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A photo illustration of the Israeli and Palestinian flags, with a rather grimy filter.

Inside Higher Ed

Members of the American Anthropological Association have narrowly voted to reject a resolution calling on the group to boycott Israeli academic institutions.

A total of 2,423 AAA members voted to oppose the boycott measure, while 2,384 supported it. About 51 percent of AAA’s 9,359 voting-eligible members participated in the boycott vote, which took place online from April 15 through May 31.

The results of the online vote contrast sharply with the results of a vote in favor of an academic boycott that took place at the association’s annual business meeting in November. At that time, members in attendance voted by an overwhelming 1,040 to 136 margin to move forward with a boycott resolution by placing it on an online ballot for consideration by the full membership this spring. The general sentiment among attendees at the annual business meeting was strongly pro-boycott, while the results of the online vote suggest a fairly even division of opinion among AAA members.

​The defeat of the academic boycott resolution notwithstanding, AAA plans to take a series of actions in response to member concerns about Israeli government policies and their impact on Palestinian rights. Planned actions include:

  • Issuing a statement of censure of the Israeli government addressing policies and practices that “restrict freedom of movement for Palestinian academics and foreign academics going to the West Bank; restrict access to publications on the West Bank; inflict damage on Palestinian academic life; deny full accreditation for Al-Quds University [a Palestinian institution in the West Bank]; deny freedom of expression to Palestinian and dissenting Jewish faculty and students at Israeli universities; and obstruct payment of salaries to West Bank faculty.”
  • Issuing a letter to the U.S. government that “will identify the ways in which U.S. government resources and policies contribute to policies in Israel/Palestine that violate academic freedom and disenfranchise Palestinians, and will call on relevant U.S. government agencies to work toward effective changes in Israeli government policies and practices.”
  • Identifying ways to provide “active resource support for Palestinian and Israeli academics as well as visiting scholars in the region,” by, for example, making AAA’s online database, AnthroSource, available to Palestinian universities free of charge and establishing travel fellowships. The proposed fellowships -- which are contingent on “financial feasibility and/or successful fund-raising efforts” -- would fund the travel of Palestinian and Israeli academics to AAA conferences and support travel for visiting scholars who want to collaborate with colleagues in the West Bank and Gaza.

Alisse Waterston, AAA’s president and an anthropology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said these and other actions were developed to align with the mission and values of the association as a professional society as well as the findings and principles outlined in a report from a task force the AAA commissioned on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The task force -- whose report was criticized by boycott opponents as an “unbalanced, one-sided document” that “reduces this Middle Eastern conflict to a string of accusations toward Israel” -- urged the association to take action of some form in response to what it characterized as “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.”

“The consensus within the AAA remains and that is that there are serious human rights problems that exist in Israel/Palestine as a result of Israeli state policy, practices and the occupation and that AAA must take a course of action,” said Waterston.

Waterston said that AAA’s executive board feels comfortable moving forward with the planned actions without a separate vote based on the feedback it’s gathered from members on the issue over the last few years. And she noted that each of the two formal resolutions put forward at the November business meeting -- the one in favor of boycott that proceeded to the full membership vote and one against boycott that was voted down by business meeting attendees -- both express concerns about Israeli government policies and practices, including Israel’s occupation of territories captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

“There is disagreement around the academic boycott, but there is a general consensus on the rest,” Waterston said.

The defeat of the boycott resolution is a setback for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which has in recent years gained momentum in American academe. If the resolution had passed, the AAA would have been the largest academic association to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Smaller scholarly associations that have approved Israel boycott resolutions since 2013 include the African Literature Association, the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, the National Women’s Studies Association and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.

The movement to boycott Israeli universities is controversial, both because its opponents reject what they see as a singling out of the Jewish state of Israel for special opprobrium and because of a more general opposition to academic boycotts as incompatible with academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors opposes academic boycotts in light of its commitment to the free exchange of ideas and urges academic associations to “seek alternative means, less inimical to the principle of academic freedom, to pursue their concerns.”

A group of anthropologists who oppose the boycott, Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel and Palestine, issued a statement expressing "delight and relief" at the vote results. The group maintains that an academic boycott would "erode our discipline’s professional ethos," while failing to aid in the Palestinian cause.

"One of the successes of BDS not only in the AAA but also elsewhere was creating an impression that you either support boycotting academic institutions in Israel or you’re a fascist, or you're a supporter of the occupation," said Dan Rabinowitz, a member of ADIP's steering committee and a professor of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University. "I think what’s happened in the last six months is that through our campaign we made many more people aware that this is a very simplistic choice and that really the argument here is not for or against Israel but rather how decent people everywhere should engage themselves with a situation that is complex and tragic and needs engagement. Boycotting universities has very little to do with changing anything in favor of Palestinians."

By contrast, Rabinowitz said he welcomed AAA's plans to censure the Israeli government as a "measure directed in the right direction."

Other anthropologists who favor the academic boycott argue that the tactic is effective in pressuring Israel to end its violations of Palestinian rights. Proponents describe the academic boycott as a way for scholars to protest Israeli policies and to stand in solidarity with Palestinian colleagues. 

In a statement, Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions called attention to the role they said was played by outside organizations that sought to defeat the boycott resolution and said it would "press on with its campaign to educate colleagues about Israel-Palestine and to mobilize anthropologists to take effective action in support of Palestinian rights through the boycott." The group noted that more about 1,300 anthropologists have signed a pledge to uphold the boycott of Israeli universities in their personal capacities (about 200 of those 1,300 anthropologists signed anonymously). 

"The incredibly narrow margin -- 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent -- is a statistical dead heat," Lisa Rofel, an organizer of the boycott resolution and an anthropology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said via email. "It is an indication of how successful anthropologists in support of the boycott have been in our efforts. I take this incredibly narrow margin as a virtual tie vote. We have come such a long way in a very short amount of time. We have opened a space for discussion of Palestinian rights that did not exist before. This virtual tie means we should continue our efforts."​


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