WASHINGTON – Members of the American Anthropological Association soundly defeated a proposed resolution opposing the academic boycott of Israel on Friday, paving the way for continued conversation on the topic and the possibility that a pro-boycott measure will be presented for a vote at the business meeting next year.
About 700 anthropologists showed up to vote at the association’s annual business meeting on Friday, prompting organizers to open the wall between two ballrooms to accommodate the crowd. Just 52 members voted in favor of the resolution opposing the academic boycott, so few that conference organizers did not count the number of ‘no’ votes (a vote to end debate and put the resolution to a vote had passed by a 653-27 margin just minutes earlier).
The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is gaining ground in American academe, with several other scholarly groups, most notably the American Studies Association, having endorsed it in the past year. Advocates of the boycott see it as a means of showing solidarity with the Palestinian people and of putting pressure on the Israeli government to change its policies, while opponents argue that a boycott undercuts values of academic freedom and would punish those members of Israeli society who are most inclined to be critical of their government, that is, Israeli scholars. (BDS advocates regularly emphasize that it calls for boycotting institutions as opposed to individual Israelis, while opponents just as routinely argue the distinction is specious because institutions are made up of individuals who work for them.)
The business meeting Friday at the AAA’s annual meeting was closed to registered members of the press – a departure from past practice of making business meetings open. The association’s leadership described a desire to provide a protected space where members could speak freely to one another about a volatile topic without fear of publicity, an objective that in any case was made moot by live tweeting of the proceedings by many in attendance. A prominent motif in the conference Twitter feed (#AAA2014) -- which was dominated by pro-boycott perspectives to the point that one person wrote "those who oppose the boycott please tweet something" -- was the idea that the proposed resolution opposing a boycott of Israeli universities would shut down dialogue on the topic at a time when the association has just begun to open it up.
The measure up for a vote on Friday stated that “a resolution supporting a boycott of Israeli academic institutions is negative in its aims, while this resolution is positive in its content.”
“Whereas anthropologists have always supported dialogue, and are known for their careful analysis of complex situations, it is hoped that the various panels and sessions relevant to this issue, will present alternative perspectives contributing to broader understanding enabling a constructive reformation of Israeli and American policies toward Palestinians."
“Be it resolved that the American Anthropological Association supports an immediate resumption of peace talks involving all parties, and not the negativity of a boycott which would not achieve anything.”
There was not a big group behind the anti-boycott resolution: its lead sponsor, Paula G. Rubel, was urged by other boycott opponents to withdraw it from consideration. “I didn’t want to do that because I think that now is the time that people are talking about the boycott,” said Rubel, a professor emerita at Barnard College and Columbia University and the outgoing president of AAA’s Association of Senior Anthropologists.
“I thought the resolution that we were involved in should be presented; if it was going to go down, it was going to go down.”
Rubel disagreed with the characterization that the resolution was intended to cut off dialogue, as did David Rosen, an anthropologist at Fairleigh Dickinson University and one of four other signatories (besides Rubel) to the anti-boycott resolution. Rather than short-circuit the conversation, Rosen argued, “it was a way of opening up dialogue outside the blunt instrument of boycott.”
But proponents of boycotts are just getting started. More than 1,000 anthropologists have signed a statement supporting the boycott of Israeli universities (including 148 who have signed anonymously), while about 400 have signed an anti-boycott statement (16 anonymously). Anthropologists leading the pro-boycott charge opted not to bring a resolution of their own to the AAA business meeting floor this year, though a spokeswoman said Thursday it likely will next year after the association's members have had time for additional conversation and education. The AAA’s annual meeting this year included a series of discussions and panels on the BDS movement, mostly featuring pro-boycott perspectives.
“What’s next is more conversation,” said Lara Deeb, of Scripps College, adding that this was the first year AAA has devoted so much time to the subject of Palestinian rights. Deeb is one of many anthropologists working to promote the academic boycott within the AAA.
Another anthropologist active in the movement, Lori Allen, of SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) at the University of London, described “the fact that we got that many people into a room for an association business meeting" as “a testament to people being tired of the status quo. That’s what BDS is about, trying to move the status quo.”
The AAA has appointed a task force to advise the executive board on whether and how the association might address issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The task force has been asked to “1) enumerate the issues embedded in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine that directly concern the association…. 2) develop principles to be used to assess whether the AAA has an interest in taking a stand on these issues; 3) provide such an assessment; 4) on the basis of that assessment, make recommendations to the Executive Board about actions the AAA could undertake.”
The task force will complete its work by next fall. “The key thing here is we are not bound to a dichotomous choice between 'yes we endorse the boycott resolution' or 'no we don’t endorse it,' ” said Don Brenneis, the task force chair and an anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “There’s a whole range of other kinds of possibilities, potentially.”
Monica Heller, the AAA president and a professor at the University of Toronto, said the general sentiment at the business meeting on Friday was that “it’s certainly appropriate for us to talk about it [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] and it’s probably appropriate for us to say something collectively – eventually.”
Aside from defeating the anti-boycott resolution, AAA members unanimously supported a resolution expressing outrage at a slew of recent cases in which black people have been killed by police officers and the failure of grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, as well as the dismissal of charges against the officer who shot 7-year-old Aiyanna Jones. The resolution calls on AAA’s executive board to issue a statement of condemnation, create a task force on police brutality and extrajudicial violence, and call on the U.S. Department of Justice “to review the use of force by police and to make a commitment to working for the eradication of racism and racialized state violence.” Earlier in the day on Friday, anthropologists held a "die-in" in the conference hotel lobby, lying down on the floor in protest of the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island.