The Association of Asian American Studies and the boycott of Israeli institutions

Photo credit: Reuters

Photo credit: Reuters

I recently received an e-mail from Dr. Jonathan Marks, who wrote an article in Commentary Magazine about the Association of Asian American Studies and its boycott of Israeli academic institutions. I became aware of this boycott through FB since I’m FB friends with lots of Asian Americans in academia. Dr. Marks mentioned in his e-mail that he was surprised that there seemed to be a complete lack of discussion regarding the resolution by the AAAS. If you read his Commentary article, he is also (rightfully) surprised by that they would even have a resolution on the Israel/Palestine conflict:

So evidently no one in Asian American Studies thinks it odd that an organization ostensibly devoted to the study of Asian-American communities has an official line on the Israeli-Arab conflict. The resolution’s drafters propose that the organization has jurisdiction over the conflict, which is, after all, taking place in West Asia. Some professors may be enchanted by this imperialistic suggestion. But all of them?

Nor does anyone in Asian American Studies see fit to deny that, in the resolution’s words, “the Association for Asian American Studies seeks to advance a critique of U.S. empire, opposing US military occupation in the Arab world and U.S. support for occupation and racist practices by the Israeli state.” While that view is certainly not unheard of in the academy, I believe that Asian American Studies is the first discipline to hold it unanimously.

Dr. Marks asked me to post about it, so here it is.

I am not surprised by the boycott. Supporting Palestine these days is a liberal position, and the AAAS is a liberal organization. Was I surprised that they may have been overreaching by addressing something that has little to do with Asian Americans? It’s complicated. I agree with Dr. Marks, but I also think that the AAAS is in an extremely tough position as they fight to stay relevant.

To understand the situation, one needs to look at the history of Asian American Studies and academia. Even though there are lots of intelligent Asian American Studies professors, there has always been a HUGE disconnect between what Asian American people need and what Asian American Studies institutions actually do. It’s not like other departments where the population and the institutions are generally aligned. I blogged about this when I first started blogging on the 44s, and I blogged about it four years later. There are some great teachers in Asian American Studies these days, but there are also some not-so-great teachers and some not-so-great politicians who mess things up for those great teachers. Because the whole notion of “Asian American” was created by hippies (unlike the concept of African American which probably extended back past the Civil War), its primary foundation is deconstruction and doubt, which means that it’s extra hard to get anything done without some wiseguy or wisegal nitpicking or thinking of some excuse for inaction. There’s a huge gender divide that still exists among Asian American academics, and people of various Asian ethnicities often fight because of historical injustices that extend far back in history. AAS organizations are often deadlocked since internally people disagree on so much. So when an “easy win” like the Palestine-Israel conflict comes along, people jump on it rather quickly.

Why hasn’t there been any discussion or anger after the fact? It’s because few people care. It’s not as if this decision is going to change things in the Middle East. It won’t affect funding for AAS, and I can’t imagine Israeli groups care that much about what an organization that represents a niche ethnic field thinks. Asian Americans outside of academia don’t care what the AAAS does, since most of us are hardly affected by them at all (since they’re often deadlocked on issues that matter). Plus, Asian Americans often distrust Asian American professors–fair or not, many of them feel that these are the people who forced Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, and David Henry Hwang on us. And academics who are involved with the AAAS, both the good and the bad…they’re just ecstatic that the AAAS finally can agree on something!

Think about it. The strongest statement that the AAAS could make is one that supports equality in college admissions for the people who most support Asian American Studies–Asian American college students. It would seem obvious that they would be positioned to fight affirmative racism. But we’ve seen time and time again that they fail to challenge racial policies in affirmative action. They fail to take a position that would help themselves. So when they’re silent on issues that affect us (and them) as Asian Americans, why would people care when they speak on issues that (for most intents and purposes) don’t?

Keep in mind that I’m writing only about political issues. In terms of making classes available, the AAAS serves a critical function for students. The fact that they’re there makes it easier for Asian American writers and artists to stay employed, and that’s something that I support 100%. But in terms of the political issues, they have a hard problem to deal with. People have mostly seen them as irrelevant, which is a horrible place to be if you’re fighting for funding and recognition. To summarize:

a) Asian American Studies organizations need to have political opinions to stay relevant.

b) They usually deadlock when they try to find agreement on issues that are relevant to their mission.

c) When they succeed on coming to some kind of consensus, people are just happy that they succeeded, even if their political position has nothing to do with Asian Americans.

