This post is an update on the upcoming vote to boycott Israeli universities at the American Anthropological Association (AAA). For previous coverage, see here and here.

As a reminder, at the Denver meeting on November 20th, attendees passed a resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. The resolution is now being voted on by the general membership, starting April 15, through May 31.

Passage of a boycott means, among other things, that AAA will not cooperate with Israeli universities or the Israeli Anthropological Association (IAA), will not supply journals and databases to them and will not allow graduates of Israeli universities to partake in career fairs. It calls upon its membership to do the same, and more: e.g. not attend conferences at Israeli universities, not accept grants from them; this in addition to the “common sense” boycotts that are probably already in place.

By doing this AAA would officially join the Palestinian nationalist Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

This would constitute a giant leap towards throwing Anthropology’s lot with other marginal academic associations, like the American Studies Association (ASA) and the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA), in hollowing out what was once a distinct discipline and replacing it with political advocacy. Remarkably, the more these disciplines progress down this path, the more similar they all seem to one another, in their singular focus on highly politicized, jargon laden, anti-Israel and anti-Western advocacy masquerading (not very effectively) as scholarship.

This post surveys the background to the resolution; the steps that AAA is taking to sanction Israel, regardless of the vote; the pro and anti-boycott campaigns; and some thoughts on what this means for the AAA.

The article will be organized as follows:

I. Background

II. The Resolution

III. Campaign

IV. Conclusion

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I. Background

The AAA boycott campaign dates to a petition from 2013. In October 2014, the campaign released a statement soliciting signatures for boycott, signed, to date, by 1081 named ,and 200 anonymous, members. 

In August 2015, AAA dispatched a Task Force to Israel and the Palestinian territories (“Task Force on AAA Engagement with Israel-Palestine”; ‘Israel-Palestine’ being the preferred nomenclature for that entity which cannot comfortably be named). The Task Force spent 10 entire days in the region. One of the six members even had previous fieldwork experience in the Middle East.

The task force returned a hostile, one-sided 130 page report, laying the foundations for a boycott resolution, and listed  several alternative “possible forms of engagement”. (A scathing 41 page take down of this report is available here.)

American Anthropological Association 2015 Annual Meeting Logo - w Border

At the annual business meeting in Denver on November 20th, the boycott resolution passed on the floor by a vote of 1,040 to 136. This followed a resolution against boycotts and in support of dialogue, which was rejected: 196 to 1173.

To get a flavor of the level of collegiality at that meeting, here is how the boycott campaign describes their opposition:

Opposition to the boycott coalesced around a group calling itself “Anthropologists for Dialogue in Israel/Palestine,” (ADIP) which consisted of a dialogue wing and a “Tea Party” wing. The first included mostly Israelis describing themselves as “moderate” critics of the occupation who nevertheless reject any substantive action to challenge the status quo. The latter comprised mostly American scholars who were hostile not only to the boycott but to anthropology’s various attempts to confront issues around colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and empire over the past 40 years and openly longed for the discipline’s return to the pre-Civil Rights era. Both factions of ADIP repeatedly invoked with varying degrees of subtlety the spurious charge of anti-semitism to smear the boycott.

As momentum for the boycott grew, ADIP struggled to develop a coherent strategy, alternately attacking and praising the AAA Task Force. ADIP’s vision of dialogue was also exclusivist, as the group did not have even a single Palestinian or Arab member. Indeed, ADIP’s most visible attempt to tokenize a Palestinian was a posthumous one: ADIP leader Dan Rabinowitz claimed to have been friends with the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said and bizarrely suggested that Said would have opposed the boycott had he been alive today.

As the conference drew near, ADIP became increasingly desperate. It threw money at the problem by paying to be a conference sponsor; putting on a reception; having advertising inserts in conference tote bags, and — to the ire of many attendees — purchasing a banner ad in the conference’s mobile app…

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[Dan Rabinowitz and Edward Said in saner times]

In other words, a coalition of anthropologists ranging from the far left, i.e. from Dan Rabinowitz, (former board member of Gishahardly a “moderate“) all the way to the “tea party” wing (!) of the AAA (the cluelessness of purported anthropologists about major political and social movements in their own country is telling) were opposed , and yet, not only was this wide coalition roundly defeated, but was mocked and dismissed for its “smear” of anti-semitism, and, unironically, also accused of consisting only of Jews, and of “thr[owing] money at the problem”, no less.

