Every few months, I receive an email or phone call from a member, asking for advice about a politically complicated campus issue. In many cases, these matters relate to Israel; frequently, it pertains to a speaker invited to campus, whom there is pressure to disinvite, or who has been treated disrespectfully, or who threatens to test the limits of academic freedom through offensive language. In some cases, the member just wants advice on how to handle the situation. Other times, there is a request for AJS to issue a public statement about the matter.
The question of whether AJS should take public stands on political issues, especially about Israel, is one that has taken up a good amount of time at board meetings. The most intensive discussions occurred in 2013, when the American Studies Association passed a pro-BDS resolution. Like other learned societies, AJS's leadership struggled with how to respond to a boycott movement that threatens Israeli academics, several of whom are members. On the one hand, there was consensus on the board that academic boycotts violate principles of academic freedom, as laid out in the American Association of University Professors' (AAUP) statement opposing academic boycotts. On the other hand, there were diverse opinions on the board about Israel, and our own discussions at board meetings began to go down a path that would have taken us far afield from Jewish Studies.
Ultimately, the concern was that getting involved in political matters, domestic or foreign, could swallow up the work of AJS, and overtake our main priorities—to serve our members and the field. We could all cite other societies that had morphed into advocacy organizations more so than academic associations, which had the effect of alienating a good number of their members and diluting their impact on scholarly matters. The board thus sought to steer AJS away from such a path, while at the same time voicing its opposition to academic boycotts. On December 20, 2013, AJS's leadership passed a resolution, affirming the principles of academic freedom and endorsing the AAUP's statement on academic boycotts.
AJS makes a clear distinction between scholarship and advocacy in our publications and conference, and likewise in the programs and services we offer. This approach can sometimes be difficult to uphold, in part because the vast majority of AJS leaders care deeply about domestic and foreign affairs, and have strong opinions about them; in part, because the dividing line between politics and academic affairs is not always a clear one; and for me, personally, as someone who spends most of her work life building programs that respond to member needs, it's difficult not to address challenging issues facing academics on campus. But we have a diverse membership, with a range of views on all sorts of topics, and to engage matters outside the scope of higher education and Jewish Studies risks cleaving what unites us—teaching and research.
AJS has not issued a resolution on academic boycotts or other matters since 2013. This is not to say we won't; but given the extraordinary amount of time it takes to draft, redraft, and come to agreement on such resolutions, and the very small staff we have to oversee such cases, we issue them carefully and selectively, on matters directly related to the profession, under circumstances where we feel we can have an impact (see for instance our "Statement on Hiring Practices," issued with the American Academy for Jewish Research). Likewise, the board may sign on to other learned societies' resolutions, if they meet the same standards of academic relevance and import.
This is not to say we can't help when members phone or email us. Quite the contrary, we are eager to. AJS leaders and I are available on an individual basis to guide members through difficult times, and help them navigate complicated situations on campus. I have learned much from watching our members maneuver through very choppy waters. And if I or a board member can't offer advice, then we can suggest someone else who can. So please reach out. This is just one of the many ways our association seeks to support its members.
Association for Jewish Studies