Boycotting Israeli Academic Institutions

At its annual meeting in November of 2015, a group of members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) endorsed a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions by a vote of 1040-136. In April, the general membership of the AAA will vote on whether or not to accept the resolution, which reads, in part, as follows:

  • Whereas Israeli academic institutions have been directly and indirectly complicit in the Israeli state's systematic maintenance of the occupation and denial of basic rights to Palestinians, by providing planning, policy, and technological expertise for furthering Palestinian dispossession; and
  • Whereas the vast majority of Palestinian civil society organizations, including the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors, have called for an international boycott of Israeli academic institutions as part of the broader boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement; now therefore
  • Be it resolved that the AAA as an Association endorses and will honor this call from Palestinian civil society to boycott Israeli academic institutions until such time as these institutions end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law; and...

As an anthropologist and member of AAA, I find this quite disquieting. The resolution, should it be enacted, serves little more than to squelch the open exchange of ideas among scholars in Israel and other countries -- including those individual scholars who have provided planning, policy, and technological expertise to the Israeli government -- and inhibits the free pursuit of research and education about all sides of and attitudes toward the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

And this particular academic boycott reeks the strong odor of uncritically applied and deeply biased political ideology. The Israeli government clearly has not been a friend of human rights when it comes to the Palestinians, but why is the AAA, given its professed claim of a commitment to the "protection of human rights for people around the world," only singling out Israel? We see human rights violations in many, many countries -- North Korea, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, etc. But the AAA has not made any effort to boycott those nations. Why only Israel?

In fact, if the AAA's concerns are truly related to the complicity of academic institutions in a government's "systematic maintenance of the occupation and denial of basic rights" then they should consider boycotting American academic institutions, which have long been involved in the U.S. government's military establishment and foreign affairs, from developing weapons technologies to contributing to the creation of policy. This has often resulted in systematic denial of basic rights of people in other countries either directly or indirectly by the U.S. government.

Also, over the past year, there has been a great deal of public discourse concerning racism in American universities and the failure of many institutions to develop policies that address the needs of racial and ethnic minorities. What is interesting is that I have not seen calls within AAA for a boycott of American universities although there have been many public claims of systematic racism in academic institutions that dispriveleges minorities.

Academic boycotts serve little purpose and, in fact, can hurt not only institutions but individual scholars. In this case, these are scholars who should be engaging with academics within AAA (and elsewhere) about Israeli policy and the role of academic institutions in that policy. Although the AAA indicates that it is not targeting individual scholars from Israel, the effect is the same and the resolution obfuscates the fact that many Israeli academics oppose their own government's Palestinian policies.

Regardless of how one responds to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, it is difficult to comprehend why the AAA feels the need to single out Israel other than to engage in selective demonization of a country that many members of the AAA don't seem to like.

As Harvard's Steven Pinker asks, "In a world of repressive governments and ongoing conflicts, isn't there something unsavory about singling the citizens of one of these countries for unique vilification and punishment?"

More than unsavory, the AAA resolution is hypocritical and arrogant. It fails to recognize the fact that Israel is one among many governments and institutions, including American examples, that have found ways to systematically disrespect basic human rights. And it represents the case of a group of scholars in one country mounting a moral high horse from which they are targeting foreign academic institutions (and thus individuals) for sanction, an act that runs counter to the basic tenets of open discourse, academic freedom, and respect for different perspectives and viewpoints.

Rather than boycotting Israeli academic institutions the AAA should be engaged in promoting awareness of the activities of all governments and institutions that work against human rights--including American examples--and should work to inform the public about how cultural values can shape and influence perceptions about human rights, both among the public and among scholars. And it should do this without singling out specific governments or institutions for vilification.