ASA conference draws criticism from pro-Israel groups

March 3, 2014

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A conference, organized by the American Studies program at NYU, sparked controversy as it attempted to answer questions that arose after the Americans Studies Association endorsed a boycott against Israeli academic institutions. The title of their conference, held from Feb. 28 to March 1, was Circuits of Influence: U.S., Israel and Palestine.

Andrew Ross, director of the NYU American Studies program, said the conference sought to explain the United States’ relationship with the region.

“The conference brought together scholars in American Studies and Middle Eastern Studies to discuss the history of geopolitical relations between the U.S., Israel and Palestine,” Ross said.

According to the conference’s program, various panels, lunch workshops and film screenings made up the event. Lisa Duggan, social and cultural analysis professor and president-elect of the ASA, was one of the panelists at the conference.

Several organizations, such as the AMCHA Initiative, perceived the conference to be anti-Israel and one-sided. The AMCHA Initiative is an organization that combats anti-Semitism on university campuses across America.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder of AMCHA Initiative, said the ASA’s conference is not about scholarship but instead it is about political activism.

“The problem is that they’re using their university position and their university freedoms, the privileges that they have as faculty members and the resources that they have as faculty members, to promote their own personal political agenda directed against the Jewish state,” Rossman-Benjamin said.

NYU President John Sexton issued a statement condemning the boycott.

“Our provost and I have made our opposition to boycotts of Israeli academics and universities clear, both in response to the recent American Studies Association vote and in the past,” Sexton said. “Our rejection of these calls for boycotts stems from our belief that it contravenes a key principle of academic freedom: the right of scholars to freely associate.”

Sexton did not cancel the conference because he said he wanted to allow academics to pursue their scholarship, regardless of which ideas were being discussed.

CAS senior Avital Kaplan and CAS junior Kendra Meisler, the co-presidents of NYU’s Gesher Israel Club, said in an email that the conference was only about reiterating an opinion as opposed to having a dialogue about the issues.

“We are saddened and disappointed that NYU, whose administration formally denounced the ASA boycott, would sanction such hateful, close-minded rhetoric on university property,” they said.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 3 print edition. Ann Schmidt and Kavish Harjai are news editors. Email them at news@nyunews.com.

*In an earlier article, the conference was wrongly identified as the ASA’s annual conference. WSN regrets this error.

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