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Anti-Israel academic boycotters rig debate at American Anthropological Association

Anti-Israel academic boycotters rig debate at American Anthropological Association

But good news, a Petition against the academic boycott of Israel passes 1000 signatures, mostly faculty.

The fight over the academic boycott of Israel in the United States mostly is confined to professional associations in the Humanities and Social Sciences, where anti-Israel activist faculty have some ability to rig the system in their favor through control of key committees and programs.

Unlike in the real world at universities, the faculty who take control of professional organizations are not counterbalanced by the faculty as a whole, students, administrators, trustees, parents and alumni.  Professional organizations are the perfect vehicle for anti-Israel activists for this reason.

The activists have the ability filter the debate and tailor the information provided to membership so as to provide a one-sided view.

That’s what happened at the American Studies Association, which passed a boycott resolution but refused to distribute to the membership materials requested by the pro-Israel side. The resolution passed with less than 20% of the total membership voting for it, because of low overall participation.  Since then the ASA has turned into a full-time boycott entity, with its executive board calling for a complete boycott of Israel in all aspects, and an entire day of boycott organizing scheduled alongside its Annual Meeting.

At the Modern Language Association debate last January on a resolution critical of supposed Israeli travel restrictions on academics, the panel discussion at the annual meeting was limited to anti-Israel activists. At the house of delegates, pro-Israel faculty did get a chance to argue against the resolution, and with that the resolution — which had been expected to pass easily — barely passed, and only after the language was watered down. When put to the entire membership, the resolution failed to gain the needed votes, and failed.

Rigging the debate appears to be happening now at American Anthropological Association for an upcoming debate, as Haaretz reports, U.S. academics bemoan ‘rigged’ fight in battle against BDS:

The BDS movement is hitting home for David Rosen, a long-time professor of anthropology at Farleigh Dickinson University. Rosen’s professional group, the American Anthropological Association (AAA), is debating BDS measures at its annual conference in early December. And already, Rosen says, he can see that the process is “rigged” against those who oppose BDS….

Rosen is an anthropologist of Africa and the Middle East who will present his study of Israel’s social protest movements at the AAA conference. He has been an AAA member for 47 years, but during some of the sleepless nights he has spent thinking about the upcoming AAA debate, he has thought of resigning.

The AAA, which has assembled a task force devoted to the organization’s engagement on Israel-Palestine, has some 10,000 members, said Executive Director Edward Liebow. Twenty-five of them have Israeli mailing addresses.

At the annual conference – running December 3-7 in Washington, D.C. – panel discussions devoted to the topic will be led almost entirely by BDS advocates, including Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel; and Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace. Her group played a key role in persuading the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to vote, in June, to withdraw $21 million in investments from three major manufacturing companies that sell construction equipment to Israel. While JVP does not currently work to create academic boycotts of Israel, it supports them, and is developing its own academic council, Vilkomerson tells Haaretz.

Other participants in the upcoming AAA panels have publicly endorsed academic BDS. All of them are stocked with speakers from leading American universities and the Palestinian territories, Rosen said in a letter to the AAA. Not one speaker is from a major Israeli university, and only on one panel have BDS opponents been invited to speak.

None of this is surprising. Anyone who has covered the academic boycott movement closely, as I have, knows that we are dealing with intolerant people who seek to stifle debate while playing victim themselves.

It is no surprise that one of the leaders of the academic boycott movement was Steven Salaita, the professor who was denied a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after months of bizzare tweets in which, among other things, he denied that those who disagreed with him even deserved to be heard.

But there is good news emerging. Those who oppose the hijacking of academia by the anti-Israel faculty crowd are beginning to come forward. This is a big deal because in my experience, those opposed to academic boycotts are not as politically involved as those who favor them. That’s how professional organizations can be taken over by a relatively small number of faculty activists.

Last Sunday I wrote how a Petition against the academic boycott of Israel had gathered over 500 signatures, mostly from faculty.

That Petition just passed 1000 signatures, and hopefully more will step forward.

The Petition is important because its lets faculty know there are many others like them who — regardless of their views on particular aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute — do not believe that the academic freedom of the entire educational system should be sacrificed at the alter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

(Click on image to sign Petition)

If you are a present or retired faculty member, academic staff, post-doctoral student, trustee or administrator, please sign the Petition. If you know someone who fits that description, get them to sign.

You don’t have to be “pro-Israel” to sign — only pro-academic freedom, pro-fairness, pro-intellectual honesty, pro-education and pro-peace.

