pressure from powerful donors and lobbyists, were unilaterally speaking on behalf of their entire school communities. Members of the Trinity faculty, outraged that the president spoke out in their name without consultation, released their own letter distancing themselves from the president and expressing support for the boycott.
As a result of the backlash, things have gotten pretty hairy for ASA members in recent weeks. The national organization reports that its members have been inundated with an “avalanche of abusive postings,” threats, and hate mail. Younger faculty have reported bullying and intimidation from their senior colleagues in retribution for their support of the resolution, while former Harvard president Larry Summers urged universities to cut funding for ASA member scholars to travel for academic conferences.
In an alarming (and probably super unconstitutional) development signaling that this backlash against the ASA has spread beyond academia, the State Senate of New York has passed a resolution barring the allocations of taxpayer money to the ASA or any academic organization endorsing the calls for boycott.
Meanwhile, back at Wes, the scene is no less ugly. Professor of Molecular Biology Bill Firshein sent a relatively sickening letter to a fellow Jewish colleague calling the esteemed scholar a “debased…fool” and accusing him of “polluting our gene pool” (students may remember Firshein from his super classy outburst at the Judith Butler lecture last year). Former American Studies professor Claire Potter, known on the internet as the Tenured Radical, has come out in support of the resolution after months of principled opposition. Current American Studies faculty have also been active in the decision; in fact Professor J. Kehaulani Kauanui, who serves as an elected member to the ASA National Council and sits on the ASA Academic and Community Activism Caucus, which crafted and introduced the original resolution.
Members of the Wesleyan community have not let Roth’s stance go unanswered. Wesleyan parent and UCLA professor Robin D G Kelley P’12 (heavyweight historian, prominent black radical, and general academic badass) called Roth out with a thorough point-by-point criticism of his basic arguments. Meanwhile, alumni have mobilized, following the lead of Tufts and other schools in organizing a petition accusing Roth of hypocrisy and contributing to a silencing McCarthyist atmosphere. As of now, the letter has gained dozens of signatories from four separate decades of Wesleyan graduates. The full text of their letter is below:
January 31st, 2014
An Open Letter from Wesleyan Alumnae/i to President Michael Roth,
To President Michael Roth,
As proud alumnae/i of Wesleyan University, and as advocates of Wesleyan’s progressive tradition, we the undersigned declare that President Michael S. Roth’s recent op-ed in the LA Times does not speak in our names.
Writing “as president of Wesleyan, and as a historian,” Roth denounced a recent resolution in support of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions by the American Studies Association (ASA), calling it “phony progressivism” and calling on academics to reject it as an “irresponsible attack on academic freedom.” Carolyn Karcher, professor emerita of English at Temple University, published a response to Roth’s editorial.
We, the undersigned — while we hold different individual views on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (or BDS) movement — reject President Roth’s understanding of progressivism and academic freedom. Among other omissions, his editorial did not address the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students, who are routinely denied access to teaching, travel, and free speech. It also did not address the academic freedom of American scholars who work with Palestinians, or who speak and write in support of BDS, although that freedom is now under threat in New York State and beyond. We fear a chilling environment akin to McCarthyism if respectful open dialogue is not permitted on this urgent issue facing universities worldwide.
As a historian, President Roth is surely aware of the important role of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions in the progressive struggle to end the apartheid state in South Africa. Indeed, while he was himself a Wesleyan student in 1978, Roth occupied the office of then-President Campbell in support of university divestment from South Africa. Roth belongs to the tradition of international solidarity campaigns against the human rights violations of specific nations, even though he now ridicules and rejects a campaign in that tradition.
President Roth does not speak in our names when he calls on academics to reject the boycott without first informing themselves of the issues and familiarizing themselves with the intellectually rigorous and democratically accountable manner in which the ASA, together with a growing number of academic organizations, reached their decision.
We at Wesleying will continue to cover the boycott, the backlash against the ASA, and the emerging discourse around this issue on campus. Check out this recent post on the issue and keep your eyes peeled for more in the near future.
Wesleying op-ed in support of Roth’s stance: A Misguided Boycott
Original ASA resolution: American Studies Association Resolution on Academic Boycott of Israel
Roth’s denunciation of ASA: Boycott of Israeli universities: a repugnant attack on academic freedom
Alumni response to Roth: An Open Letter from Wesleyan Alumnae/i to Michael Roth
Robin Kelly’s P’12 point-by-point critique of Roth: Defending Zionism under the cloak of academic freedom
Claire Potter’s change of heart: In surprise move, opponent votes to endorse ASA’s Israel boycott
Prof. Bill Firshein’s hatemail to colleague: How to fight academic bigotry
Boycott Divestment and Sanctions: Introducing the BDS Movement
Pressure on universities and local governments: Israel lobby launches fierce counterattack against American Studies Association
Censure of ASA from college presidents:
Harvard: Former Harvard president Larry Summers calls for boycott of ASA
Trinity: To the immediate attention of the president of the American Studies Association
Amherst: Amherst College opposes boycott of Israeli academic institutions
CUNY: Statement of CUNY interim chancellor William P. Kelly on American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli universities
Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg cut ties: Brandeis, Penn State Harrisburg quit ASA over Israel boycott
Association of American Universities: AAU Statement on Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions
Response from school communities:
Trinity faculty letter: Open Letter to Trinity College President and Dean
Wesleyan alumni petition: An Open Letter from Wesleyan Alumnae/i to Michael Roth
Tufts petition: Statement from Tufts Students and Alumni in Solidarity with ASA and Tufts American Studies