Letter from President Alisse Waterston: AAA Implements Action on Israel-Palestine - Participate and Advocate
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Letter from President Alisse Waterston: AAA Implements Action on Israel-Palestine

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June 24, 2016

Dear Fellow AAA Members,
 
I write this letter to share with you my reflections on where the Association has been, where it is now and where it is going in the short term with respect to AAA’s engagement with the conflict in Israel-Palestine. Throughout, the Association has followed democratic process, the dictates of its bylaws, and its mission as a membership organization. I am honored to be a part of this incredible process and historic moment.
 
Let me begin with two important observations: 1) There are very real and painful human problems, including those concerning academic freedom, brought on by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; and 2) Some among our members have long known that the political situation in Israel-Palestine is historically important and anthropologically relevant leading them to call upon AAA to engage as an association with the issues. Others would come to see and understand this. Still others believe “no action” is a serious option.
 
My view as your president and as an anthropologist is that we are obligated to act upon these observations. Over the past three years, the Association has gathered information and sorted through the clutter to land on the facts. We faced uncomfortable realities about the causes/consequences of Palestinian displacement and dispossession that continues to this very day, and debated and assessed which actions, if any, are appropriate for the association to take. AAA members brought the issue to the leadership and the leadership responded by studying, understanding, and then engaging a set of activities.
 
It is imperative for anthropologists committed to human rights and academic freedom to dosomething. To act is aligned with the discipline’s values and commitments, which the AAA upholds and which are stated in its mission: to support the development of anthropological knowledge, to help disseminate that knowledge, and to facilitate the application of knowledge to help solve human problems.
 
How AAA got here

In 2013, 600 anthropologists petitioned the AAA to address the issues surrounding the conflict in Israel and Palestine by sanction. AAA responded by taking the time to engage in well-informed and respectful deliberation, and thinking through the nature and extent to which it might contribute to the issues raised by the conflict.
Recognizing that the debates on Israel-Palestine are important and relevant to anthropology, anthropologists and the Association, the AAA Executive Board, under the leadership of President Monica Heller, on August 1, 2014 announced the formation of the Task Force on the AAA Engagement on Israel/ Palestine (TFIP).
 
The TFIP submitted its peer-reviewed report to the Executive Board on October 1, 2015. Three days later, the Executive Board released the report to AAA members in order to advance discussion prior to the annual meeting, which was held the following month. The report was distributed through the normal channels of communication, including the AAA website where it remains available.
 
On November 20, 2015, a record-breaking 1400 members attended the Association’s annual business meeting to discuss one issue: the role of AAA in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Two resolutions were debated that night (Resolution 1: “Engaging Israel Palestine: End the Occupation, Oppose Academic Boycott, Support Dialogue”; Resolution 2: “Resolution to Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions”). Both resolutions condemned the Israeli occupation and called on AAA to engage as an association with the issues embedded in the political situation. They differed on how to do so. The long night ended decisively: a motion passed by wide margin to bring Resolution 2 (the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions) to the full membership for a vote the following spring.
 
In the immediate aftermath of the business meeting and in my capacity as AAA President, I convened a working group of the Executive Board in December (2015) to review, evaluate, and consider the set of possible courses of action ( since ratified) that the EB might take with regard to engaging Israel-Palestine, separate and apart from a boycott, on which the membership would decide in the spring vote. The working group was asked to assess these possible actions in terms of their alignment with the Association’s core values and mission as a scholarly and professional society. The actions would also be assessed in relation to the findings, guiding principles, and list of possible actions detailed in the TFIP report.
 
This step in the process was announced in a letter from the president to the membership on March 17 th, in the March 2016 AN President’s column, and again in the April 2016 AN President’s column in which I summarized the working group’s deliberations and the proposed courses of action the Board as a whole would be asked to consider, regardless of the outcome of the membership vote on the boycott resolution.
 
The TFIP Report on AAA Engagement on Israel-Palestine
 
Based on expert peer review by 10 highly reputable scholars, the Executive Board concluded that the rebuttals by a few critics raised only minor, peripheral issues and failed to challenge the report’s key conclusion: the policies and practices of the Israeli government place significant limitations on academic freedom and have led to substantial deprivations in the health and welfare of Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, as well as within Israel itself.
 
In considering whether or not AAA would take action on Israel-Palestine as an association, the Executive Board weighed all of the facts and factors brought before it by our members. It recognizes that the issue is relevant to the Association and to the field of anthropology in part because anthropological scholarship is often used to support various arguments about the causes, processes, and consequences of these government policies and practices. Matters of identity, as well as disputes over rights and access to land and other resources are framed with anthropological arguments. Taking this together with the findings of the TFIP report, a statement by the AAA Committee for Human Rights, and the clear message to AAA leadership from members (including member comments posted on AAA’s public blog and the AN members-only website), the Executive Board concurred with the Task Force recommendation that AAA must take some action.
 