Update 9-30-2014: I received the following from the AAA today:

Professor Jacobson – I highly recommend that you do some fact checking before you reprint articles like Ms. Cohen’s error-filled piece in Haaretz. “U.S. academics bemoan ‘rigged’ fight in battle against BDS.” First, contrary to Professor Rosen’s procedural description quoted by Ms. Cohen, to be considered at the American Anthropological Association’s Annual Business Meeting, resolutions must be submitted at least 30 days in advance (5th November 2014, this year). Second, as Ms. Cohen reported, the Association has not received a BDS resolution for consideration; it is incorrect to indicate that “we are one of several considering BDS resolutions.” Third, the real news here has to do with our Association undertaking a thorough consideration of ways in which we might engage with the ongoing Israel Palestine conflict. Our Annual Meeting’s Call for Papers is broadcast worldwide in January each year, and the panels that were considered for this year’s program were all subject to the same deadline and the same review process. Moreover, we have opened a number of channels for dialogue on a range of options the Association’s members might consider; the annual meeting panels, an open members’ forum, and the Business Meeting itself, constitute just one set of those channels. The Association’s Task Force will be seeking input from area and subject matter experts far and wide, and I personally welcome recommendations concerning experts to whom the Task Force should be referred. I have been corresponding with Professor Goldberg, as well as Israeli Anthropology Association (IAA) members who do not share the majority IAA position. I have extended to them the same invitation for referrals. In all, our Association is committed to facilitating open dialogue among our members about the issues and how they relate to anthropology, anthropologists, and the Association. Thank you in advance for correcting the record, and please do not hesitate to contact me for further information. Ed Liebow

Edward Liebow, Executive Director
American Anthropological Association

I received this response to Liebow disputing some of his characterizations of inaccuracies in the Haaretz article:

Hello Prof. Jacobson –

Someone sent me the LI piece citing my Haaretz article.

I would appreciate your appending this note under Liebow’s:

Ed Liebow is correct only insofar as there were two (relatively minor) errors in my Haaretz article. One related to the timing of when resolutions can be submitted to the AAA (I was given incorrect information) and the other related to the way the boycott efforts within the AAA could be described. The article has been updated. It is unfortunate that Liebow felt the need to exaggerate by calling it an “error-filled piece.”

Debra Nussbaum Cohen

There also is a comment posted below taking issue with Liebow’s characterizations and asserting bias in panel composition.


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I do think one way of fighting back is to go on offense and fight against accepting contributions of Saudi and Qatari money to universities, whether direct or through subterfuge.

The opening salvo of the BDS campaign in Anthropology was an April letter from the leadership of the American Anthropological Association to its members. The letter proclaimed the association’s obligation to take up the BDS issue at the upcoming annual meetings in response to member concerns. It promised to do so in the context of a “dialogue” involving “anthropologically informed perspectives on the region” using a “diverse set of lenses.” But underneath the association’s soothing and inclusive language is hardball advocacy politics.

The heart of the “dialogue” at the upcoming annual meetings are four roundtables, three of them packed with hard-core BDS activists and supporters. Of the four of the key panels three were reviewed for inclusion in the annual program by the AAA Executive Committee and one by the AAA Committee on Public Policy. These are not typical scientific panels but usually review those sessions of wider public interest. All this suggests that the AAA leadership was well aware of the nature of the program that was being put together from the very beginning.

The key BDS panel is titled “What is the Role of Academia in Political Change: The Case of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and Israeli Violations of International Law.” Of the seven members of the panel, six have previously endorsed the boycott of Israeli universities. The panel showcases the “stars” of the BDS movement, including Omar Barghouti, the founder of BDS; Rebecca Volkerson, head of Jewish Voices for Peace; and Noura Erekat, a lawyer, advocate and BDS movement activist.The panel also includes Richard Falk, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights who is well known for his inflammatory positions and has described Israel as an outlaw state.

In the second panel, “Anthropologists of Palestine-Israel and the Academic Boycott of Israel,” five of the six panel members have publicly endorsed the boycott while the remaining panelist is a fierce critic of Israel. In the third panel, “Anthropologists and Controversial Engagements: the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions,” six of the seven panelists have publicly endorsed the boycott and the seventh has protested her institution’s education abroad programs in Israel. While these blatantly biased panels include anthropologists from leading American universities and from the Palestinian Territories, not a single anthropologist from a major Israeli university is on any of the panels.

The fourth session, “Boycotting Israeli Institutions of Higher Education Abridges Academic Freedom,” is composed of five individuals all of whom oppose the boycott as a matter of academic principle. But the panel, which does not contain a single anthropologist, suffers from an absence of anthropological “street cred.” The demographic makeup of the program is equally problematic: while the three pro-BDS sessions are include many young American, European, and Palestinian anthropologists with research experience in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, leading female ethnographers of the Middle East, and activists skilled in public advocacy, the sole anti-BDS panel is made up of five senior academics with scant connection to our discipline. Indeed, in the absence of a single anthropologist from any Israeli university (some of whom have long been members of the Association), the entire event appears to presage the proposed boycott. Israeli academic institutions and Israeli anthropologists, the object of this entire conversation, have been effectively silenced to the point of exclusion.