So that’s why there’s no outcry. That’s why hardly any of us are speaking against the resolution or for the resolution. Asian American Studies has been broken for a long, long time. There’s just not a lot that people can do to fix the problem of how Asian American Studies continues to hurt itself. They’ve got some serious entrenched problems that will take a long time (if ever) to fix.

21 thoughts on “The Association of Asian American Studies and the boycott of Israeli institutions

  1. Any organization or individual can critique Israel and its policies, regardless of what they do or what their background is. I saw a lot of Blacks and Hispanics protesting with Palestinians on a march against the West Bank occupation a few years ago, calling it racist and oppressive.

    In the case of academia, I think AAAS have the right to protest/boycott another academic department/institution, whom they see it as bias or lacking in credibility, regardless of their own standing.

    I think most of us know by now, that AA studies aren’t of much significance. This discipline is broken because it doesn’t matter anymore. Many AAs want to be fully assimilated/accepted into American society, and not dwell on issues that have marginalize us. Do you want to be reminded again that we are seen as outsiders for the 100th time, because AA studies would do just that?

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful post, which I hope will elicit discussion. I would like to make three related points.
    1. You say in today’s post that “since AAS organizations are often deadlocked,” “when they succeed on coming to some kind of consensus, people are just happy that they succeeded, even if their political position has nothing to do with Asian Americans.” But your very helpful January 2008 post suggests that AAS organizations agree about certain things—they just happen to be negative things—“There is nothing wrong with being an academic, but the sheer lack of diversity of voices contributing to the dialogue limits the diversity of ideas. And because our “culture” is rooted in academic postmodernism, our “leaders” often take on typical hostile deconstructionist attitudes that hinder serious dialogue and progress. Rather than trying to understand and interpret history, many of our “leaders” attack history as sexist, racist, classist, or hierarchical, without a thought as to what history might be able to teach us.” So my claim would be that the resolution, combined with the lack of an accompanying debate, is part and parcel of the problem you diagnosed in 2008. Everybody agrees.
    2. But, you may reply, the agreement in this case is at least political, and “Asian American Studies organizations need to have political opinions to stay relevant.” I think it depends on what you mean by political. Let me go back to your 2008 post again. There you argue for programs that teach history and critical thinking because: “we need Asian American Studies departments that will teach our young people to learn from the past, rather than attacking the past. We need critical intelligent thinkers, not critical deconstructionist propagandists. The stakes are simply too high.” If I understand your post correctly, here, being political means that one learns to think, in a historically informed way, about the good for Asian-American communities (and ultimately for the whole national community). I think that’s distinct from staking out a position. Because the good of any community is usually a matter about which reasonable people disagree, and students need to learn how to negotiate and profit from disagreement, it seems to me that colleges and universities, while they may occasionally stake out positions on matters in which their expertise and interests are most implicated, have fostering inquiry as their primary mission. The bet they make, insofar as civic engagement is also a mission to which most colleges and universities are devoted, is that fostering a spirit of inquiry (while providing opportunities for civic engagement) will tend to produce thoughtful citizens or activists more often than it will produce complete disengagement or skepticism. I would differentiate this spirit of inquiry from the deconstruction and doubt your 2008 post criticized because deconstruction and doubt in that context are in the service of a political program that is itself not questioned.
    3. Lastly, let me say something about this statement: “Asian Americans outside of academia don’t care what the AAAS does, since most of us are hardly affected by them at all.” I think this is in some contrast with your 2008 post, which, while also suggesting that Asian Americans outside of academia are hardly affected by what academics do, also suggests that Asian American studies could play a much more constructive role than it presently plays. In my admittedly limited experience, colleges and universities can be changed by people who are determined to change them. Within academia (and remember my own post was about how surprising it was –and this is still true—that no professor of Asian American studies had uttered a peep of dissent), individuals can change one college or university which then can become an example for others. To those outside academia, I’d say that colleges and universities are more interested—though to be sure it helps to have deep pockets—in what their alums have to say than one might imagine. Moreover, academics are as responsive to flattery and shaming as everyone else, if not more so, so that intellectuals outside the academy also have an opportunity to influence intellectuals inside of it. On at least some days, I remain quite hopeful that colleges and universities can get better at fulfilling their stated missions.
    Sorry this is so long. Thanks again for posting.