According to a series of letters from incoming AAA President Alisse Waterston, in December, AAA convened the Working Group on Israel Palestine (WGIP), to recommend steps in adopting the Task Force recommendations, to be implemented, regardless of how the membership vote turns out.

On February 29th, the working group submitted recommendations to the Executive Board, which unanimously voted to receive its recommendations, rejecting the “No Action” option; meaning that regardless of the vote outcome, AAA intends to take some measures against Israel, including statements of censure, letters to the Israeli and US governments and a protest against the alleged politicization of Israeli Archaeology (Archaeologists in Israel, by the way, are not part of Anthropology).

Some of the practices called out by the statement of censure are familiar (we covered them in our discussion of the American Historical Association vote). Others are new and bizarre, including: accreditation issues for Al Quds University in Jerusalem (wouldn’t that render Al Quds’ a boycotted university too?); a mistaken interpretation of Israel’s anti-boycott laws, which, contrary to the report’s assertions impose civil, not criminal liability; and a claim about internet service in the West Bank, which not only is now moot, but is caused in part by the refusal of Palestinians to buy coverage from Israeli companies (i.e. boycotting harms Palestinians).

Al Quds Islamic Jihad rally

Al Quds Islamic Jihad rally that led to suspension of Al Quds’ ties with Brandeis University

Archaeological Dig

Stop doing this!

II. The Resolution

The text of the resolution can be found here.

Included with the text is an appendix that explains the resolution’s rationale:

Background for the Resolution

… At the governmental level, Israel is the leading recipient — in absolute and per capita terms — of official U.S. aid, much of which goes to purchase weapons used to oppress, maim, and kill Palestinians.

Neglected is mention that Israel’s military aid is necessary because of the unceasing war upon Israel by its Arab neighbors, and the Palestinians in particular.

More than with any other country, the U.S. regularly thwarts any concerted action at the United Nations to curb Israel’s abuses, in the face of near-universal condemnation by the international community.

Again, neglecting to mention, why the U.S. thwarts such action and the UN’s unceasing obsession with Israel (if we’re already concerned with absolute and per capita terms)

Furthermore, Israel enjoys extensive ties with academic and cultural institutions in the U.S. As a result, Israel depends on the U.S. not only for diplomatic and military aid, but also for its sense of legitimacy in the face of international condemnation.

The academic boycott is an act of protest against Israel’s violations and an act of solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues. It is also a rejection of the support that the U.S. government provides Israel, enabling it to act with impunity. Israel’s dependence on the U.S. makes it vulnerable to popular pressure, such as boycotts, from U.S. organizations…

You’d think from reading this resolution that the Palestinian boycott call was directed specifically at U.S. institutions. Here’s the fabled 2005 “Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS”:

“We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel…” (emphasis added)

Oh well…

Implementation of the Boycott

This resolution calls for the AAA…to implement an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.AAA will refrain from any formal collaborations or other relationships with Israeli academic institutions, including the Israeli Anthropological Association…

The boycott would affect Israeli institutions in the following ways: those institutions would not be able to be listed in AnthroGuide, advertise in AAA venues, or participate in the AAA Departmental Services Program (DSP), the Career Center, or the Graduate School Fair. In addition, the boycott precludes granting permission to copy and reprint articles from AAA publications to journals and publications based at Israeli institutions.

The boycott may also preclude the AAA from selling Anthrosource access to Israeli institutions…

Advice on Implementation: Political Litmus Tests

While not part of the resolution, the boycott campaign website also includes this document giving “Advice for Anthropologists” on how to implement the boycott, which contains a political litmus test:

The boycott applies to the Israeli state and to Israeli academic institutions such as universities, colleges, research institutes, scholarly associations, think tanks, publications, and publishing houses, unless they have (1) recognized the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people under international law and (2) moved to end any complicity with the violation of these rights.

Here is the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) (which opposes academic boycotts in general) on such political litmus tests:

We especially oppose selective academic boycotts that entail an ideological litmus test. We understand that such selective boycotts may be intended to preserve academic exchange with those more open to the views of boycott proponents, but we cannot endorse the use of political or religious views as a test of eligibility for participation in the academic community.

