Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions

The membership of the world’s largest professional association of anthropologists, the American Anthropological Association (AAA), is now in the midst of an election that will determine whether or not the Association will apply boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to Israeli academic institutions.

This is the most challenging political issue facing American anthropologists since the Vietnam War, with both supporters and opponents passionately expressing their views in the media, at professional conferences, and in public forums. Strong language and accusations have characterized the debates surrounding the proposed academic boycott. There are good people on both sides.

The road leading to this vote has been long and complicated. Supporters of BDS organized a vibrant movement using grassroots mobilization, while opponents combined grassroots efforts with the sort of political tactics one associates with professional political campaigns—including the outlandish step of purchasing pop-up political advertisements that jammed the phones and tablets of attendees at the AAA’s conference last autumn.

It would be difficult to overestimate the vote’s significance. The AAA would not be the first professional association to support a boycott of Israeli academic institutions: since 2013, the Association for Asian American Studies, the Native American Indigenous Studies Association, the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies, the African Literature Association, and the American Studies Association all passed resolutions supporting BDS. If the Association’s rank-and-file members ratify the pro-boycott resolution, it will become the largest and oldest academic association to do so–the AAA has more than 10,000 members.

Background to the Boycott

Over a year and a half ago, a small group of anthropologists prepared to submit a BDS resolution at the AAA’s annual business meeting. In response, the AAA leadership formed a task force, balanced with scholars representing various views, to study the issues raised for the Association by such policies. Instead of ramming through the resolution in 2014, its sponsors made plans to submit a resolution the following year, after the task force had completed its work. Acknowledging the growing importance of these issues, the AAA leadership held several listening sessions at the 2014 meetings, where members of the Association were able to express their views. At the AAA’s 2014 packed business meeting, a resolution opposing any academic boycott of Israel was soundly defeated. Over 600 members voted to reject the anti-boycott measure, while only 52 voted to support it. These large numbers of Association members attending the business meetings mark a resurgence in democratic participation in these meetings, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Vietnam War era debates over the uses of anthropology by military and intelligence agencies.

In October 2015, the Task Force on AAA Engagement on Israel-Palestine released a detailed 130-page report outlining the issues raised by an academic boycott and offered a range of possible approaches. It also analyzed the complexities inherent in implementing boycotts, divestments, and sanctions. The task force report “catalogues the lengthy history of displacement, land loss, discrimination, restrictions on movement and free speech, and adverse health and welfare effects that Palestinians have experienced as a result of Israeli state policies and practices.”

Though the task force was composed of anthropologists with diverse backgrounds and representing broad political views, they formed a unanimous opinion concluding that:

“there is a strong case for the Association to take action on this issue, and that the Association should do so. The pros and cons of each of these possibilities can be assessed on the basis of the principles we have recommended. If there ever was a time when this was a fringe issue within the Association, that time has passed.”

This was a remarkable and historic statement by a diverse independent committee addressing a topic that is typically taboo in the world of American academia. Predictably, the unanimous findings of the task force led critics to reject the idea that it was truly independent or balanced, but if one reads the task force’s report, it is difficult to find the sort of bias these critics claim.

Competing Views

Following the release of the October 2015 report, two resolutions relating to Israel were submitted to the AAA for consideration at its November 2015 annual business meeting. The first resolution, submitted by 17 anthropologists, lightly criticized some Israeli policies, opposed a boycott, and instead called for more study and continuing “dialogue.” The second resolution, submitted by a group of two dozen anthropologists, asked AAA members to enact an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.

During the November 2015 annual AAA meetings, the Association hosted several sessions discussing BDS and its potential impacts. In a session on “A House Divided: Politics, Professional Mobilization, and Academic Freedom in American Anthropology,” a panel of anthropologists formulated arguments opposing the adoption of an academic boycott. Most of these papers tried to use historical cases to illustrate why professional associations should avoid or limit political actions. Some papers argued against taking any political stance, while others argued against adopting specific types of political positions. The selective Association history conjured up in the session had convenient gaps and highly selective frames. Some presenters employed waggish historical accounts that trimmed off inconvenient events to present arguments either rejecting disciplinary political advocacy, or curtailing definitions of what might be considered proper advocacy.