  3. Dr. Marks,

    Thanks again for your comments. Again, I truly don’t disagree with anything you say. We’re in more or less total agreement. Except that I’m in a bit of a conundrum over expectations. 🙂

    As a philosophy professor, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the ethics of Kant vs. the ethics of Bentham, with Kant believing in a categorical system of ethics that was so strict that you’d be expected to tell the truth if you were hiding Jews from the Nazis in your house. At least this was what I learned while watching Sandel’s Ethics course!

    http://www.bigwowo.com/2009/11/justice-episode-6/

    In the same way that Nazis skew the ethical dilemma that comes about when the police ask you if you’re hiding people in your house, I think the situation with Asian American Studies skews what ought to be an easiER code of ethics or mores as to how such an organization should interact with the world. So on the three points:

    1. Yes, Asian American professors seem to agree on deconstruction. Even Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston, despite being on different sides of the direction of Asian American Studies, often agreed with the idea that deconstruction ought to be the primary goal. The question, of course, became what they ought to use as a replacement for the dominant Orientalist narrative of Asian Americans, once that Orientalist model is deconstructed.

    Frank Chin’s answer was HISTORY. Maxine Hong Kingston’s answer was something like “empathy” and “peace,” which is a non-answer, since it’s based on nothing concrete. Maxine won, which is why AAS is still in the state it’s in.

    But even though they all agree on deconstruction, it still ends up nowhere. Which is why again you’re right–it’s related to the resolution since they’re deconstructing America’s support for Israel.

    2. When I say political, I actually mean political in the worst sense, not the best sense. 🙁

    In the case of Asian American Studies, certainly most people in the profession believe in more funding for history, literature, and critical thinking.

    But in this post, I actually meant it in the sense of being political, or staking out a position.

    You see, here’s the thing about the way teams work. If you’re winning, you can win based on merit. Have an Asian American Studies program that informs its students so that its students can be world leaders in politics, literature, film, and art, and you’ve got it made! Imagine what would happen if Asian American Studies produced a lot of leaders in these fields. The ends would’ve justified the means. People would be throwing money at these departments. Produce more leaders! Do it again! Support our creativity!

    But the world hasn’t worked that way. Because of the aforementioned problems, the only success they’ve really had is in producing more professors, some of whom are good, others of whom aren’t so good. Everything else has been less successful.

    So if you’re not winning the production game, you have to be political. Controversial. You have to do something that gets attention, like boycott Israeli institutions. This way you remain relevant. If you’re not producing leaders, at least you can take the lead and draw attention to yourself!

    3. I hope you’re right about this. But it’s a cycle.

    As I mentioned in the original post, lots of alums don’t trust AAS organizations because of the Amy Tan/Hong Kingston thing, or at the very least, they don’t see them as important. Many people in AAS organizations are resentful for this lack of support, oblivious to the fact that this lack of support is due in large part to the perceived lack of quality of output. The biggest AA book in the last few years was Amy Chua’s book about Tiger Moms, and her success was due in large part to the fact that she’s married to a White guy and was writing primarily for a White audience.

    Personally, I think we just need one big success that can get people thinking about Asian American issues. Hopefully we’ll keep trying and will eventually succeed!

  4. Keep in mind that although I agree with Dr. Marks, I’m also not necessarily coming down hard on Asian American Studies either. I’m sure every professor in Asian American Studies wants at least some of his students to become world leaders outside of academia. But the goals didn’t pan out exactly according to plan, and so the question they’re left with is:

    Okay, now what?

  5. Why are you so afraid, bigWOWO?

    It’s very natural for people of color to recognize a system of oppression where a lighter-skinned people oppress a non-white population as in the case of Palestine. Bibi Netanyahu’s ancestors came from Europe. Yet he claims he has a birthright to be in the country which his state has ethnically cleansed not once – but twice – the indigenous population.

    Furthermore, I get the feeling you’re afraid of upsetting the power centers of this country. You know very well that Arabs have low status, Jews have high status.

    To take a stand against a violent and blood-based nationalistic movement which is Zionism in a country like America is a brave act. The AAAS took a brave stand.
    You, on the other hand, did not.

    Finally, try to educate yourself on the situation. Read the draft that was sent to the AAAS. There’s racial apartheid even within pre-1967 Israel. Universities have actively tried to limit the amount of black people in that country. Would you support that in America? Why do you think it’s okay in Israel? Because it doesn’t concern you since you don’t live there? Well, American tax payer dollars, including yours, flow in the billions each year to a country that has a per-capita income which is 5 times greater than China’s. Israel is no poor country.

    Furthermore, Israel is a country whose interior minister in 2012 stated that “Israel belongs to us, the white man”. Google that exact phrase. He isn’t in the government anymore but not because he was fired. Nothing happened when he said that.

    His boss, Bibi Netanyahu, said nothing and did nothing. Netanyahu himself has called Arabs, an ethnic minority “a demographic timebomb”. Would you like a country where the president representing the ethnic majority called Asians an ‘demographic timebomb’ that is threatening the white majority?

