Why U.S. anthropologists voted to boycott Israeli academia

The American Anthropological Association is on the way to becoming the largest such association to endorse the Palestinian boycott call. Here’s why.

By Lisa B. Rofel (see note below)

Supporters of academic boycott during the annual business meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Denver, Colorado, November 21, 2015. (photo: Alex Shams)
Supporters of academic boycott during the annual business meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Denver, Colorado, November 21, 2015. (photo: Alex Shams)

On November 20, a record-breaking 1,800 people showed up to the largest business meeting in the history of the American Anthropological Association, to vote on a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions until such time as they end their complicity with the state’s systematic human rights violations. When the ballots were tallied, 88.4 percent of the votes had been cast in favor of the boycott resolution. If the measure is approved on the electronic Spring Ballot, the AAA will become the largest academic association in the United States yet to endorse the Palestinian call to boycott.

This vote was the culmination of over three years of education and discussion, including an official AAA Task Force on Engagement with Israel/Palestine, charged with analyzing the situation from an anthropological perspective. In October, the task force delivered a devastating final report, documenting in stark terms the severe toll the Israeli occupation takes on Palestinian lives. The task force concluded that the occupation is best understood as a settler-colonial project, that state violence severely impedes Palestinian scholars and students, and that Israeli universities are complicit in perpetuating these ongoing violations.

The significance of these findings cannot be overstated. Anthropologists specialize in the study of human diversity. For this reason, the AAA’s 1999 Declaration On Anthropology and Human Rights urges us to respond “whenever human difference is made the basis for a denial of basic human rights.” Anthropologists’ overwhelming support for the academic boycott comes out of the finding that, under Israeli rule, to be Palestinian is to be subject to systematic discrimination.

Academic freedom for all?

The astounding turnout and margin of victory for the boycott was a decisive rejection of the well-worn talking point that academic boycotts somehow violate academic freedom. This myth obscures the fact that, currently in Israel/Palestine, academic freedom is the privilege of the few. As the AAA’s Task Force on Engagement with Israel/Palestine pointed out, Israeli policies – from restrictions on the import of basic research equipment, to tight controls on movement, and military attacks on Palestinian universities – make academic freedom impossible for most Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Within the Green Line too, academic freedom is increasingly restricted. Public institutions in Israel can lose their funding if they even commemorate the Nakba, and individuals in the country can be sued just for calling on others to boycott. Israeli universities have launched reprisals against both Jewish and Palestinian students and faculty who voice dissenting viewpoints, even for something so anodyne as expressing hope that all Palestinian and Jewish civilians remain safe during wartime.

AAA members felt particularly compelled to take action on this issue because the U.S. government has shielded the Israeli government from demands to end the occupation. The boycott campaign has arisen in this context as a successful grassroots movement that aims to end the status quo and take a stand for justice. It responds to the over 170 Palestinian civil society groups – including the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees – who have urged solidarity in the form of boycott, sanctions, and divestment (BDS) campaigns. And it reaffirms the principle that academic freedom is a right of all students and scholars. Although individual Israeli scholars will still be welcome to publish in AAA journals and attend its conferences, this resolution states that the association will not collaborate with institutions that apply an ethnic or political litmus test to academic freedom. If Israeli universities cease their collaboration with the state and end their discriminatory policies, the boycott of theses institutions will also cease. Until then, we will apply the same principles that have led the AAA to engage in boycotts of institutions that discriminate against LGBTQ persons, endanger immigrants, or engage in unfair labor practices.

Resorting to distortion of reality

Having been soundly defeated by democratic means, boycott opponents are resorting to misinformation in the wake of the vote. Last week, on this very website, Michele Rivkin-Fish joined this smear campaign, decrying the boycott vote as a mere “spectacle,” and the product of a “well-organized and loud minority of anthropologists.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

The decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions has been a model of scholarly engagement and democratic process. What started off as a discussion among a small group of scholars quickly spread through research articles, blog posts, and conference panels. Leading experts from our discipline applied anthropological methods and theories to a controversial yet urgent public debate. Anthropologists who research Israel/Palestine weighed in, the vast majority expressing support for the boycott. And after three years of careful deliberation, American anthropologists have decided to act upon our core values.

Far from representing only a “minority of anthropologists,” as Dr. Rivkin-Fish claims, the boycott resolution was passed in the largest business meeting in the history of the association. While past years saw the association struggle to reach the 250-person quorum, this year a record-breaking 1,800 anthropologists showed up. The meeting ran two hours past its allotted time – due in no small part to ADIP’s repeated use of obstructionist parliamentary procedures – the overflow crowd stayed put, waiting late into the night to cast their vote. Since the Ferguson-Palestine solidarity alliance began in the summer of 2014, people of color in the United States have come to realize they share a great deal in common with the oppression and racism Palestinians experience under Israeli occupation. The diverse coalition that rose up to support human rights in Palestine will continue to turn out to mobilize for similar human rights campaigns in the future. To represent this as anything less than a historic outpouring of support for the boycott is disingenuous.

At the same meeting, the AAA membership also overwhelmingly rejected an anti-boycott resolution put forward by Anthropologists for Dialogue in Israel/Palestine (ADIP). The resolution failed to take any concrete action on behalf of human rights, instead proposing a vague and unworkable charity scheme.

While the anti-boycott resolution cynically deployed the discourse of “dialogue,” the group’s definition of “partners for dialogue” did not appear to extend very far. Tellingly, there was not a single Palestinian among the 17 signatories of ADIP’s resolution. Nor has a single Palestinian scholar been featured on ADIP’s website or on their conference panels. The “dialogue” envisioned by Dr. Rivkin-Fish and her allies is one confined to Israeli Jews and American Zionists. Recognizing both the problematic content and context of ADIP’s proposal, the AAA membership voted down the resolution 1173 against to just 196 in favor.

True dialogue flourished not at ADIP’s exclusionary panels, but at the pro-boycott panels. There, a diverse array of voices – of all faiths, ages, races, genders and sexualities, and creeds – gathered to discuss how best to respond to violations of human rights and academia’s complicity in them, in Palestine/Israel and beyond. Together with the record-breaking business meeting, these panels reveal a new kind of progressive coalition emerging in the United States.

Lisa B. Rofel is a Professor of Anthropology at University of California, Santa Cruz.  She has spent many years challenging the effects of U.S. imperialism.

Along with Prof. Rofel, this article was co-authored by two Ph.D. candidates in anthropology in Chicago, both of whom have lived and worked in Palestine and Israel on and off for over a decade. They asked that their names be withheld due to the recent targeting of non-tenured academics who have expressed support for the boycott movement.