The capstone of this entire process is a so-called “Members Forum” in where members who might wish to voice their concerns will be chosen “at random” and given two minutes to make their case. The entire episode would be a funny as a parody of an academic debate, but the consequences are no joke. Indeed, without the participation of a single anthropologist from any Israeli university (some of whom have long been members of the Association), the entire event presages the proposed boycott. Israeli institutions and their members have been effectively silenced to the point of exclusion. Like the boycott, the program suppresses freedom of speech within the association and isolates and marginalizes dissenters.

I have no knowledge of how the program panels were actually put together and may never be able to know. This is not a matter of public record. But procedure should not be used as a cover for bias. The leadership of the AAA packaged, presented, and promoted these panels as a “respectful exchange” of views when it was clear that virtually everyone on three of the main panels were BDS supporters who had publicly endorsed the academic boycott. The correct response of the association would have been to take into account the extreme bias and prejudice in the panels and either not package them as an association wide dialogue or to take firm steps to redress the problem. They never did this but, in my view, continue to maintain the pretense that this is an even handed process

Whatever one’s position is on the conflict in Israel/Palestine these proceeding do not meet the basic standards of fundamental fairness that any reasonable person would expect from a professional scientific organization

In response to David Rosen please see this link:

I have posted the text here as well:

The AAA Process and Discussions of the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Posted on October 9, 2014

Today’s guest blog post is written by AAA members, Fida Adely and Lara Deeb

At the upcoming (December 2014) annual meeting of the American Anthropological Society (AAA), several panels will take up the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, providing a context for learning about how anthropologists have been and could be further engaged in a just resolution. Several of these forums specifically focus on discussion of the call for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. We support this boycott, but whether or not you agree with our position, we would like to clear up some circulating misinformation about how the discussion is taking shape in the AAA.

As of late, a number of people outside anthropology who are either opposed to an academic boycott, and/or opposed to any discussion or debate of such a boycott, have criticized the AAA for failing to provide “balance” in this annual meeting programming, implying that somehow this was deliberate on the part of the AAA, or at best, a glaring oversight. It is important to note that all of the panels mentioned above were vetted through the standard review process for proposed events at the annual meeting, the deadline for which was February 15 of this year (see the call for proposals). Indeed, the panel on the AAA program that, based on its title, will present an argument against the academic boycott was also submitted and vetted through this process. If there are fewer panels that seem to argue against the academic boycott rather than support it, this is because fewer were submitted by AAA members for inclusion on the program.

To those who suggest that opponents of the academic boycott were “surprised” by the multiple panels discussing the issue on this year’s AAA program: It is worth noting that this is the second year that discussion of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions has taken place in this venue. The 2013 AAA Annual Meeting included a well-attended panel of papers addressing various aspects of the boycott, and at that panel, a draft resolution was circulated and attendees were informed that further discussion of the boycott would take place at the 2014 Annual Meeting. The passing of academic boycott resolutions at the American Studies Association, the African Literature Association, the Asian-American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and other academic associations should also have been an indication that similar discussions would arise at the AAA and elsewhere. This is not a matter that is somehow limited to anthropologists but a broader response from scholars to a call for solidarity from Palestinian civil society, in particular the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees. Clearly a few people understood that this would be discussed at the AAAs, as there is an anti-boycott panel on the program. If people do not find that particular panel “credible,” it is not the AAA’s fault.

There are a number of possible explanations for the dearth of anthropologists from major Israeli universities on panels addressing these issues. Those scholars may not have wanted to open up discussion of the academic boycott, as indicated by a letter from the Israeli Anthropological Association that condemns the AAA for its panel selections and for focusing on Israel as a key topic of discussion at the upcoming meetings. Yet it may also, instead, be an indication that it is not an easy task for Israeli scholars to publicly advocate the boycott of Israeli academic institutions – for fear of reprisals or punishment under Israeli government anti-boycott laws. While boycott advocates are not calling for scholars working in Israeli institutions to boycott their own institutions, some scholars in Israel have spoken out in support of the boycott. More than forty Israeli anthropologists responded to that letter from the Israeli Anthropological Association in a counter-letter defending the right of their anthropology colleagues to have this discussion. Notably, quite a few of the signatories on the second letter chose to sign anonymously, highlighting the very real possibility of sanctions, especially for early career scholars. As demonstrated in the IAA letter, those opposed to the academic boycott of Israeli institutions have sought to shut down even the mere discussion of the boycott. The default “anti-boycott” position is to not address it at all. This may provide a possible explanation for why only one such panel was organized and submitted for inclusion on the 2014 Annual Meeting program.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the demand for “balance” in the context of an academic conference such as the AAA Annual Meeting is a puzzling one. What does balance mean in this context? That every argument should have a counter-argument? That AAA should henceforth review proposals with “balance” of theoretical and ideological leanings in mind? The AAA leadership’s job is to make sure panel proposals meet minimum criteria and are vetted through an established peer review process. They are not tasked with – nor should they be tasked with – micromanaging the conference program. Those who demand “balance” are asking the AAA leadership to interfere with existing process by which the conference comes together each year, something we are certain neither Association members or those in its leadership positions think is a good idea.