Herbert Lewis bemoaned anthropology’s disciplinary entanglements with political movements or advocacy, and complained about anthropologists who teach classes on topics like genocide or controlling processes (a swipe at the famous class Laura Nader taught for decades at Berkeley). Lewis waxed nostalgic for the 1950s when science and activism were often compartmentalized as separate entities, longing for days when the discipline had a pre-postmodern value system. He also claimed that the BDS movement was little more than a slick campaign run by a well-financed and organized group.

Another panelist, Susan Trencher, constructed a crude caricature of the history of political resolutions adopted by the AAA. She argued that while some of the AAA’s political resolutions were acceptable since they were based on the findings of the discipline, other types of political resolutions should not be considered. Trencher’s account skipped exceptions to the case she struggled to make (such as the 1946 resolution working to guard against the dangers of nuclear weapons, or Margaret Mead’s use of the council meeting in 1961 to press pricecoldwaranthropologists to work on disarmament and peace research, etc.). Trencher viewed the AAA’s resolutions supporting racial equality as acceptable because these “used scientific findings to establish the biological unity of the species,” yet anti-war or boycott resolutions should not be supported. Yet this position is forced to ignore the vast anthropological literature on the human costs of warfare, the rich anthropological literature on the devastations brought by settler colonialism, and ethnographies of occupation. During the session’s question period, a graduate student from the New School for Social Research pointed out the irony of Trencher’s use of a quote in her paper from Franz Boas (the father of American anthropology, himself a vocal activist using anthropology to impact public policies) to argue against using anthropology for political advocacy, leaving Trencher to take evasive action, retreating into her divination of what she determined as proper or improper disciplinary activism.

A more logically consistent approach was offered by Richard Shweder, who advanced an academic freedom argument claiming that for organizations (as opposed to individuals) to make uniform corporate responses to political events is unwise and unfair. Shweder lauded the policies of his home institution, the University of Chicago, which has a tradition of not adopting political positions and instead claims “institutional neutrality.” Yet Shweder flatly failed to explain what does and does not count as a political position, as if political life could easily be discerned from other portions of our lives–leaving open the question of whether or not chattel slavery, paying men more than women, basic democratic rights, or claims of the inherent superiority of male intelligence might or might not be viewed as political positions. When challenged by a Chicago alumnus in the audience pointing out that this stance was an extension of institutional historical whitewashing of the University of Chicago’s purging of a number of anti-war students during the Vietnam War, Shweder dismissively replied that students who harmed university property had needed to be punished for their actions.

Elsewhere, other anthropologists construct arguments drawing on disciplinary history to argue against the boycott as a selective application of a universalist system or morality—an argument ignoring the direct role the US government plays in supporting Israeli actions. Throughout these and other anti-BDS narratives there is an odd framing of anthropological history in which the boycott’s opponents tend to criticize a broad range of past political movements in ways that confused the politics of moral relativism with anthropological notions of cultural relativism. While all history remains contested, these efforts which champion inaction as if it were a position of neutrality distort the ways that inaction supports the status quo. In this current context, such a stance ignores and distorts America’s role backing Israeli policies.

At these same meetings, BDS’s supporters presented a radically different view, one espousing the value of the boycott as a powerful and effective tool for supporting human rights and social justice. At the 2015 AAA meetings, a session on “Ethical Academic Advocacy for Palestinian Rights and the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions” included a series of presentations outlining the reasons for supporting BDS.

The first panelist, Kehualani Kauanui, placed the boycott within a broader anti-colonial struggle by drawing links between the fate of occupied Palestine and the fates of other indigenous peoples around the world who have suffered from settler colonialism. As someone involved in the efforts of the American Studies Association and the Native American Studies Association academic boycott of Israel, Kauanui situated the AAA members’ efforts within broader academic contexts as well, stressing the fact that the proposed boycott was carefully crafted in order to avoid impeding academic freedom.

Nadia Abu El-Haj began her presentation by reviewing the 1980s anti-apartheid boycott of South Africa, and contrasted these efforts with that of the academic boycott of Israeli institutions. She also reminded the audience that it is Palestinian scholars who have asked their international colleagues to stand in solidarity with them. El-Haj’s comments, like those of many anthropologists who support an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, emphasized the connection between racism and violence: she noted that the US’s “exceptional relationship with Israel enables its ever-spiralling racial violence to continue unchecked.” El-Haj argued that the boycott resolution “bends over backwards” to focus on institutions rather than individuals.

