Targeting the Israeli Academy: Will Anthropologists Have the Courage to Just Say "No"?

The ideals of the modern academy too are fragile and vulnerable. We are witnessing their subordination to a political agenda even as supporters of the boycott movement try to mitigate the horror of their proposals by drawing a distinction between shunning Israeli academic institutions and discriminating against individual Israeli scholars.
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Should members of the American Anthropological Association, as a group, shun Israeli universities and research organizations? Should the American Anthropological Association, as an organization, place an embargo on the free flow of scholarly and scientific information to Israeli libraries and journals? Voting begins on April 15 on a proposal to do both.

The proposal has a history. Since 2005 an international Palestinian political movement known as the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) has been targeting the Israeli academy, trying to gain support for boycott resolutions by universities and professional academic societies in the United States and Europe. To date their success has been limited. Two academic societies, the Association of Asian American Studies and the American Studies Association, finally signed on in 2013 but more recently in 2016 a boycott proposal was decisively rejected by the American Historical Association.

Nevertheless BDS mobilization efforts aimed at social science disciplines have intensified. While the outcome of the upcoming vote at the American Anthropological Association remains uncertain the debate within that liberal-left leaning profession has been agonizing and divisive. So much so that many distinguished anthropologists who don't like academic boycotts are hesitant to say so in public. Nevertheless the conflict is unavoidable. Like it or not there is a fight developing for the soul of the discipline.

The pro-boycott activists are galvanized. They have the courage of their conviction that Israel is a neo-colonial apartheid regime and its academic institutions complicit in the activities of the State. They view anthropology as a platform for political engagement and postcolonial social critique. They argue that Israel is a predacious Goliath undeserving of international support. They are energized by the prospect of receiving a corporate branding and seal of approval for their political judgments from a large academic association. Faced with the reality of Israeli scholars who are members of the AAA, boycott supporters sustain their sense of moral purpose by trying to convince others (and themselves) that their resolution merely discriminates against Israeli academic institutions but will not target individuals. They feel good, even righteous, about the many petty but highly provocative prohibitions in the boycott resolution, for example, the injunction against "granting permission to copy and reprint articles from AAA publications to journals and publications based at Israeli institutions." There are no tears in their eyes when they advocate a censor's restriction on the free flow of ideas as just collective punishment.

Those opposing the boycott resolution have the courage of a different set of convictions. They view the call to avoid contact with Israeli academic institutions as an outrageous violation of academic freedom norms, including the principle that participation in the world-wide academy is open to all regardless of nationality, race or creed. They believe the voting process itself is corrosive of academic values, that a professional scholarly association does not need a foreign policy for the Holy Land or anywhere else and should be committed to free thought and disciplined inquiry, not collective political action. When it comes to contestable political and social issues they do not cede authority to the AAA to make corporate declarations about what is right-minded and true. They prefer to speak for themselves, especially since the AAA is not a homogeneous political bloc. It is a disputatious community of scholars who differ in their causal analyses, assignments of blame, and proposed solutions to any political conflict. Collective political branding is viewed by many boycott opponents as an act of institutional violence committed against the intellectual autonomy of those members of the guild who disagree with the proposed party line. They believe that institutional neutrality on hot button social and political issues enables free thought.

Many opponents of the resolution experience its injunctions as distressingly reminiscent of the Nuremberg laws, when citizenship rights for Jews were degraded in Germany and there was a national boycott against shopping at Jewish stores. If the proposal to shun and stigmatize Israeli academic institutions becomes official policy they, like the Jews of Germany in the 1930s, will not feel at home in their own society. Some will resign from the AAA, pack up and leave. Some already have. Others will just resign themselves to melancholy reflection on the late great discipline of cultural anthropology, recalling how their profession first gave up on positive science and then exchanged its humanistic soul for the soft porn of partisan identity politics.

The very process of debating an academic boycott resolution has highlighted fault lines and created tensions within the discipline. One step preparing the way for the April vote was taken at the annual business meeting of the AAA, which was held on November 20, 2015 in a ballroom at the Denver, Colorado Convention Center. I attended as an anthropological observer of the political process. Although 90% of the voting members of the AAA were busy doing other things that night (including not being in Denver at all) most of those who flooded into the ballroom were activists and anthropological allies of the BDS movement. The meeting felt like a political rally with placards and pro-boycott operatives everywhere, perhaps even among the leadership of the association. Speaking in favor of the boycott resolution were scholars who represented themselves as a voice of Palestinian civil society. They were cheered on by the crowd, including some young politically committed anthropologists wearing tee shirts identifying themselves as Jews in favor of the boycott. By the end of the evening a vote was taken (1040-136) to move the resolution forward for a final vote by the full membership (beginning April 15).

It is noteworthy that the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) opposes academic boycotts. So do most university presidents. So does Noam Chomsky, the linguist and ferocious critic of American foreign policy, who sardonically remarked in a recent interview that one might as well boycott Harvard, MIT and the United States. So does Steven Pinker, the well-known Harvard psychologist, who has written against what he calls "selective demonization." Nevertheless given the history of the mobilization efforts by boycott supporters the outcome at the AAA business meeting was preordained.

What I had not anticipated was the bullying that went on during the debate over an alternative resolution offered by some opponents of the boycott. Dissidents who were lined up and waiting to voice their views were suddenly denied access to the microphone by the president of the association and effectively silenced. Shortly before they were cut off one young scholar did manage this memorable (and chilling) remark: She anxiously prefaced her arguments by saying that she was well-aware that in speaking against the boycott she would probably never get a job in an anthropology department. I wondered whether I could honestly tell her she was wrong.

These are agonistic times in anthropology. The BDS movement has been divisive, causing many members of the profession to remain silent rather than jeopardize valued relationships with friends and colleagues. The ideals of the modern academy too are fragile and vulnerable. We are witnessing their subordination to a political agenda even as supporters of the boycott movement try to mitigate the horror of their proposals by drawing a distinction between shunning Israeli academic institutions and discriminating against individual Israeli scholars.

To that final point: Two months ago I received an e-mail from a member of the American Anthropological Association who wrote me that he was interested in inviting an Israeli colleague to his university for a semester and was "advised" that he had better check around to see what his colleagues thought of such an invitation "given the general pro-BDS atmosphere" in his department. That is one of the insidious ways this whole thing is playing out. Soon it will be time to vote. It remains to be seen whether the members of the American Anthropological Association have the courage (and the wisdom) to just say "No"?

(A copy of the Boycott Resolution and a statement by anthropologists opposed to it can be found here:

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