III. Campaign

As we wrote in November:

There has been an aggressive campaign on the part of the boycotters to build support for this measure, along with cheerleading in several Anthropology blogs, chief among them: Savage Minds and Allegra Lab. The boycott is also being backed by the misnamed “Jewish Voices for Peace” and recently by the Green Party of the United States. Additionally a group named Anthropologists for Justice in Palestine has been formed to help promote the boycott.

In opposition is a group called Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel/Palestine, which together with the Israeli Anthropological Association have been the chief dissenters in this campaign…

(a) April 8th Summary

On April 8th, AAA released a page summarizing the campaign thus far. The page contains a “Top Reasons to Vote For/Against the Resolution”.

In Favor: 8 reasons are listed in favor. We highlight some of the more noteworthy ones below. Most noteworthy, is what is lacking: not a single one of these reasons explains either (1) how Israeli universities themselves are ‘complicit’ in any ‘boycottable’ offense, nor (2) how boycotting these universities will help end whatever it is that these universities are doing. Arguably, (1) and (2) are the be all and end all of justifying a boycott.  Instead we’re given hyperbole including:

Because the Association supports academic freedom. The AAA Task Force on Israel/Palestine noted that Israel has long impeded the work of Palestinian and non-Palestinian scholars… The boycott protests these crushing restrictions on teaching and research. Moreover, the boycott’s commitment to academic freedom is absolute and applies to all: Israeli scholars will remain welcome to attend AAA meetings and publish in AAA journals.

It is not clear what it means to say that the commitment to academic freedom is ‘absolute’, when the resolution is calling for curtailing that freedom, both for Israeli scholars (whose work will be interrupted) and for American scholars who are told not to engage in certain forms of collaboration.

Because of the Association’s experience with boycotting for social justice. Boycotts are an effective pressure tactic for redressing injustice. In the past, the AAA has boycotted the Fulbright-Chile program, and the U.S. states of Arizona, Georgia, and Illinois for their rights violations. This resolution continues the Association’s proud history of heeding calls for boycott from disenfranchised groups.

This is deceptive. The AAA has adopted resolutions condemning U.S. states like Arizona (over immigration laws) but never has it adopted anything approximating a full boycott of Arizona’s academic institutions. Here is the relevant Arizona provision, for example:

Now, therefore be it resolved that the American Anthropological Association resolves not to hold a scholarly conference in the State of Arizona until such time that Senate Bill 1070 is either repealed or struck down as constitutionally invalid and thus unenforceable by a court;

Arizona’s universities are not targeted at all. AAA simply said that its annual convention won’t be held in the state of Arizona (and note: until a very specific event, the repeal of a bill, transpires).

Because anthropologists of the Middle East strongly support the boycott. Anthropologists with scholarly knowledge of Israel/Palestine have been among the boycott’s most vociferous supporters and over 100 members of the AAA Middle East Section have signed a petition supporting the boycott. Their position, and that of many of their colleagues, is based upon ethnographic research and knowledge of decades of published scholarship about Israel/Palestine. In this sense, the boycott embodies the use of anthropological knowledge to help “solve human problems,” as envisioned by the AAA’s Statement of Purpose…

Maybe the AAA has a sense of humor.

Additional reasons are: commitment to human rights; being “a powerful voice for change”; because the AAA is an American institution; a repetition of the claim against archaeologists who “misuse…scholarship for colonial expansion”; and the final “reason”, that the body voted for it in Denver.

(b) Reasons Given to Oppose

Meanwhile, ten reasons are given by the Opposition “Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel and Palestine (ADIP)” (the so-called ‘moderate’ to ‘tea party’ coalition). Some are cringe-worthy, but, perhaps, one must know one’s audience:

Palestinians suffer and Israel is often at fault. But the instinct to boycott Israeli universities as response is misguided.  It will not enhance Palestinian rights and could jeopardize the AAA. Harmful to academic freedom, it goes against the grain of anthropology. Members of the AAA must resist the feel-good effect and zero-sum logic which drive the boycott resolution. There are other, more productive ways to mobilize anthropological sensibilities in the service of peace, justice and the rights of Palestinians.

An academic boycott betrays anthropology’s values and could harm the AAA…Diametrically opposed to the AAA’s commitment to academic freedom, it is already driving wedges between progressive Israelis and their Palestinian counterparts. If passed, the boycott resolution will destroy any potential for academics to enhance reconciliation.