Another panelist, Lisa Rofel, talked about the long road that led to her current position. She told the audience that she was raised as an orthodox Jew and a staunch and ardent supporter of Israel, but that over time she shifted her views. Her support of the boycott, she said, is rooted in her commitment to “to live up to its [Judaism’s] promise of social justice.” Rofel directly challenged those who claim that criticizing Israeli government policies is a form of anti-Semitism, and reminded that Israeli government policies and academic practices have targeted intellectuals, students, and scholars. She asked: how can one condone Israeli policies that support “a regime of racial hierarchies that spawns racial violence, a regime in which Jews have special rights which others do not have”?

David Lloyd, who has worked with members of the Modern Language Association to press for an academic boycott of Israel, began his presentation by talking about near-unanimous Congressional support for recent Israeli incursions into the Palestinian territories. He argued that “where the political process is blocked by money, power, or influence, we have no option but to activate a civil society movement to educate and change the discourse.” Lloyd refuted the spurious arguments and intimidation tactics of some of boycott’s opponents. Israeli universities, he said, should not be given a free pass when they discriminate against Palestinian scholars and students or provide ideological support for “dispossession and brazen colonial expansion.”

These papers offered significantly different views of history from the anti-boycott presentations at the other AAA session. This history applied disciplinary knowledge of settler colonialism, of historical boycott campaigns, from personal narratives of those imbedded within Israeli society, and of macro analysis of the political processes opposing BDS efforts and supporting the political status quo in Israel. But most significantly, this was a history acknowledging anthropology’s active political roles in the world it strives to understand–roles in which inaction only supports the injustice of present catastrophe, and action offers the hope of confronting and changing a cruel and unjust occupation.

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High Drama in Downtown Denver

On the evening of Friday, November 20, events reached a dramatic climax at the AAA’s 2015 business meeting. As light snow began to fall outside the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver, hundreds of anthropologists streamed into the main ballroom when the doors were opened. Within minutes, the cavernous room quickly reached its capacity. Approximately 1500 seats filled, and hundreds more either lined the perimeter of the room or sat in the aisle ways.

Before debate on the resolutions began, outgoing AAA president Monica Heller grimly announced that the Denver Fire Marshall was present and had observed that the meeting was in violation of the city’s fire ordinance. Discussion of the resolutions was delayed more than half an hour as the latecomers were swiftly ushered out of the ballroom and into the adjoining hallway, where hundreds of extra chairs and a public address system were placed to accommodate the overflow.

The reasons why the AAA Business Meeting attracted so many people are important to consider. In the recent past, fewer than 50 people have attended the event, preferring instead to have dinner or drinks rather than attend a meeting with little relevance or interest. But in 2015, a youthful and energetic pro-boycott “floor team” composed largely of graduate students played a vital role in informing and mobilizing AAA members throughout the conference. Having attended most of poorly attended business meetings during the last two decades, we were impressed to see this usually absent group engaged and pushing for discussion of issues important to them. They provided members with detailed information about the resolution, buttons (“Ask Me about the Boycott”)–and even cookies. The coordinators of the pro-boycott resolution demonstrated a spectacular level of grassroots organization that included among other things, a petition drive, a blog, and a live Twitter feed.

The first resolution of the evening was designed to bring an abrupt end to the boycott. The resolution, which had the intentionally confusing Orwellian title, “End the Occupation, Oppose Academic Boycott, Support Dialogue,” was submitted by a group consisting mostly of Israeli anthropologists. After a brief discussion on the floor, Resolution 1 went down in flames. Attendees soundly defeated the resolution, 1173 to 196.

Resolution 2, the pro-boycott resolution, came to the floor immediately afterwards. A heated but civil debate on the floor ensued in which passionate arguments were made both for and against the resolution. When the smoke cleared, members cast their paper ballots, which were collected in cardboard boxes by AAA staff members who expertly tallied the results over the course of an hour. The buzzing crowd fell silent as Monica Heller announced the outcome: 1040 in favor of the academic boycott of Israeli institutions, 136 against. The crowd erupted in applause.

