Boycott Debates

At American Anthropological Association meeting, scholars prepare to vote on a resolution calling for the group to boycott Israeli universities.

November 20, 2015

DENVER -- Anthropologists gathered here for the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association are preparing to vote today on a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions as a means of protesting violations of Palestinian rights.

The resolution under consideration calls for the AAA to refrain from formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions and would preclude Israeli universities from advertising or being listed in AAA publications or participating in AAA events. The text of the proposed resolution states that the boycott “may also preclude” the association from selling AnthroSource, its database of journals, to Israeli institutions, though it notes that individual Israeli anthropologists would still be able to access AnthroSource through their personal AAA memberships.

The boycott measure stresses the distinction between individuals and institutions -- a distinction that many boycott opponents find specious -- stating that “Israeli scholars will still be welcome to participate in AAA meetings, use funds from their institutions to attend the meetings, publish in AAA journals and take part in other AAA activities in their individual capacities. The boycott does not preclude communication and collaboration with individual Israeli scholars.”

Another resolution to be voted on by AAA members today criticizes the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestinian territories obtained in the 1967 war while also opposing the academic boycott and supporting dialogue. This antiboycott resolution rests on the premise that “associating academics with the political regimes in which they operate contradicts anthropology’s most enduring contribution to intellectual and political sensibilities, namely its ability to recognize and articulate nuance, deal with social and cultural complexity, and avoid essentialization.”

This year’s AAA meeting comes a month and a half after the association published a task force report that was deeply critical of Israeli government policies restricting Palestinians' academic freedoms and their human rights more generally.

That task force recommended that the association take some action in response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and suggested, further, that a statement of censure or concern “would in our view be an insufficient course of action if it were the only action undertaken.” The task force refrained from issuing an opinion on the wisdom of a boycott, leaving that for members to debate.

The American Association of University Professors has long objected to organized academic boycotts, saying they violate "our fundamental commitment to the free exchange of ideas and their free expression." However, a handful of U.S.-based scholarly associations, most notably the American Studies Association, have, since 2013, endorsed the boycott of Israeli academic institutions as part of the broader boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

If the AAA were to follow suit, it would be the largest scholarly association to do so to date. More than 1,000 anthropologists have already signed on to the boycott as individuals, and scholars at last year's AAA meeting soundly defeated an antiboycott measure that was widely seen as suppressing debate.

Speakers on AAA panels on Thursday offered pro- and antiboycott positions, with much of the discussion focusing on the institution versus individual distinction and the appropriateness and effectiveness of academic boycott as a tactic.

On the institution versus individual distinction, Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist at Columbia University and Barnard College, contrasted the call for a boycott against Israeli academic institutions with the much broader academic boycott call by the African National Congress in apartheid-era South Africa. That latter boycott, she said, called for international scholars to refrain from issuing invitations to South African scholars and to refuse to collaborate on research, for international journals to refuse to publish manuscripts written by South Africans, for international conferences to ban South Africans from attending, and for overseas institutions to decline to recognize South African university degrees.

By contrast, Haj described the boycott call against Israeli universities as one “that has bent over backwards, as far as it possibly can, to protect the academic freedom and scholarship of Israeli scholars. And let us be clear, it has bent over backwards to protect the academic freedom of Israeli scholars who already have it as opposed to Palestinian scholars, who do not.”

“In the end, the boycott came to focus on institutions and not individuals,” said Haj. “Yes, that is not a pure distinction. Yes, there will be a small price that Israeli anthropologists will pay.” But she said she fails to understand why progressive Israeli scholars who proclaim to be on the side of Palestinians wouldn't be willing to pay a small price for their politics.

Several scholars who identified themselves as being on the Israeli left spoke against the boycott on Thursday, arguing that it is a poor measure for bringing about change. One of those scholars, Yehuda C. Goodman, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argued that a boycott serves to stigmatize Israeli scholars and damage the research and teaching of anthropology in Israel while having “no positive effect” on the rights of Palestinians. The Israeli government, he said, "cares very little about anthropologists," but it is anthropologists whose work will be hurt.

“It will hit hardest undergraduate and graduate students in Israel,” Goodman said. “Should the boycotters succeed, the only way to access anthropological journals in Israel will be by paying AAA membership fees.”

Dan Rabinowitz, of Tel Aviv University, said that while “boycotts and sanctions are legitimate forms of political brinksmanship,” they are only effective if (1) those boycotted are primarily and directly responsible for the injustice being targeted, (2) those being boycotted are capable of rectifying the injustice if they choose to, (3) the conditions for lifting the boycott are clear, uncontestable and doable, and (4) those boycotted trust that the boycotters truly want the boycott conditions to be met without fear of hidden stipulations down the road.

The academic boycott against Israel "fails miserably on all four counts," he said. On the third count, Rabinowitz criticized "clear as mud" language in the pro-boycott resolution stating that an AAA boycott will remain in place "until such time as these institutions end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law."

“Is your university more or less complicit in 2015 than it was in 2010 with the invasion of Iraq?” asked Rabinowitz. As for the fourth count, Rabinowitz said that while proponents of BDS may hold diverse views, many leaders of the movement have a particular "endgame" in mind -- a future without Israel.

Susan Kahn of Harvard University also invoked the actions carried on by the American government in the name of the war on terror in her argument against an AAA boycott of Israeli universities. “How can we, from the relative safety and comfort of our American campuses, take an action that undermines and jeopardizes our Israeli colleagues’ ability to protest and resist the policies of their government and the pressures of their society when many of us -- not all, certainly -- but many of us are doing so little to protest the policies and pressures of our own?” she asked.

However, supporters of the boycott argued that it is a powerful tool by which scholars can put pressure on the Israeli government to change its policies. They noted, too, that Palestinian civil society organizations have called for the academic boycott, presumably because they believe it can be effective.

“I’ve come to this position over many years," said Lisa B. Rofel, of the University of California at Santa Cruz. She said that boycott is not a first step, but a step that came after the failure of "dialogue" to result in anything other than Israel expanding settlements and its “hold on the land.”

"It’s really clear to all of us that this is the only way to really put international, non-violent pressure on Israel to end its violations of Palestinian human rights," Rofel said. 

The question, said Haj, is clear -- should U.S. academics allow the status quo to continue unchecked, "or are we going to heed the call for an academic boycott made by a broad, nonviolent Palestinian movement that has lost all faith in dialogue?"

Boycott supporters argued that an AAA boycott should not be seen as “merely symbolic” (even as Haj suggested that anthropologists should know better than to dismiss the symbolic as something "mere") but as part of a growing movement, the effectiveness of which can be seen in the resistance to it.

David Lloyd, a distinguished professor of English at the University of California at Riverside and a member of the organizing collective for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has identified the BDS movement as a serious threat alongside that of a nuclear-armed Iran.

"You can measure the effect of any movement by the amount of coercion" directed at it, said Lloyd. "Israel's self-image, its ego, if you like, is intimately wrapped up with its academic prowess and its integration into the research and scholarship world of Western democracies."

"I see academic boycott as moving beyond symbolic politics," said J. Kehaulani Kauanui, an associate professor of anthropology and American studies at Wesleyan University. "I think of it as important work of antinormalization."

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