Consequences of American Anthropological Association Boycott

Because the American Anthropological Association announced a boycott of Israeli universities in July 2023, and its Executive Board issued a series of attendant prohibitions on Israeli academia, the Alliance for Academic Freedom considers it is imperative for all universities committed to academic freedom to immediately withdraw their departmental and institutional memberships from the AAA. Whereas other supporters of academic boycotts have sometimes chosen to be vague about the implications, the AAA was explicit about the actions it would take. Their transgression of basic principles of academic freedom is thus clear as a result. Having an institutional membership in a boycott-endorsing association is irreconcilable with an institutional commitment to academic freedom.

The AAA lists seven prohibitions that it will impose, though other prohibitions may follow as consequences become clear and the boycott evolves. Two of the items on the list, “Participating in the AAA Graduate School Fair” and “Using AAA conference facilities for job interviews,” clearly target employment and educational opportunities for undergraduates and graduate students, who occupy the most vulnerable ranks of academia and are most likely to find their academic freedom constrained. Students who wish to study at Israeli universities and graduate students seeking Israeli academic employment no longer have the same opportunities as others. Travel to explore campuses or meet interviewing committees face-to-face is already prohibitively expensive. Scheduling all such activities in one place is a considerable advantage. But the students being targeted will not have the same opportunities as others. This discriminatory treatment is an obvious violation of academic freedom and a possible violation of federal antidiscrimination law. To suggest that it affects only institutions, not individuals, is dishonest on its face.

Several of the AAA’s avowed prohibitions combine personal and institutional harms: “Being listed in AAA’s published materials, including AAA’s AnthroGuide to Departments,” “Participating in the AAA Departmental Services Program,” and “Participating in joint conferences or events with AAA and its sections.” It is as if Israeli universities, their students, and their faculty suddenly cease to exist, erased from disciplinary identity and recognition. As the AAA resolution declares, Israel now has only one identity, that of an outlaw Apartheid regime. That designation, first affixed by anti-Israel propagandists, and now used by the AAA to demonize Israel in its entirety, remains objectionable for many of us.  The AAA seeks to isolate all Israeli universities from the worldwide community of academics. Their isolation is cemented with the last two especially petty prohibitions, against “Advertising on AAA publications, websites, and other communications channels, including the AAA Career Center” and against “Republishing and reprinting articles from AAA publications in journals and publications owned by Israeli institutions,” though those will eventually accumulate a record of individual harm as well. 

This effort to cast a group of universities exemplary in their commitment to academic freedom out of the academic community is without precedent and without warrant. It is itself a definitive violation of academic freedom. Universities in Europe and the Americas are themselves in violation of academic freedom for every week that they allow their departmental and institutional AAA memberships to stand.

Adding philosophical insult to personal injury, the AAA president declares that the actions above will “increase dialogue about how archeology is used in political arguments.” But perhaps instead there will be further debate about how anthropology should not be politically instrumentalized. In any case, Israelis and Zionists worldwide will not feel welcome in those discussions. The AAA  board generously assures us that Israeli libraries can still subscribe to AAA journals. And Israelis can still attend AAA conferences, though how many of them would wish to when their institutional homes are ostracized and disparaged remains to be seen. But the AAA will still accept payments from Israel and from Jews of all persuasions. Not everyone will be comforted.

Opponents of academic boycotts have long recognized that they impede the free exchange of ideas and research results between academic disciplines and across international borders. The AAA has now provided clear evidence of how they will also block educational and research opportunities for individual students and faculty. Universities must not help this destructive agenda go forward.

AAF Executive Committee: Susana Cavallo, David Greenberg, Rebecca Lesses, Jeffry Mallow, Stan Nadel, Cary Nelson (Chair), Kenneth Stern