    No, because that is vitriolic racism. I’m frankly ashamed that you would grovel the way you do. As a PoC, you should know better. You ought to act better. And take a more informed and courageous stand than the kind of boot-licking you’ve been doing here.

  6. Why are you using so many different user names, Asian renewal/Facts be known/Amused/Thak/Huh? Can’t you just stick to one name?

    I googled that very phrase, and as expected, a very ambiguous link came up:

    http://honestreporting.com/racist-quote-mistranslated-by-haaretz/

    It reminds me of that quote by Rick Santorum about not getting the smart people–a quote most likely taken way out of context, good for giggles, but not good for substantive argument. I’m guessing it’s the same deal with “demographic timebomb.”

    But that’s only part of the point. The main point is that there is that the AAAS ought not to get involved in issues that they:

    a) aren’t intimately knowledgeable about, and

    b) take place outside of their field of study

    It would be like AAAS taking a stance on austerity in Greece. Sure, people ought to be free to debate it, and individuals can voice their own views, but it’s beyond the scope of their work to actually take a political stance on it. And there are so many other views (it’s not black and white as you seem to think), that it’s irresponsible, not just to the people about whom they have the views, but also to their own constituents who may or may not share those views or even want to have a view on something outside their field.

  7. BigWOWO, no offence, but get educated.

    Your link is from a right-wing Zionist website dedicated to Israel. What do you think they’ll dredge up?

    The citation is accurate, and it’s been confirmed by multiple Hebrew speakers on the web(all of whom live in Israel) who read the original interview in Hebrew.

    Your “argument” that it “doesn’t concern us” is disgusting. You’d never stand for the kind of blatant white supremacy that goes in in Israel where people can’t even marry who they want to based on their race. An Arab inside Israel is legally barred by marrying an immigrant who is Arab but a Jew inside Israel can marry a Jew from abroad.

    Why? Because of the racist policies of their government. Imagine if you were single and couldn’t marry an Asian woman from abroad. In fact, remember that the U.S. government tried that in the 1800s and early 1900s for Chinese men by denying that they marry white women AND denying that they can marry an Asian woman from abroad.

    Your “anti-racist” stance is a pure hoax. You only care for anti-racism when it affects people who look like you. I’m glad that the AAAS is not like you and that the Asian community is leading on this issue.

    We need less people like you. I’m truly revolted by your racial double standards and your sickening cowardice.

  8. It’s principle, dude.

    I didn’t say that YOU couldn’t have a stance. Obviously, you do (calling a website “Zionist” when you don’t agree with it, for example, without bothering to research details of what actually happened). But a larger organization has a bigger responsibility to its mission. It ought not to venture outside its field of expertise.

    “Your “argument” that it “doesn’t concern us” is disgusting. You’d never stand for the kind of blatant white supremacy that goes in in Israel where people can’t even marry who they want to based on their race. An Arab inside Israel is legally barred by marrying an immigrant who is Arab but a Jew inside Israel can marry a Jew from abroad. “

    You’re right. I PERSONALLY wouldn’t stand for that. I probably also wouldn’t stand for the violence perpetrated by some Palestinians as well.

    But that proves my point exactly. Notice that neither your comment nor my reply has anything to do with Asian Americans. You’re free to have your viewpoints, and I’m free to have mine, but an institution for Asian American studies needs to stick to the point. Otherwise it undermines its own mission.

  9. bigWOWO,

    Isn’t Palestine in Asia? Never having taken a Asian-American studies class, is it supposed to cover only East Asians or other parts of Asia? If there are people of Palestinian decent in the US, would they fit in Asian-American studies or something else?

    ^ I didn’t know Israel restricts marriage choices of Arabs?!!

  10. BigWOWO then we just disagree.

    For me, anti-racism crosses for all people. I’m not willing to put a blind eye on that kind of thuggish racism the way you are – just because the victims are not my immediate tribe/family.

    As I said: that means that you’re not actually anti-racist, it means you just care about anti-racism because you’re part of a culturally besieged minority which is vulnerable.
    It makes me wonder if you’d give a shit about racism if you’re a upper-middle class white with that mindset. Most likely not.

  11. “It makes me wonder if you’d give a shit about racism if you’re a upper-middle class white with that mindset. Most likely not.”

    Should read:

    “It makes me wonder if you’d give a shit about racism if you would have been a upper-middle class white with that mindset. Most likely not.”

