Academic Freedom in the Era of Trump

By Sunaina Maira, author of Boycott! The Academy and Justice for Palestine

This guest post is part of the ASA blog series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Studies Association in Chicago, IL Nov. 9-12—and as part of blog series of contributions by authors in the new series American Studies Now.


Something unthinkable happened in the United States in the last few years: hundreds of academics, senior scholars, graduate students, and untenured faculty came forth in support of an academic boycott of Israel. Beginning in 2013, the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions expanded rapidly with one major academic association after another endorsing the boycott and adopting resolutions in solidarity with the Palestinian call for an academic boycott.

But this movement emerged several years after Palestinian academics, intellectuals, and activists called for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel in 2004—and after years of military occupation, failed peace negotiations, ever-expanding and illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, ongoing home demolitions, the building of the Israeli Wall, repression, and military assaults. All of these events and the military occupation of Palestine itself have been endorsed, defended, and funded by Israel’s major global ally, the United States. The academic boycott and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement are thus embedded in a significant aspect of the U.S. political and historical relationship to the Middle East, and in a particular, cultural imaginary of Palestine, Palestinians, and Arabs in general, that has become an increasingly central concern of American studies.

I consider this progressive-left academic solidarity to be a potential expression of academic abolitionism. The notion of academic abolitionism is not focused on redeeming the U.S. academy—just as it is ultimately not focused on redemption for the U.S. imperial state—as much as it is ongoing beyond the liberal discourse of academic freedom to highlight other kinds of freedoms, and un-freedoms. The boycott of Israeli academic institutions that are complicit with occupation and apartheid is only one component of a larger politics of refusal grounded in academic abolitionism. An abolitionist view challenges the complicity of the U.S. academy with global militarism, carceral regimes, and settler colonial circuits of power, in which Israel is a key player.

Indeed, the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Trump’s victory spurred more vigorous and vocal progressive mobilization on campuses and in communities, with solidarity campaigns binding together movements against police violence and militarization, and for racial justice, immigrant rights and sanctuary, gender and sexual rights, indigenous sovereignty, environmental justice, and freedom in Palestine. The historic Women’s March in January 2017, which mobilized masses of people to come out in the streets against Trump after his inauguration, was called for by prominent feminist activists such as Angela Davis and Palestinian American Linda Sarsour, who have advocated for BDS as part of a feminist politics. The International Women’s Strike on March 8, 2017, explicitly included a call for “the decolonization of Palestine” in its platform, and for the dismantling of “all walls, from prison walls to border walls, from Mexico to Palestine.” These campaigns build on the solidarities that were created in previous years as the BDS movement made linkages with Black Lives Matter, the antiwar and prison abolition movement, labor unions, faith-based activists, and feminist and queer groups.

As “White supremacy” became a term permissible in discussions on major cable news networks about Trump and his alt-right followers, there were also growing conversations about Zionism, the ways it can become imbricated with anti-Semitism on the right, and the need to challenge racial supremacy and White privilege. Palestine has become central to all of these major contemporary debates and resistance movements. Omar Barghouti writes about the struggle for liberation, equality, and dignity waged through BDS:

The global BDS movement for Palestinian rights presents a progressive, antiracist, sophisticated, sustainable, moral, and effective form of nonviolent civil resistance. It has become one of the key political catalysts and moral anchors for a strengthened, reinvigorated international social movement capable of ending the law of the jungle and upholding in its stead the rule of law, reaffirming the rights of all humans to freedom, equality, and dignified living.

Our South Africa moment has finally arrived!

There really is no turning back.


Sunaina Maira is Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis.

Boycott! is available now as an e-book, and forthcoming in print.


Debuting at ASA 2017: American Studies Now, a New Series

Taking the 2017 American Studies Association conference by storm the new series edited by past presidents of the ASA American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present offers short, timely books on the issues that matter today.

“We need new ways to publish and distribute the work of American Studies scholars. The monograph and the journal article have a crucial role in our field, but they aren’t serving us well in the undergraduate classroom. And they aren’t putting our work into circulation in the pressing, scary political present. This new series is one new way to address those needs — short, accessible books on Black Lives Matter, climate change, neoliberalism, BDS, the continuing urban crisis, indigenous politics, queer and trans issues, the crises in higher education and more. They are designed to provide timely, provocative analysis for teaching, for activism, and for engagement now.”—Lisa Duggan, past president of the American Studies Association & co-editor of American Studies Now

Much of the most exciting contemporary work in American Studies refuses the distinction between politics and culture—focusing on historical cultures of power and protest on the one hand, or the political importance of cultural practices on the other. With a short production schedule, the titles in American Studies Now are able to cover these political and cultural intersections while such teachable moments are at the center of public conversation.

“Given the constant rush and hum of information in our social media saturated worlds, it’s easy to get stuck in the here and now in ways that make it difficult to take a critical perspective on where we are and how we got there. So American Studies Now reflects not only the urgency of the questions raised by each volume in the series but also suggests what we mean by critical histories of the present — scholarship that helps readers think about contemporary problems in terms of their larger historical, social, and cultural significance.”—Curtis Marez, past president of the American Studies Association & co-editor of American Studies Now

Learn more about this exciting, new series in this Q&A with series editors Lisa Duggan and Curtis Marez, and visit UC Press at booth 405 to browse the books. Heading to the conference? Be sure to check out the following session:

  • American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present
    Fri, November 10, 4:00 to 5:45pm
    With UC Press Executive Editor Niels Hooper, series editors Lisa Duggan and Curtis Marez, and series authors Scott Kurashige, Sunaina Maira, Barbara Ransby, Shelley Streeby, and Macarena Gomez-Barris
    View session details here

For more author sessions at ASA, and to see what else we’ll have on view, head here.