The boycott resolution uses general, witch-hunt type accusations. Boycotters accuse Israeli universities of being “complicit” with the occupation – a sweeping, cavalier claim that is impossible to prove, refute or benchmark…

An academic boycott will harm individuals. Boycotters keep saying they target institutions, not individuals. This claim is insincere at best. Badges we wear at conferences, by-lines at the top of journal articles, resumes and terms we use to introduce each other all consist of names attached to titles and affiliations – institutional idioms that define who and what we are. Younger scholars and graduate students are particularly dependent on institutional support. They need reference letters, funding opportunities, academic homes at precarious stages of their careers and more. Shun the university a scholar is affiliated with and you may truncate their future.  Can anthropologists, of all people, pretend to misrecognize this simple reality of academic life?

Academic boycott will do nothing for the rights of Palestinians on the ground. …it will only strengthen rightwing Israeli claims that “the world is all against us”…

Additionally, there are concerns about: “privileging a single narrative”; isolating progressive Israelis; turning AAA into a partisan tool; discrediting the AAA as an organization; and ignoring better alternatives of engagement.

Some of these claims make more sense than others, though this tactic of following the IAA’s appeasement policy of (twice) calling on the Israeli government to end the occupation, in effect taking a political stance, yielded the predictable contempt both by the AAA boycotters and by the BDS commissariat at PACBI.

(c) Further Pro-Boycott Advocacy

Pro Boycott “Teach In”

Anthroboycott has produced a “Teach in packet”, listing activities and possible speakers (including the usual suspect of activists: Steven Salaita, Noura Erakat, Rebecca Vikomerson from Jewish Voice for Peace, Ali Abuminah (who will “address the myth that BDS movement supports a one-state solution”), and David Palumbo-Liu, who can ‘counter charges of anti-Semitism’ ).

Also included are scripted speeches and tips for “push back”. This one pertaining to Hamas rockets is telling:

When people try to rebut arguments for BDS or discredit BDS by pointing to bad things that Palestinians do, or by claiming that Israel is vulnerable and needs to protect itself (from, e.g., Hamas rockets), it is an attempt to distract from the core issues, and an attempt to attract sympathy for Israelis. Call out the attempt at muddying the issues, and redirect conversation to the goal of BDS, which is to pressure citizens and governments to pressure Israel to end its discriminatory treatment of Palestinians.

Are Hamas rockets not relevant to “core issues”? Here, for example, is the opening image on page 1 of this packet:

Doesn’t the fact that this house was damaged in a strike have something to with Hamas rockets?

Here is the scripted speech from that same packet for introducing a panel:

State a simple background of the academic boycott movement: “This panel came together partly in response to Palestinian civil society’s call for the academic and cultural boycott of institutions complicit in Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian human rights, and especially in response to a call from the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees. The horrific events in Gaza the [sic] summer of 2014 confirm the urgency of the task at hand – to end Israel’s occupation and systemic violation of Palestinian rights. This panel and the boycott of Israeli institutions contributes to a growing, broad international effort to end Israel’s impunity, which allowed Israel to deliberately target Palestinian civilians and civilian infrastructure. Israel killed more than 2,000 people, the vast majority of civilians [sic]– because it could. (emphases added)

(note that the claim is that Israel killed the majority of civilians in Gaza, whereas presumably the intention was merely to state the contested claim “the vast majority of them, civilians”).

Of course it is absurd to state that Israel discriminates against Palestinians without addressing the underlying political and strategic circumstances, in which Palestinians voted for Hamas in an election, Hamas controls Gaza, fires rockets from Gaza to Israel, would fire more than rockets at Israel given the ability , and could potentially take over the West Bank, should Israel completely withdraw. How is this irrelevant?

But the problem is that it is “an attempt to attract sympathy for Israelis”, which, of course, we don’t ever want to do.

Even More Anti-Boycott Advocacy

In addition to ADIP, a second group, Against Anthro Boycott, released a statement entitled “Don’t Let it Happen!” Here are some highlights:

A fundamental and long-standing principle of academic life in the United States is that participation “is wholly independent of national boundaries and races and creeds.”

