Inside Higher Ed
American Anthropological Association members will vote this summer on a resolution “to boycott Israeli academic institutions,” after a similar effort failed by just 39 votes in 2016.
A group called the Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions says on its website that 206 members of the American Anthropological Association requested a full membership vote on the new resolution.
“Israeli academic institutions are complicit in the Israeli state’s regime of oppression against Palestinians, including by providing research and development of military and surveillance technologies used against Palestinians,” the proposed resolution states. It links to a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement website’s criticism of, among other institutions, Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
The resolution also says, “Israeli academic institutions do not provide protections for academic freedom, campus speech in support of Palestinian human and political rights, nor for the freedom of association of Palestinian students on their campuses.”
In an email, the group said, “There hasn’t been a simple ‘reviving’ [of the resolution], but the mobilization has been ongoing and intensified by the 2022 and 2023 apartheid reports from mainstream organizations, also due to the ramping up of abuses of Palestinians’ academic freedom by Israel.”
"Should AAA members pass a resolution in support of academic boycott, this would require the AAA as an organization to suspend official ties with Israeli academic institutions—but not individual Israeli scholars and students,” the group says. “For example, this would involve the AAA not running ads or promotions for academic programs at Israeli institutions, such as Haifa University, which has been criticized for its collaborations with the Israeli military and involvement in human rights violations against Palestinians.”
Jeff Martin, spokesman for the American Anthropological Association, said that if at least 50 members petition the organization’s executive board, a resolution can go before the full membership. That’s the route this year’s effort took.
“We are encouraging our members to inform themselves about the likely impacts of their vote on Israeli government policies and practices, on the Palestinian people and on the association, and vote accordingly,” he said. The electronic vote will take place June 15 to July 14.
The 2016 resolution came about differently. At the association’s annual business meeting the prior year, Martin said, there was a 1,040-to-136 vote to put that resolution before the whole membership.
The roughly 4,800 members who then voted in 2016 represented 51 percent of the association’s eligible members, “the largest turnout in AAA history,” Martin said. They rejected the resolution, 2,384 to 2,423.
Cary Nelson, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has been working against the resolution, said adopting “a controversial, divisive political position” with a low voter turnout would be a “hollow” victory that “splits an association.”
The Alliance for Academic Freedom, which he chairs, and the fellow Israel-defending Academic Engagement Network released a joint statement Monday opposing the resolution. It also bears the endorsements of about 90 other groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the National Association of Scholars, the North Carolina Coalition for Israel, Partners for Progressive Israel and StandWithUs.
“Back in 2016, the AAA’s full membership was also asked to endorse a similarly deeply divisive measure and voted against a boycott,” the statement says. “Seven years later, the principles at stake are unchanged and cutting off relationships with Israeli universities is more ill-advised than ever.”
“The resolution’s claim that an academic boycott ‘pertains to Israeli academic institutions only and not to individual scholars’ is untenable and has proven inadequate in preventing discrimination against Israeli academics,” the statement says. “Indeed, the boycott of Israel’s universities cannot be meaningfully separated from the faculty and students who work, teach and study in them.”
“Israel’s academics have long been among the most vocal critics of the Israeli state and its society,” the statement says. “An academic boycott would undercut the important work for peace and social justice being undertaken by many Israeli academics, as well as constructive and potentially transformative efforts to bring Israeli and Palestinian scholars together on joint projects.”
Nelson did say, “The situation has changed now,” primarily because of opposition to Israeli policies he himself opposes, like the recent proposed judiciary changes that set off protests across Israel.
“Our argument is that people shouldn’t use the opposition to government policies as a reason to attack Israeli universities, which by and large are opposed to those policies,” he argued.
He also said, “We worry that if the AAA votes in favor of an academic boycott, it may spread to other organizations” that have been “quiet” on this issue in recent years.
“This could open the floodgates again, and I personally would like to do my scholarship,” he said.