    One final point, bigWOWO. The Asian community in America is taking a hugely and tremendously brave stance. Do not dismiss that stance! Also, I was sort of revolted the way you let that neoconservative right-wing Zionist just basically get away with racially stereotyping Asians the way he did – noticed his insitence of playing the ‘Asians all think alike, have no invidiuality’ card? Read his original post once again.

    Finally, the notion that Asians are whimps and/or cowards should finally be laid to rest. Opposing Zionism in America takes fucking balls, if you don’t mind my language. It’s the preferred racist ideology of the establishment.

    If you want to bootlick the establishment, defend Zionism. If you’re not a bootlicker of the establishment and an anti-racist, do what the AAAS did. And here’s another nugget: University of Berkeley recently passed a student government bill boycotting Israeli apartheid. Yes, Berkeley which is super-Asian.

    You’re being left behind in your callow cowardice, bigWOWO. Asian-Americans are no pushovers, and they’re not willing to stand for the kind of racist bullshit you’re excusing either.

    I look at them I see the future. Not only are Asians educating themselves at greater percentages they’re now also taking the moral leadership of the country.

    Funny, this was once how Jews were. They too once pointed out the moral sewer of the WASP establishment. But something happened along the way, and now this role is increasingly being played by Asians. But it’s not the WASP establishment. Now it’s the white establishment(WASP+Jewish).

    I’m personally super excited to see this happen. Finally we can get to see Asians taking a larger role in the American culture. But apparently that scares apologists for racism like you. I’m glad they move ahead of you, ahead of all Americans. They are the future of this country, morally and culturally and I’m glad they’re taking a stand.

  12. John,

    Israel/Palestine are in Asia. In fact, I’ve got a good Jewish friend who likes to tell people he was born in Asia!

    But no, it’s not considered Asian American. AAS classes usually don’t include the Middle East.

  13. Nicknuts:

    “For me, anti-racism crosses for all people. I’m not willing to put a blind eye on that kind of thuggish racism the way you are – just because the victims are not my immediate tribe/family.”

    Well, neither am I. To be honest, I’m not necessarily pro-Israel or anti-Israel. But that doesn’t change the fact that speaking out on every single multifaceted issue under the sun isn’t helpful to any successful organization. It would be like an organization whose purpose is to fight global warming speaking out on reparations for slavery. Certainly one individual can have opinions, but organizations (and corporations) aren’t individuals. They need to stick to their mission.

    As an anonymous internet commenter who uses lots of different sock puppets in lieu of having real friends in your struggle, you might have trouble understanding this. But you should know that it’s got nothing to do with my own personal views or whether people ought to have personal views, and it has everything to do with how effective organizations are managed. That is why “intellectualism” and “activism” are two different things. One is about knowing, the other is about being effective.

  14. Zionism is the liberation movement of the Jewish people. Israel is a Jewish state, and a far far more liberal, egalitarian, pluralisitic, and democratic society than the 50 or so Arab and Muslim states that surround it. Arabs live more freely in Israel than in any Arab or Muslim state. If you want to see an apartheid state, go to any of the Arab or Muslim states and ask non-Muslims or women or gays what they think. How many members of AAAS who voted for the unanimously approved resolution have been to Israel? The resolution, the accompanying explanation of the AAAS president, and the words of Nicknames are Us, are Jew-hating bigotry, and incitement to violence against Jews.

  15. Raguel, You beat me to it.

    Noah, your boat got lost. Your canned answer belongs in the thread extolling the virtues of European colonialism.

    I even met a Jewish guy (European descent) who feels the natives that were kicked out by the European settlers do not have a right to return to their homeland. Instead he was angry that the host countries were not doing enough to settle the refugees in their adopted country. Only in a European world such hubris exists. Hopefully, in the next decades Europe and its allies would come down a few notch, and Asian countries would dictate things.

    What is it about Europeans that they can’t seem to get along with anyone else? In every continent they are hell bent on exterminating the natives, and make a space for themselves.

  16. Do you guys not realize that the State of Israel was created because of European anti-Semitism, and its exclusivity which John Doe calls “not getting along with anyone else”? The Europeans were hell bent of oppressing Jews and displacing them whenever they saw fit.

  17. ^Yes Chr, I do know. Given all that doesn’t it make sense that Europe bear the burden of creating the state of Israel in their own European land and guarantee its safety instead of making someone else pay for Europe’s problem with racial harmony. Next time Europeans start having problem with the Catholics and start prosecuting them say in England, does that mean Europeans are going to start taking someone else’s land because they can’t get along with each other? Oh wait … that already happened, never mind.

  18. @john doe

    Anyone who thinks the way that israel is created is acceptable should be happy to give back New Nexico, San Diego and LA back to tge Mexicans.

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