Academic boycott proposals are alarming.  They are prompted by the particular political views of their supporters, who in this instance are allied with a Palestinian political movement known as BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement).  Supporters of the boycott wish to have the AAA in its corporate capacity engage in a series of discriminations and exclusions based entirely on nationality and aimed directly at Israeli universities, colleges and research institutes; and they wish to continue the embargo until the Israel-Palestinian conflict is resolved on terms favored by the BDS movement, which views itself as the voice of Palestinian civil society.  Academic boycott proposals of this sort are alarming because they discourage dissent, restrict the free flow of ideas and scholars, create feelings of distrust and hostility based on ethnicity and national origin towards individual members of the AAA, and make it difficult for those who disagree with the political analysis in question to feel at home in their own academic association.  They violate the very ethos of the world-wide academy and its deepest academic freedom principles.

They are also alarming because they rely heavily on the dangerous and discredited logic of “complicity” or “guilt by association.” … Although the AAA boycott resolution tries to draw a distinction between individual academics and their academic institutions, BDS omnibus definitions of complicity make plain that virtually any contact with Israel institutions and their journals opens individual American anthropologists to what it calls “common sense boycotts.”…It is troubling enough that stories are already circulating in the profession about campaigns at some universities urging the boycott of visiting Israeli scholars and even of Israeli graduate students in the United States who have been told that their advisors won’t write letters of recommendation for them.

Additionally, the website features statements from leading academics celebrities such as Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky, and Richard Schweder, who defends the “no action” option:

any call to arms whereby the AAA throws its institutional weight behind the political views of one subset (even a majority) of its members is a violation of certain basic principles of academic freedom…

Presumably this call for objectivity is what was referred to above as the ‘tea party’ wing. AAA seems to think that all scholarship should be political…unless we’re condemning Israeli Archaeology.

Here, for example is BDS supporter Avram (Avi) Bornstein in a comment to a thread linked to on the AAA information site:

Our research is always political, even if it pretends not to be. Voting “yes” or “no” on the AAA academic boycott is a political choice–it will hurt one side’s academic freedom either way. The question is whether you support the more powerful side, the Occupier, or the more powerless side, the Occupied.

Moral reasoning, apparently is not a strong suit of Anthropologists.

 IV. Conclusion — Future of Anthropology on The Line

This is a battle for the soul of Anthropology and AAA’s status as a scholarly organization. What the boycotters refer to as the ‘tea party’ wing of their opposition, is nothing other than the wing of the AAA that still cares for scholarship, objectivity, knowledge…the things that make Anthropology a serious scholarly discipline.

Anthropology divides into four sub-disciplines: Physical Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, and Archaeology. Cultural Anthropology has come to dominate, and within Cultural Anthropology, political activists seem on the verge of a complete take over.

The AAA has been fighting its own internal battle over the status of anthropology as a science. Adopting a boycott may drive the AAA one step closer to a possible breakup, in which the other sub-disciplines of the movement and the sane wing of Cultural Anthropology form their own scholarly association (along the lines of what happened with Middle East Studies).

Tellingly, we’ve reached a point where support for BDS is a barometer for the health of an academic organization. Fields like Women’s Studies, American Studies, Critical Ethnic studies, etc. are far-gone. Historians are still sane.

By the looks of it, Anthropology is not in good health.

In a piece published just a few days ago, calling for boycott, and filled with the usual clichés, the authors state:

It must also be stated that this vote comes out of a history of progressive and decolonial struggles within anthropology. Voting for boycott continues the tradition of anthropologists standing on the right side of history, lifting up critiques that challenge the status quo, challenging U.S. empire, U.S. settler colonialism and their allies, and demanding the AAA follow suit.

… To vote for academic boycott is to continue anthropology’s decolonization

Tellingly, the two authors are an “Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies” and an “Associate Professor of Asian American Studies” . In other words, while both are trained as Anthropologists, neither even teaches in an Anthropology department; both teach in fields whose professional associations have long ago surrendered any pretense to scholarship, and which have both, of course, endorsed resolutions to boycott Israel. Scholars from these fields regularly cross ‘disciplinary’ lines with relative ease; sometimes there is no discipline to speak of in the first place.

This shows the future of the American Anthropological Association, and other associations that go down the BDS route: ‘scholars’ from such radical disciplines will gather from far and wide converging into pseudo-scholarly associations whose role is to ‘decolonize’ themselves.

Meanwhile, the real scholars in these disciplines will need to pick up the pieces and form new organizations in order to save what’s left of their disciplines.

[Featured Image: Boycott Israel U Michigan]

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The author is a graduate student who must write under a pseudonym for fear of retribution from pro-BDS faculty.