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Reasons to Vote For/Against the Resolution to Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions

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April 8, 2016

The AAA ballot will include a resolution to boycott Israeli Academic Institutions sent forward from November's business meeting in Denver. This is a decision with important consequences for the Association. It is essential that every AAA member vote in the election that opens on April 15th. We have asked proponents and opponents of the resolution to present in highly distilled fashion up to 10 reasons why the Association should / should not act as an Association on this matter. Vote here. 


Reasons to vote "Yes" on the AAA resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions

Presented by Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Because the Association is committed to human rights, as affirmed by the 1999 Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights. The AAA has a long history of taking stands in support of human rights and in solidarity with oppressed peoples. More than any other means available to the Association, the boycott would increase international pressure on Israel to end its systematic human rights abuses. Responding to the Palestinian civil society call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions is in accord with anthropology’s best traditions and collective commitment to justice.

Because the Association supports academic freedom. The AAA Task Force on Israel/Palestine noted that Israel has long impeded the work of Palestinian and non-Palestinian scholars. Israeli forces routinely raid Palestinian universities, arrest students and teachers, and block the importation of books and academic materials. They have also detained, harassed, deported, and denied entry to anthropologists and other scholars. The boycott protests these crushing restrictions on teaching and research. Moreover, the boycott’s commitment to academic freedom is absolute and applies to all: Israeli scholars will remain welcome to attend AAA meetings and publish in AAA journals. 

Because speaking out as an institution would make the Association a powerful voice for change. The boycott leverages the collective weight of the AAA to put pressure on Israel to end its abuses against Palestinians. It is an institutional response that likewise applies only to academic institutions, making it even more narrowly tailored than the blanket academic boycott against apartheid South Africa. By the same token, the boycott does not prevent any individual AAA member from collaborating with Israeli colleagues or even Israeli institutions.

Because the Association is based in the United States, the primary enabler of Israel’s abuses. As the largest organization of U.S.-based anthropologists, the AAA has a long record of speaking critically to the U.S. government, including its opposition to the Human Terrain System, torture, and wars on Vietnam, Grenada, and Iraq. The boycott is an act of protest against Washington’s unconditional and unlimited military and diplomatic support to Israel. By becoming the largest-ever academic association to endorse the boycott, the AAA would invigorate critical public discussion of U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine.

Because of the Association’s experience with boycotting for social justice. Boycotts are an effective pressure tactic for redressing injustice. In the past, the AAA has boycotted the Fulbright-Chile program, and the U.S. states of Arizona, Georgia, and Illinois for their rights violations. This resolution continues the Association’s proud history of heeding calls for boycott from disenfranchised groups.

Because the Association’s commitment to research ethics is at odds with Israel’s misuse of scholarship for colonial expansion. One glaring example is Israeli archaeology, which has systematically provided pretexts for the seizure of land and expulsion of Palestinians, as documented by the AAA Task Force on Israel/Palestine. The practice of archaeology in Israel/Palestine is effectively under Israeli state (and, in the West Bank, military) control and subordinated to a project of colonial settlement.

Because anthropologists of the Middle East strongly support the boycott. Anthropologists with scholarly knowledge of Israel/Palestine have been among the boycott’s most vociferous supporters and over 100 members of the AAA Middle East Section have signed a petition supporting the boycott. Their position, and that of many of their colleagues, is based upon ethnographic research and knowledge of decades of published scholarship about Israel/Palestine. In this sense, the boycott embodies the use of anthropological knowledge to help “solve human problems,” as envisioned by the AAA’s Statement of Purpose.

Because the Association has thoroughly, thoughtfully, and democratically deliberated the question. This resolution emerges from years of panels and other scholarly discussions within the Association. The AAA Task Force on Israel/Palestine’s 140-page report noted that “censure” of Israel would be “an insufficient course of action” on its own. The vast majority of voters (88%) at the Denver business meeting -- the best-attended in AAA history -- endorsed this resolution calling for the boycott. The Association has also overwhelmingly rejected not one, but two, anti-boycott resolutions proffering only a vague commitment to “dialogue.” The boycott has been rigorously debated by wide swathes of the Association’s membership; the time for action is now.


Reasons to vote "No" on the AAA resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions

Presented by Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel and Palestine (ADIP).

