Imagine this: an organization called the American Studies Association, which was chartered by the Congress of the United States of America, and which is based in Washington, D.C., and which is composed of American scholars at American universities teaching American students about America, decided in 2013, that it should declare that it would – and all other U.S. academic institutions should – cease to deal with any Israeli academic institutions.
Got that? Don’t you think a boycott of Israeli academics is what professors of American history, American culture, American literature should have as their organization’s mission? No?
If not, it turns out that four distinguished members of the ASA agree with you. And so does the organisation’s actual mission statement. That’s why those four members announced today that they are suing the ASA, charging that the blatant politicization of their academic association violates District of Columbia (D.C.) law governing nonprofit organizations.
“Until a handful of zealots hijacked our learned society, the ASA was the leading organization for the study of American culture,” stated Professor Simon Bronner, one of the plaintiffs. “Yet in 2013, in marched a handful of anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists and suddenly ASA is an organization of social change pushing a narrow political agenda.”
According to the plaintiffs – all four of whom are professors who teach American Studies – the boycott adopted by ASA in December 2013 was a concerted effort by a small number of BDS activists, including founding members of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), who used their leadership positions in ASA to make anti-Israel activism the central focus of the Association.
ASA’s stated mission – obviously and literally – has nothing to do with boycotting a foreign nation and thus the suit alleges its adoption violates the law that governs nonprofit corporations. These laws prevent organizations from engaging in activity that ignores its raison d’être, according to its own incorporating documents. An example: an organization created expressly as a charity to benefit the disabled cannot, because of these laws, take its donors’ money and decide it wants to instead promote fracking or protest animal cruelty.
The Complaint was brought against the people who are, or recently were, officers of the ASA, and who have used their positions to redirect the erstwhile scholarly organization.
In the allegations filed Wednesday, April 20, the plaintiffs explain: “The Individual Defendants’ goals have nothing to do with the promotion of scholarship and everything to do with the advancement of their own political views, and their goal in hijacking the ASA is to use it to advance those views, not to advance the study of American culture.“
When the boycott was initiated, ASA’s constitution stated that “[t]he object of the association [is] the promotion of the study of American culture through the encouragement of research, teaching, publication…about American culture in all its diversity and complexity.”
The lawsuit charges that a boycott of another country is outside the scope of ASA’s charter and is the antithesis of promoting knowledge. ASA’s constitution goes on to say that ASA’s goal is “the strengthening of relations among persons and institutions in this country and abroad devoted to such studies.” According to the Complaint, the boycott does the exact opposite: it affirmatively excludes an entire country and its academics.
In addition, as a tax-exempt nonprofit, ASA reports annually to the Internal Revenue Service. In its IRS documents, the Association continues to describe its mission as “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history,” with its “exempt purpose – advancing the Study of American Culture.” Plaintiffs allege that the academic boycott of Israel is clearly outside of this stated mission and purpose. Sounds right, doesn’t it?Lori Lowenthal Marcus