The night’s events were complicated by the fact that an insufficient number of paper ballots had been printed for the votes. AAA staff scrambled to produce more, and succeeded in producing more in a timely fashion. With the dedicated efforts of the AAA’s mustachioed parliamentarian, Dr. John D. Stackpole, these complications, and many other procedural questions, were eventually resolved.

The business meeting, was called to order at 6:30 pm, ran far over the allotted 75-minute time period, being adjourned after 9:30 pm. The evening’s procedural snafus, due to the size of the attendance, would have challenged the patience of most audiences, but the vast majority of those who were there at the beginning of the business meeting remained until the end, including elderly anthropologists in wheelchairs and younger anthropologists ferrying their small children in strollers. It was a historic moment, and dramatic evidence of AAA members’ concern for Israel/Palestine.

Making History

The AAA was once an organization in which vigorous political debates were hashed out on the floor during its annual business meetings. Activist members of the Association once passed resolutions on a range of controversial topics. During the Vietnam War, the rules allowed members to direct Association policies and make political statements by controlling the floor of the business meetings. But by the early 1970s, anthropology’s more conservative old guard enacted a series of bureaucratic changes to the AAA’s bylaws requiring that resolutions be submitted in advance and that resolutions passed by members at the annual business meeting be presented to the full membership in a mail ballot.

Since this bylaw shift removed AAA members’ ability to ratify resolutions at the annual conferences, attendance at these business meetings has generally been abysmal. The non-binding structure of these meetings disempowers those who bother to attend. But democratic sentiments can be contagious, and the AAA’s pro-boycott movement has developed as a model bottom-up grassroots campaign. The key organizers within Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions supporting and organizing the boycott are women, and many of those appearing in public roles both large and small are younger members of the association—no small feat for a cause with a history of vengeful consequences for those opposing Israeli policies.

The BDS movement, now in existence for more than a decade, is accelerating globally. A growing number of student governments have passed resolutions calling for their universities to divest themselves of investments in Israel. The rationale for such boycotts is straightforward: Israeli universities and other institutions function as key components in a system that has denied fundamental rights to Palestinians. Among the concerns identified by those of us supporting the AAA’s resolution for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions is the destruction of academic freedom for Palestinian colleagues living under Israeli occupation. Students and faculty who protest Israeli policies are subjected to surveillance or retaliation, while Palestinian students routinely face discrimination. Furthermore, Israeli academic institutions have remained silent about military occupation and settler colonialism.

The boycott is in keeping with the AAA’s long-standing commitment to human rights. In 1999, the members of Association adopted the Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights, which states: “As a professional organization of anthropologists, the AAA has long been, and should continue to be, concerned whenever human difference is made the basis for a denial of basic human rights. . . The AAA founds its approach on anthropological principles of respect for concrete human differences.”

The AAA’s full membership now has a historic opportunity to vote on whether or not to approve the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The rank-and-file membership’s overwhelming support for the Resolution 2 was clear, but so too is the determination, resources, and willingness to use fear tactics of the minority who oppose the pro-boycott measure. Now is the time for concerned anthropologists to take action by voting to support the resolution.

Some critics of the boycott express doubts about the effectiveness of boycotts as a way of bringing about change, but supporters consistently note that such tactics played a crucial role in bringing down South Africa’s apartheid regime during the early 1990s. While supporters of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions include many prominent Jewish American anthropologists, Israeli anthropologists, and Jewish peace groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, the absence of any Palestinian opposition to the AAA’s academic boycott resolution stands in stark contrast. We support the resolution as a humane means of calling attention to suffering of the Palestinian people living under Israeli occupation, and while some of our colleagues who oppose BDS acknowledge Israeli atrocities, their proposals to continue talking without action offer too little, too late. We support the resolution for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions as a proper extension of disciplinary knowledge and analysis applied to one of the pressing crises of today, a crisis marked by rampant human rights violations and supported by our own government’s policies and money.

Roberto J. González is Chair and Professor of Anthropology at San Jose State University. His latest book is War Virtually: The Quest to Automate Conflict, Militarize Data, and Predict the Future.

David H. Price is Professor of Anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent.