Academic Boycotts and Beyond

Task force charged with evaluating how anthropology association should respond to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict recommends that group take action, and suggests that censure of Israeli policies is insufficient.

October 6, 2015

A task force charged with recommending how the American Anthropological Association (AAA) should respond to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has outlined a range of possible actions the group can take, from issuing a statement censuring the Israeli government -- a step the task force supports but considers to be, by itself, insufficient -- to boycotting Israeli universities.

The task force refrains from making a recommendation for or against academic boycott, opting instead to address the pros and cons of the tactic and issues for the association to consider if it were to enact one. The task force does, however, recommend that the AAA should take action of some kind in response to the numerous human rights and academic freedom violations it ascribes to the Israeli government.

“We are of the unanimous opinion that, in terms of these principles, there is a strong case for the association to take action on this issue and that the association should do so,” the task force report states. (The task force identifies a set of eight principles that informed its recommendations, including AAA’s commitments to human rights, to academic freedom, and to advocacy for minority, disadvantaged and indigenous groups.)

“As viewed through the frame of ‘settler colonialism,’ Palestinians constitute a disadvantaged group whose human rights are under threat, and some Palestinian civil society groups have asked AAA to intervene on their behalf,” the report continues. “The State of Israel systematically limits the academic freedom of faculty and students in the West Bank and Gaza and also, in more subtle ways, of Jewish and Palestinian academics in Israel itself. Anthropologists who have a covenantal relationship with Palestinians in their research are, broadly, unanimous in their perception of injustice toward the Palestinian community and in urging the association to take some kind of action. And there is a substantial community within the association that, in accordance with the association’s democratic traditions, has invested considerable effort in making the case that the association should take action on this issue. If ever there was a time when this was a fringe issue within the association, that time has passed.”

More than 1,000 anthropologists have signed a petition supporting the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. About half a dozen U.S.-based scholarly associations have endorsed the academic boycott of Israeli universities, the American Studies Association being the most prominent among them. “If the AAA were to follow suit, it would be by far the largest academic association to do so,” the task force’s report states (the association counts about 11,000 members).

The task force’s report describes an academic boycott as “the most provocative of the actions available” to the association, and notes opposition to the tactic on academic freedom grounds: “there is an inherent tension between an academic boycott and the commitment to ‘the dissemination of anthropological knowledge’ foregrounded in the association’s mission statement,” the task force writes. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) opposes academic boycotts for cutting off the free exchange of ideas.

Yet the task force spoke to some anthropologists who argued that a boycott is a powerful tool to influence public policy within Israel. As the report states, “A number of our interlocutors felt the same way as the Middle Eastern Studies specialist we interviewed who said, ‘A year ago I would have said a boycott was ineffective. I’m no longer sure of that. It has an effect on public debate in Israel, just the word “boycott.” The perception is that Israel is being South Africanized.’”

Similarly, the pro-boycott petition signed by more than 1,000 anthropologists describes boycott as “the only nonviolent form of pressure that could persuade Israelis to call for -- and act for -- meaningful change that could lead to a just peace.”

The task force notes that an academic boycott could include “any of a number of subcomponents” that AAA could “pick and choose as if ordering from a menu.” These could include refusing to provide AAA’s electronic database, AnthroSource, to Israeli universities (an action that would, the task force notes, violate the association’s contract with its publisher); banning job postings from Israeli universities and prohibiting Israeli anthropology departments from using conference facilities for interviews; and declining to list Israeli departments in AAA materials.

Other components of a potential boycott identified by the task force include: “a ban on joint conferences and events; a requirement that AAA journal editors not acknowledge Israeli state funding in articles they publish; refraining from inviting Israeli university officials to official AAA events; recommending that AAA members decline invitations for visiting appointments at Israeli universities, from working in projects funded by the Israeli government, from research that requires Israeli state permits, or from working with special collections at Israeli universities and libraries; and a policy of discouraging members from refereeing tenure and promotion cases at Israeli institutions, or grant proposals for the Israel Science Foundation.”

The task force writes that it “does not support denying individual Israeli academics the right to register for AAA conferences or to publish in AAA journals, even if their expenses have been paid for by their institutions. If the association were to undertake an academic boycott, we would urge it to emphasize that the boycott is of Israeli institutions, not individuals, and to acknowledge that some Israeli anthropologists have been quite critical of the political system within which they live.”

The task force also identifies a number of other actions, aside from an academic boycott, that the anthropological association could take. These include:

  • No action. The task force does not recommend this.
  • A statement condemning Israeli government policy toward Palestinians. The task force unanimously recommends this while also noting that a statement of censure or concern “would in our view be an insufficient course of action if it were the only action undertaken.”
  • A letter to the U.S. government. The task force recommends that any statement of censure of the Israeli government be accompanied by a letter “to relevant U.S. government agencies drawing attention to the ways in which U.S. government resources and policies contribute to policies in Israel/Palestine that violate academic freedom and disenfranchise Palestinians.”
  • A letter-writing campaign in the tradition of the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom, which regularly writes letters to foreign government and university leaders about alleged violations of academic freedom throughout the Middle East.
  • Applying pressure on Israel regarding archaeological issues. The task force recommends that AAA “enter into conversations” with archaeological associations about excavations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem “and, more generally, the politicization of the archaeological record in Israel.”
  • Providing resources to Palestinian universities. The task force records its dismay at teaching and research conditions for Palestinian scholars and recommends that AAA could, for example, consider making AnthroSource freely available to Palestinian universities or establishing fellowships to support the travel of Palestinian academics, among other options.
  • Economic boycott. The task force acknowledges its limited leverage in this regard, but observes that AAA could encourage members to boycott products from Israeli settlements and could “articulate an investment policy statement to ensure it does not invest in companies that have been spotlighted by pro-Palestinian activists as particularly complicit with violations of Palestinians’ basic rights.”
  • A targeted boycott of selected Israeli faculty and institutions. The task force expresses skepticism about the option of a selective, as opposed to a blanket, boycott, citing both its own lack of resources to determine appropriate boycott targets and the special condemnation the AAUP reserves for selective boycotts “that entail an ideological litmus test.”

The task force recommends that the executive board consider the impact of whatever actions it takes on Israeli anthropologists and to the association itself. One person the task force spoke with discussed the risk of lawsuits filed by boycott opponents. “Others warned that members of Congress might seek ways to punish the AAA and the discipline of anthropology for a strong stance on this issue by cutting public support for anthropological research.”

Over all, the task force’s report offers a highly critical assessment of the effect of Israeli government policies on the lives -- and academic careers -- of Palestinians. A significant section of the report discusses human rights issues, with a dual focus on “structural inequalities in terms of access to resources, education and health outcomes” and “the complex system of identity cards, checkpoints and other restrictions that has been put in place to control the movement of Palestinians, with particular attention to the case of Jerusalem.”

“Throughout, we see a tragic instance of victims of one of the most egregious instances of nationalism/colonialism creating a system of oppression with echoes of the very system they had managed to escape,” the report states.

Only one of the six task force members had previously conducted fieldwork in the Middle East region. Members of the task force interviewed about 120 people it identified as having expertise on relevant issues in the region. Three of the task force members took a 10-day trip to Israel and the West Bank in May.

“What we have been saying for quite some time now is that we want to have a good conversation about this important issue, and I think this task force report has provided us an important tool with which we can have that conversation,” said Alisse Waterston, the president-elect of AAA and a professor of anthropology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Waterston said she expects lively conversations on the topic at the association's annual conference in Denver in November. “I’m sure it will be the talk of the town, or one of the talks of the town, when we meet in about a month, and we have to wait and see what feedback we get from the membership on this issue. I’m sure there will be multiple points of view,” she said.

The leaders of the Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions campaign plan to propose a resolution supporting the boycott of Israeli academic institutions at the business meeting during the annual conference. “We appreciate the diligence with which the task force conducted its research and the thoroughness of its report, and welcome the task force’s unanimous recommendation that AAA take substantive action on the situation in Israel/Palestine,” members of the campaign's organizing collective wrote in a statement.

“We also note the report’s observation that merely censuring Israel would by itself be an ‘insufficient course of action,’ and look forward to continued discussion of an academic boycott of Israeli institutions at the annual meeting this November. The boycott we have proposed would apply to Israeli academic institutions, not individual scholars, and it would not impose any binding action on individual AAA members, who would remain free to decide whether and how to implement the boycott in their own professional practice.”

Harvey E. Goldberg, the president of the Israeli Anthropological Association (IAA) and a professor emeritus of anthropology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, will be among those advocating against a boycott. “To me the basic questions are not so much the details of the report but what are the premises of this whole enterprise, of a certain group of anthropologists who happen to represent the largest association, the most influential association with the most funds and so forth starting to exert judgment on anthropologists in a part of the world that is very conflicted, very complex, as if nothing else was going on in the world that was worthy of attention,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg also said that while he recognizes the task force report as representing a serious effort, he personally wouldn't attempt to write a report about a country about which he was not an expert after a 10-day visit.

The IAA approved a resolution in June calling on Israel to withdraw from the territories it occupied after the 1967 war, to end “the siege” of Gaza and to cooperate in its reconstruction, to recognize the full and equal rights of Palestinian and Bedouin citizens within Israel, and to put in place a “spectrum of dignified, just and effective solutions to the tragedy of Palestinian refugees.” The IAA statement also opposes academic boycotts.

“Recognizing the important role that moderate segments in Israeli society, including academics, have played over the years in the difficult struggle for peace in the region, the IAA calls on anthropologists and academics abroad to resist conflating academic institutions with government policies and actions, and to oppose initiatives to boycott universities in Israel,” the resolution states. “Associating academic institutions with the political regimes they operate in flies in the face of anthropology's most enduring contribution to intellectual and political sensibilities: its ability to recognize and articulate nuance, deal with social and cultural complexity and avoid essentialization.”


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