Soon after I started graduate school in history at Princeton University in 1970, I joined the American Studies Association and have been a faithful member ever since. I have served on the editorial advisory board of its distinguished journal, American Quarterly, and have contributed occasionally to it.
The ASA was chartered in 1951 and now has nearly 5,000 members in fields ranging from history, literature, religion and philosophy to anthropology, sociology, material culture, library science and museum studies. Membership is not limited to professors; members also include museum curators and directors, librarians and public officials.
When the ASA began, American culture’s role in international academic circles had ceased being the object of decades-long condescension by leading scholars of European history, literature, philosophy and so forth. Yet the ASA certainly contributed significantly to the steady acceptance of those American fields as finally being as important as their European counterparts.
In recent decades, the ASA has been at the cutting edge of several new specialities, and radically revised older ones. The otherwise overused term “Post-Modernism” best describes the ASA’s ethos today.
Nevertheless, the ASA’s embrace of the “newest new thing” in intellectual and theoretical terms has rarely led to any revisionist scrutiny of the often sordid realities of America’s own history: relentless racism long after slavery ended; persistent hostility towards immigrants, workers, women and gays; de facto imperialism in much of Latin America and in parts of Asia; and, not least, the horrors inflicted on Native Americans. Scholarly papers and articles, yes; but nothing more.
The ASA has now approved a boycott of Israel (that I voted against). The demonisation of Israel as a uniquely evil country is painfully familiar, as is the utter indifference towards the far worse violations of human rights elsewhere. One needn’t defend all current Israeli policies towards Palestinians to acknowledge this fact of life.
But this wilful blindness towards every other country’s human rights problems reflects, at heart, a rarely acknowledged real agenda: a hatred of not just Israel but of Judaism overall, often expressed in the perverse insistence that there is no difference between Nazi Germany and contemporary Israel. Israel must be crushed, just as Nazi Germany was crushed.
I recall the revelations found in the latest book by the eminent US historian Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America, The Conflict of Civilizations 1600-1675. In a generally depressing account of endless sickness, death, war, and religious and cultural conflicts, it is revealing that white settlers’ greatest savagery towards Native Americans occurred when the latter were deemed the Anti-Christ – as were, to be sure, some white religious dissenters as well.
It is not, alas, much of a stretch to see the ASA and other boycotts of Israel as deriving from a similar climate of opinion.