The Vote

It became clear to AAA leadership that there was intense interest by “outside” groups across the political spectrum in the outcome of the vote as indicated by news reports, opinion pieces, social media communications and emails sent directly to the Association leadership.
 
AAA has closely monitored membership patterns to assess irregularities, especially year-over-year changes from January 1 to June 1. There has been absolutely no evidence of a spike in either direction regarding membership. AAA has seen a slow but steady increase in membership since 2014 (Jan-June 2014, 1% increase; Jan-June 2015, 1% increase; Jan-June 2016, 1% increase). This consistency has remained.
 
The boycott resolution was put to a vote held April 15 through May 31 2016. In unprecedented voter turnout, members rejected the use of boycott by a narrow margin. A record-setting fifty-one percent (51%) of the membership voted; a proposed academic boycott of Israeli institutions was voted down, with 2,423 opposing and 2,384 supporting the boycott.
 
While a boycott of academic institutions is off the table, the general consensus has not changed: AAA can and should take appropriate action to address the serious threats to human rights and academic freedom that have been observed and documented in the region.
 
AAA Actions on Israel-Palestine

On May 22, 2016, the Executive Board voted to approve a series of actions it considers aligned with its mission as a scholarly society, which was reported to the membership on the AAA website.
 
AAA’s interest is in helping raise critical awareness of the dynamics of peace and conflict in the region, and to draw attention to the disproportionate suffering of the Palestinian people and what can be done about it. AAA’s goals are to contribute to the enrichment of the health and welfare of all people in the region, increase circulation of anthropological scholarship, ease restrictions on scholars’ travel, increase freedom of expression for Palestinian and Israeli anthropologists, and increase dialogue about how archaeology is used in political arguments.
 
In keeping with the Executive Board’s decision, the American Anthropological Association:
  1. has issued a statement censuring the Israeli Government’s policies and practices
  2. has issued a letter to the relevant ministries of the Israeli government
  3. has issued a letter to relevant US government authorities
  4. will soon initiate conversations with sister societies with regard to ethical and legal issues related to Israeli-authorized excavations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the contested ways in which cultural heritage and archaeological research are implicated in these issues
  5. has or will provide active resource support for Palestinian and Israeli academics and visiting scholars to Palestine, as follows:
    1. AAA has ungated access to AnthroSource, the Association’s digital, online literature, making it available free of charge to Palestinian universities
    2. AAA will develop a fellowship fund, pending Finance Committee review and Board Approval (more details coming soon)
  6. has posted AAA’s socially responsible investment policy
7. requested other AAA entities to take responsibility for particular actions
  1. hereby leaves up to individual members to take responsibility for particular actions on their own behalf, to write letters to relevant government authorities concerning cases where there is felt to be a violation of academic freedoms; and to assess individual employer investment portfolios in order to make investment choices according to their conscience.
 
The Fellowship Fund

Pending Board approval of a detailed plan, I will be asking for your help in supporting a fellowship fund to actively support Palestinian and Israeli academics and visiting scholars to Palestine (see 5B above). Considering the ways in which Israeli government policies and practices make it difficult for Palestinian academics, including anthropologists, to travel to international conferences, and place obstructions on Palestinian and dissenting Israeli academics, the fellowship fund will enable the travel of Palestinian and Israeli academics to AAA conferences, and of academics and/or visiting scholars in anthropology to act as teachers, mentors or research collaborators with colleagues in the West Bank and Gaza.
 
An anonymous AAA member has pledged to donate $5000 to this fellowship fund, pending Board approval of the fund and its set up according to stated intentions. This pledge is in addition to the donor’s annual contributions to the AAA, recognizing the Endowment Fund, the AAA Intern Program and AAA’s Public Education Initiatives “World on the Move” and “RACE: Are We So Different?”.
 
Concluding remarks

At its fundamental core, AAA is dedicated to promoting the global exchange of anthropological research, promoting academic freedom, and protecting human rights. It is not easy to take on such a challenging, complex and fraught issue as Israel-Palestine. The leadership understands it is a matter of mission, process and accountability that we make our best effort to do so.
 
I am grateful that for the most part, our members took part in an informed, thoughtful, and respectful debate throughout this long process. Making decisions, finding solutions and taking action often means going to uncomfortable places and doing uncomfortable things. I believe our association offers a model for how to do this well. In terms of Israel-Palestine, we see the conditions on the ground and understand the multiplicity of factors that have created them. We appreciate the difficulties and painfulness of the entire situation, and are capable of separating out narratives of fear that sustain inequity and violence from genuine angst and anxiety. We also know that our actions do not come from a position of easy moral superiority but from love for all of humanity.
 
As I look to our collective future, I hope you will see the AAA as I do: as a safe, accessible space that welcomes anthropologists to come together to discuss, deliberate, agree, disagree, and agree to disagree on some of today’s most painful and difficult issues. It is our shared space, and I hope you will continue to support it and to engage it fully.
 
Thank you very much for your attention.
 
Yours sincerely,
 
Alisse Waterston
AAA President


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