‘A reckoning’: Largest association of American anthropologists to vote on Israel boycott

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The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign is Palestinian led (AFP)

An upcoming vote on whether to boycott Israel’s academic institutions has divided anthropology community amid growing movement to decolonise fieldThis week, the US’s largest academic organisation of anthropologists will convene for a vote on whether or not to adopt a boycott of Israeli academic institutions over their role in the discrimination of Palestinians.

The vote, which will take place online from 15 June to 14 July, is part of a growing movement within the anthropological community in the US to restructure the field away from what scholars say are racist and colonial origins. The resolution’s proponents have cited the complicity of Israeli universities in the country’s practices towards Palestinians – several rights groups have labelled it apartheid – as a reason for putting forward this vote.

At the same time, the resolution has been a divisive issue. The last vote in 2016 failed by just 39 votes – with many anthropologists seeing it unfit for a group of academics to weigh in on a political issue, regardless of whether a government or country is engaged in discrimination towards a group of people.

The resolution calls for a ban on the American Anthropological Association (AAA) from working with Israeli universities, including hosting conferences and conducting joint programming.

“Be it resolved that the AAA as an Association endorses and will honor this call to boycott Israeli academic institutions until such time as these institutions end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law,” reads the text of the resolution.

If it passes, the organisation’s board will then move to decide how to implement the boycott, and also what conditions would be required in order for the boycott to be lifted.

“Anthropology is a discipline that has not always done enough reflection on how it itself has been complicit in colonialism,” Jessica Winegar, a sociocultural anthropologist at Northwestern University, told Middle East Eye.

“And now is an opportunity for the association to really stand on the right side of history, on the side of academic freedom, on the side of anti-racism, on the side of decolonisation.”

Winegar, a member of AAA for 25 years, said she herself has supported the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement since its conception in 2005, adding that the decision was easy because her work in anthropology led her to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The BDS movement is a non-violent initiative that seeks to challenge Israel’s occupation and abuses of Palestinian human rights through economic, cultural, and academic boycotts, similar to the successful boycott campaigns against apartheid South Africa.

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Several universities in Israel maintain close ties with the country’s military and defence industries, and some are also complicit in Israel’s occupation of Palestine by having buildings or campuses on occupied land. Tel Aviv University has several partnerships with Israel’s military and is home to the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a think-tank close to the Israeli military establishment.

The INSS helped define the state’s military philosophy when it comes to Palestinians and neighbouring Arab states.

The Dahiya doctrine, named after a Beirut neighbourhood nearly destroyed by Israel during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, encourages the destruction of civilian infrastructure as a supposed deterrence to groups taking up arms against Israel.

Another school, Ariel University, is located in a settlement in the occupied West Bank. A number of other Israeli universities, including Bar-Ilan University and Haifa University, engaged in collaborations with the Israeli military in the areas of defence and intelligence, according to research from the BDS movement.

A divisive issue

If the measure passes, it would be a major change for the AAA, making it the first time the organisation has supported a boycott of a country’s academic institutions.

Even during the movement against the apartheid government of South Africa, which had seen massive mobilisation in support of a boycott, AAA did not endorse such a boycott against the country’s academic institutions.

“Our association has never undertaken such a boycott before. Even in the case of South Africa and the height of the anti-apartheid movement, our association raised concerns that are derived from our scholarship, but did not join any boycott,” Ed Liebow, AAA’s executive director, told MEE.

‘The boycott undermines the desire to have an international academy’

– Richard Shweder, University of Chicago

Liebow added that the issue has been quite divisive amongst AAA’s membership. The anthropologists opposed to the boycott say they don’t align with the influx of pro-Israel groups that have been campaigning against the vote.

“What’s divisive about the issue is not so much the policies and practices of the Israeli government, especially in the last several years, it’s really a question of what the association ought to do about it,” Liebow said.

“I think if you polled people, a very large percentage of them would say that we need to see changes in the Israeli government’s policies and practices with respect to Palestinian academic freedom. The question is what we can or ought to do about it as a scholarly society.”

For Richard Shweder, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, the measure comes as a major surprise given that a similar one was voted down seven years ago.

As an opponent of the resolution, Shweder has said that adopting the measure would be “corrosive” to American academia.

“The boycott undermines the desire to have an international academy,” he told Middle East Eye. “It will start to make us look like a wing of a political movement.”

“It’s fine for people to have a sense of solidarity for one side or another, but it’s not okay to coopt an academic institution and make it adopt a political stance.

 “We should be having debates, advancing analysis of the situation, rather than putting to a vote what is right or wrong,” said Shweder.

In the past several years there has been growing support for BDS or attempts to put forth resolutions to endorse the campaign.

Author Sally Rooney boycotted an Israeli publisher for one of her novels, citing the BDS campaign; Spain’s city of Barcelona and the Belgian city of Liege both cut ties with Israel this year.

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Several workers’ unions in the US over the past few years have also endorsed statements in solidarity with Palestinians, with some going as far as to adopt the call to boycott Israel over its human rights and international law violations. And in 2021, the largest teacher’s union in the US put forth a vote to endorse the BDS movement – that vote ultimately failed.

