Anthropology Boycott of Israeli Universities is Misguided and Discriminatory
Written by Cynthia Saltzman (Department of Sociology, Anthropology, & Criminal Justice, Rutgers University-Camden) & Geoffrey E. Braswell (Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego)
The American Anthropological Association (AAA) implemented a boycott of Israeli academic institutions on July 24, 2023, seven years after a similar vote failed by a slim margin (https://americananthro.org/news/aaa-membership-endorses-academic-boycott-resolution/). To justify the boycott, the AAA accuses Israel of operating an apartheid regime “from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” including the internationally recognized state of Israel (https://americananthro.org/wp-content/uploads/ReferendumOnProposedResolutionToBoycottIsraeliAcademicInstitutions.pdf). This echoes the rhetoric of those who reject the nation’s right to exist within any borders. Only 37% of eligible members of the AAA participated in the recent vote, with 2,016 members supporting the boycott and 835 voting against it. Thus, approximately one quarter of the AAA membership voted for the boycott and that minority will determine the organization’s actions against Israeli universities.
What is the scope of the boycott, and how may it impact the AAA? Supporters insist that institutions and not colleagues in Israel are the targets of the academic boycott, but it is impossible to separate the two. As anthropologists, we all know that individuals and institutions are inextricably linked. Moreover, a boycott of Israeli institutions explicitly ties the AAA to the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement. In doing so, the AAA itself may be subject to sanctions in 35 states that have laws, executive orders, or resolutions against the BDS movement, putting into question the location of future annual conferences as well as the participation of anthropology departments at state universities in official AAA activities. Doubtless, too, the AAA will lose many members over an issue that only one quarter of its members actively supported (https://americananthro.org/wp-content/uploads/Why-We-Hope-You-WIll-Join-Us-in-Voting-Against-the-Proposed-AAA-Boycott.pdf).
This academic boycott contradicts the AAA’s core mission to serve the community of anthropologists and foster intellectual exchange. It threatens academic freedom, in principle and in practice. It compromises the AAA’s role as a forum for robust continuing debate and scholarly investigation. There is substantial wisdom in the much-discussed and venerable Kalven Report from the University of Chicago, which, if applied to a “community of scholars” such as the AAA, would discourage most official statements and collective action on controversial questions of political policy (https://provost.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/documents/reports/KalvenRprt_0.pdf). In fact, whenever a collective academic body purports to speak with one voice, it necessarily censures those who do not agree with the view adopted and impinges on free inquiry and competing views. Inhibiting the full freedom of dissent therefore destroys the very conditions necessary to academic inquiry itself. But even if we consider the Kalven principles to be too rigid or fastidious – even if we think that academic associations should speak out on matters they care deeply about – an academic boycott is still an especially egregious act. It is more than a statement, it is an act of aggression aimed at the academic enterprise itself. In this case and making matters worse, the low vote count might imply that a sizeable majority of the membership prefers not to endorse any position on a boycott.
For us, the boycott and its rhetoric fail to adopt that degree of healthy moral and epistemic humility required before wading into a contemporary conflict with a controversial history and a complicated present. That the AAA would pursue such an intellectually and ethically shallow course is especially sad and unseemly, given anthropology’s historic commitment to contextual understanding, deep description, and broadmindedness. To cut off ongoing informed conversation and genuine dialogue is against anthropology’s mandate.
The academic boycott of Israel will produce specific and abhorrent practical consequences. Here at home, many faculty members and students who are Jewish and who strongly support Palestinian self-determination, but who also believe that Israel has a right to exist, will no longer feel welcome in the AAA. Moreover, studies have shown that a focus on negating Israel and its supporters helps to create an environment in which antisemitic actions and expressions are emboldened. This is particularly true on American college and university campuses. Despite the disclaimers of supporters of the boycott, such an action gives strength to the broader project of delegitimizing the country of Israel and the rights of Jews wherever they live to embrace their identity and live without fear. Jews are a people, and the artificial distinction between Judaism and Israel is not one that can be arbitrarily imposed by others without antisemitic consequences on our campuses.
The boycott’s effect in Israel also will be counterproductive. It swings hardest at Israeli academics, who—like our own—are most often outspoken in their support of Palestinian rights and critical of the radically conservative shift in Israeli politics. Ironically, the AAA announced its boycott on the very same day that many Israeli academics were in the streets protesting the Israeli Knesset’s passage of a measure to limit judicial oversight of government action. The boycott also will severely hurt the nearly 20% of students in Israeli higher education institutions who are themselves Palestinian.
The boycott, of course, is anti-Semitic in that it reflects double standards. Let us not ignore that the assertion that universities are “complicit” with their government in “a reign of oppression … including by providing research and development of military and surveillance technologies” (https://americananthro.org/wp-content/uploads/ReferendumOnProposedResolutionToBoycottIsraeliAcademicInstitutions.pdf) is an allegation that can be made against most nations. Following the logic of the referendum, the AAA should also boycott Chinese universities for their complicity in the creation of a surveillance state and the genocides in East Turkestan and Tibet, Russian universities for research and development that support a genocidal war in Ukraine, Iranian universities for collaboration in the oppression of women, and the universities of the nations that have criminalized—in some cases to the level of capital punishment—the expression of queer gender and sexuality. Moreover, the logic of the boycott also strongly applies to universities in the USA. After all, our own institutions contribute so many of the tools of oppression used around the world. That Israeli institutions are singled out as the sole targets of a boycott is both hypocritical and antisemitic.
By limiting the boycott to Israel, its authors make clear that this is not a broad act of ethical courage. The boycott was not approved by a majority of the AAA membership. It is antithetical to the association’s stated goal of providing “the skills, knowledge, and guidance for anthropologists from all disciplines and backgrounds to thrive in academic and practicing spaces” (https://americananthro.org). It fosters a climate that threatens vulnerable students and professors on American campuses. It does nothing to help our colleagues who are marching right now in the streets of Israel. When our own imperfect democracy is next challenged, should we expect support from our colleagues in other nations?
Peace, mutual respect for all human rights around the globe, and an end to suffering will not come about by cutting off dialogue and hardening people’s hearts with academic boycotts. Rather, these laudable goals can be achieved only through greater communication and dialogue. These are the values at the core of the academy and the field of anthropology, which the AAA has unfortunately chosen to reject through the misguided adoption of a discriminatory resolution. And discrimination is precisely what is at the heart of this proclaimed “boycott.” It is nothing more than antisemitism hiding behind the virtue-signaling sophistry of a false morality.
(All websites last accessed on 27 July, 2023.)