Palestinians suffer and Israel is often at fault. But the instinct to boycott Israeli universities as response is misguided.  It will not enhance Palestinian rights and could jeopardize the AAA. Harmful to academic freedom, it goes against the grain of anthropology. Members of the AAA must resist the feel-good effect and zero-sum logic which drive the boycott resolution. There are other, more productive ways to mobilize anthropological sensibilities in the service of peace, justice and the rights of Palestinians.

An academic boycott betrays anthropology’s values and could harm the AAA. Anthropology employs diverse perspectives, not least in conflict situations. Its methods stress dialogue, long term relationships, trust and respect for difference. The initiative for academic boycott flies in the face of these values. Diametrically opposed to the AAA's commitment to academic freedom, it is already driving wedges between progressive Israelis and their Palestinian counterparts. If passed, the boycott resolution will destroy any potential for academics to enhance reconciliation.  

The boycott resolution uses general, witch-hunt type accusations. Boycotters accuse Israeli universities of being "complicit” with the occupation – a sweeping, cavalier claim that is impossible to prove, refute or benchmark. The AAA’s task force report on Israel/Palestine noticed that and warned the association from vague boycott conditions which could lead to an indefinite ban. Do members of the AAA want to embrace this cursory punitive act? Do they aspire to become the moral arbiters of their colleagues’ actions and perspectives?

An academic boycott will harm individuals. Boycotters keep saying they target institutions, not individuals. This claim is insincere at best. Badges we wear at conferences, by-lines at the top of journal articles, resumes and terms we use to introduce each other all consist of names attached to titles and affiliations - institutional idioms that define who and what we are. Younger scholars and graduate students are particularly dependent on institutional support. They need reference letters, funding opportunities, academic homes at precarious stages of their careers and more. Shun the university a scholar is affiliated with and you may truncate their future.  Can anthropologists, of all people, pretend to misrecognize this simple reality of academic life?

Academic boycott will do nothing for the rights of Palestinians on the ground. On the contrary: it will only strengthen rightwing Israeli claims that “the world is all against us” and give tail-wind to those seeking to prolong the occupation.

The AAA should be wary of privileging a single narrative. The International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences wisely cautioned that "Human rights discourses should be understood as embedded in socio-political practices [...] and may marginalize or even oppress some by others."  AAA members should be careful of "human rights" being called upon from only one political angle.  Committed to use their discipline to help resolve the world’s most pressing problems, surely they can recognize that boycott won’t achieve this.

An academic boycott will isolate the most progressive Israelis. Israel’s government cares little for social sciences or the humanities. Israeli anthropologists, who like others in Israel are willing to voice dissent, are vulnerable. Vote for a boycott and you lend support to the populist nationalistic surge in Israel against ‘lefties’ which targets Israelis who most likely share your views and values. In 2015, for example, the Israeli Anthropological Association became the country’s only academic association ever to pass a resolution which calls the government to end the occupation, stop the siege of Gaza, safeguard the rights of Palestinian citizens and seek solutions for Palestinian refugees. IAA’s 2015 resolution is infinitely stronger than any resolution in the 115 years history of AAA.  How can boycotting those who passed it help anything?

An academic boycott would turn the AAA into a partisan political tool. Boycotters are not necessarily concerned with the best interests of the AAA and are oblivious to the danger of collateral damage to it. The motivations of many sympathizers with the boycott are commendable – they want to nudge Israel toward reconciliation. But the leadership of BDS, the movement behind the boycott resolution, is less benign. Their endgame is to undo the very existence of Israel, a member state of the UN. Aligning with this dangerous goal could be disastrous for the AAA.

Boycotting Israeli universities will discredit the AAA as a professional association and will harm research. It may jeopardize already tenuous funding streams from US government sources, portray the AAA as biased, impoverish anthropology’s contribution to knowledge in and of the region, and undermine all efforts to increase its influence. Motions for such a boycott are meeting escalating criticism, and were condemned by the American Association of Universities, American Council on Education and American Association of University Professors.

The AAA can reject an academic boycott and still productively engage in the struggle for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine. AAA’s actions regarding Israel/Palestine should not be reduced to an all-or-nothing choice. The AAA’s task force and President Waterston were loud and clear on measures the association may adopt: formal condemnation of Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian lands; Advocacy for Palestinians’ freedom of speech, free movement and the right to normal academic life; calls to the US administration to aggressively nudge Israel to compromise; active promotion of anthropological teaching and research at Palestinian universities, and more. These are measures that can be adopted without resorting to a boycott.



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