The saga of the American Studies Association’s Israel boycott continues to get more dramatic. The ASA has recently significantly retracted (or reinterpreted) the academic boycott of Israel it adopted earlier this year. It now claims that Israeli scholars and representatives of Israeli institutions are welcome at its annual conference.

The University of Haifa is putting this to the test.  The school is sending an official representative to the conference, which will be held at the Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles, Nov. 6-9. The University’s announcement said:

We expect that there will be no interference in our representative’s full participation in the ASA conference. Home to several prestigious programs in American Studies, including the Center for the Study of the United States and the Ruderman Program for the Study of American Jewry, the University of Haifa is considering expanding its presence in the field. Consequently, the Rector of the University, Professor David Faraggi, has appointed a representative to attend the ASA conference.
[Prof. Faraggi said:] “We are sure that our representative will return from the ASA conference with important new insights about American society and culture and new contacts that can serve as a basis for collaborations…”

This puts the ASA on the spot. By their recent statements, there should be no problem with the Haifa academic attending. (Perhaps, depending on his position, his name tag will be left blank, but this will only further highlight the absurdity of the un-boycott.) If this is what all the allegedly path-breaking ASA action amounts to, it is a silly and neutered act.

On the other hand, the ASA may not be so happy to have the Israeli representative in attendance. For one, Haifa is one of the institutions whose supposed crimes the group invoked in justifying their boycott. Moreover, allowing representatives of Israeli schools to attend seems to contradict the boycott policy they adopted in February, before they recently “clarified” in response to lawsuit threats. But this means they are now implementing a policy that has not been approved by the membership. As one ASA member, UVA’s Prof. Siva Vaidhyanathan wisecracked, “I don’t even know what I voted against now.”

How the whole situation plays out will be interesting to see – but also hard to, as the ASA has, in apparent anticipation of such an embarrassing situation, greatly restricted press coverage of the event. In a press policy that looks like it was written by the Soviet Intourist, journalists or news agencies focussed on Israel or Jewish affairs will be not be eligible. One higher education reporter told me that while he himself meets the criteria for admittance, he had not seen such elaborate vetting requirements in other academic conferences.

One hopes that reporters will not be deterred by these registration requirements, and understand that behind this bureaucratic obstruction likely lies a good story, and one that with Haifa’s announcement has just gotten better.