“This is not some far-reaching unusual, extremely radical kind of move for an academic association in the United States to take at this time,” said Winegar.

But when it comes to the specific issue of academic boycotts, scholars appear to be more divided. Noam Chomsky, a renowned author and leading intellectual, as well as a major critic of the Israeli government and supporter of Palestinian rights, in 2016 publicly opposed a blanket boycott against Israeli academia.

Chomsky said there were certain circumstances, like the university in Ariel located in the occupied West Bank, that could be targeted, but he said he did not support a complete boycott.

Juan Cole, another leading American academic who has labelled Israel an apartheid state, similarly has in the past opposed an academic boycott.

“I don’t think most of the problems with Israeli policies on expropriating Palestinian land or oppressing occupied Palestinian populations are best dealt with by an academic boycott,” he said in a blog post from 2005.

However, if the measure were to pass, AAA would not be the first academic association in the US to support the boycott.

In March 2022, the Middle East Studies Association voted overwhelmingly to support a boycott of Israeli institutions. Other associations like the Council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and the American Studies Association have also issued calls to support BDS.

Individual scholars versus institutions

The measure’s proponents note that the resolution clearly states they are supporting a boycott against Israeli academic institutions, not individual scholars, who they said will be continued to be welcomed to contribute to the group.

The boycott, as stated by the resolution, would consist of banning conferences at Israeli universities, and also not accepting funds from those schools. The measure also states that it is not targeting individual academics.

‘The boycott is not directed at individuals; it is directed at the institutions in which they work’

 Jessica Winegar, Northwest University

“I want to point out, we do have allies among Israeli anthropologists, Jewish-Israeli anthropologists who support the boycott. I will say that many of them speak out anonymously or write anonymously in support of our campaign for fear of retribution from the Israeli state,” said Winegar.

“The boycott is not directed at individuals; it is directed at the institutions in which they work. It does not deny Israeli scholars the right to attend conferences (including the AAA meetings), speak at or visit US universities, or publish their work in AAA publications,” the resolution’s organisers say on their website.

“Nor will boycott prevent US scholars from traveling to Israel. Individual AAA members will remain free to decide whether and how to implement the boycott on their own.”

However, Shweder is sceptical, saying that while there is no ban against individual academics on paper, the measure’s passage would ultimately lead to the de facto barring of Israeli academics.

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“I think it’s naive to think that there won’t be a stigma against individual Israeli academics and students,” he said.

On the AAA’s online community board earlier this month, anthropologist Ralph Bolton from Pomona College in California alleged that in 2012, a professor at the college sent an email “urging [others] to boycott” a lecture by Israeli anthropologist, Moshe Shokeid.

Middle East Eye obtained a copy of the professor’s email to the faculty, which showed that the professor said he would not personally attend the lecture but did not discourage anyone from attending. The professor also made it clear in his email that he was not “objecting” to the lecture by not attending.

Winegar refuted the concern that the boycott would target Israeli academics, some of whom have themselves supported the resolution.

“I, myself, have worked with Israeli scholars. As a matter of fact, when the voting was happening in the last round in 2016, and I was part of the organising committee at that moment, I was helping to host an Israeli anthropologist who opposes the boycott to speak at my university,” Winegar said.

“And the decision on the vote came when I was taking him out to dinner.”

Decolonising anthropology

Much has changed since AAA’s first vote on BDS took place in 2016.

Several institutions have labelled Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as apartheid, including major human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Israeli human rights groups, and the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights.

Attitudes in the United States have shifted as well, with recent polling showing that American Democrats are more sympathetic to Palestinians than they are to Israelis.

And there has even been a major reckoning within the Jewish-American community, particularly with the entering of the most far-right government in Israel’s history, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

‘A new generation of anthropologists has emerged … to call for radical decolonisation of the discipline’

– Jessica Winegar, Northwestern University

The vote also comes at a time that anthropologists are engaging in critical conversations about their field of study, and debating whether the discipline should be restructured. A number of scholars say that anthropology’s “colonial and racist roots” need to be addressed.

“There’s been a real reckoning in the past seven years, with the fundamental structures of knowledge production and academia and how the discipline itself has been structured through racist and colonialist mindsets and privileges,” Winegar said.

Over the past several years, universities have come under fire for being in possession of the remains of Black Americans as well as Native Americans, and museums in the US and other western countries have been criticised for housing cultural artefacts and antiquities that were found to have been stolen.

“A new generation of anthropologists has emerged, building on some earlier vanguard anthropologists to call for radical decolonisation of the discipline,” said Winegar.

The previous measure in 2016 was voted down by a margin of 39 votes, with just under 5,000 of the around 10,000 members at the time participating in the vote. Since then, Leibow and Jeff Martin, AAA’s communications director, noted that membership has decreased, in part to the Covid-19 pandemic that began several years ago.

Winegar said she is confident the vote will pass. If it does, then the decision will ultimately go to the executive board which will decide how to proceed with such a boycott. And if it doesn’t pass, the board is still going to review its policy to see if it needs to strengthen its position with regard to Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

“I should also say: I guess that if the referendum doesn’t pass, if the boycott is redacted, I think the board is going to revisit the earlier actions that it’s taken and assess whether any of them need to be updated or strengthened as well,” said Liebow.

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