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Anthropologists and the Boycott

By Kenneth Waltzer

The American Anthropological Association will host its 113th Annual Meeting  in Washington, D.C., on December 3-7, 2014. A group inside the AAA is likely to press for a vote in favor of the academic boycott of Israel.  This is the “Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions” who maintain a petition website.  Earlier, the AAA established a task force to look into the issue of the AAA’s engagement with Israel /Palestine, but proponents of the academic boycott have their own agenda.

The AAA Task Force, chaired by former AAA president Don Breinnis of UC-Santa Cruz, was charged with helping the Executive Board consider the nature and extent to which the association might contribute to addressing issues that the Israel/Palestine conflict raises.  Sentiment in the association is clearly for some action, and the Executive Board thought that it was possible to sponsor “focused conversation in which opposing views can be expressed and complexities can be acknowledged and understood.”[1]

The Task force is supposed to: 1) enumerate the issues in the ongoing conflict that directly concern the Association.  Anthropological research, it is reasoned, can be used to support or challenge claims of territory and historicity; government policy or practice can impact the academic freedom  of anthropologists; power can commission anthropological research where the methods or aims clash with professional ethical responsibilities.

The Task Force is also supposed to 2) develop principles to be used to assess whether the AAA has an interest in taking a stand on these issues; 3) assess the matter;  and 4) make recommendations for action or actions.

Proponents of boycott are not waiting for the report nor limiting themselves to things directly concerning the Association.  Their petition says broadly that because the world’s governments fail to hold Israel responsible under international law (a big charge without elaboration), and because they count themselves all scholars “of power, oppression, and cultural hegemony,” they believe they have a moral responsibility to speak out and demand accountability from Israel and other governments. They insist that acting in solidarity with Palestinian civil society is building on “a disciplinary tradition of support for anti-colonial and human rights struggles…”

The boycott petition puts forward some dubious claims, offering conclusions about contested matters, like whether the Israeli embargo on Gaza is illegal, and making unsupported claims that Israel systematically prevents Palestinians from accessing higher education and Israeli institutions discriminate against Palestinian students.   But the main thrust of the effort is the claim that Israeli institutions are “formally complicit” in the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians.  One example given is the development at Tel Aviv University of the Dahiya doctrine (a strategy pertaining to asymmetric warfare in urban settings employed by Israeli forces in Gaza). The reality that numerous counter-examples could be offered about the enormously constructive role played by individuals or programs in Israeli universities aimed at coexistence or at bolstering the appearance of two states and peace is ignored and not addressed or counted.

The petitioners are motivated by their own excited idealism and identify what they are doing as part of the movement of “engaged anthropology” based in activist anthropological research. But what they call “engaged” appears really to be promoting their own narrow, one-sided, political view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which victimization is on one side only and Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli towns and civilians or attacks on teenage civilians are erased on the other.

Here in the petition there is only a Palestinian liberation struggle, not an Israeli-Palestinian conflict; here there is no fiery Hamas engaging in declared war crimes, there is no Israeli right of self-determination or self-defense.   The petition gives little confidence in the ability of anthropologists to view a complex and tragic reality from multiple perspectives while acknowledging all the complexities.

The approaching setup for the national meeting appears also to be shaping up as a one-sided circus.  While Edward Liebow,  AAA Executive Director, writes that the meeting, building on the Task Force’s work, will “open a number of channels for dialogue on a range of options the Association’s members might consider,” David Rosen a 47-year member and professor of anthropology at Fairleigh Dickinson University, notes that, during the upcoming meeting, there are four roundtables scheduled, of which three are packed with hard-core BDS activists and supporters.  A fourth token anti-boycott panel is off to the side and faces a risk of being marginalized.  I am informed that a proposed fifth panel exploring the contested notion of “indigeneity” was turned down by the program committee.

The key panel will be “What is the Role of Academia in Political Change: The Case of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and Israeli Violations of International Law.” Six of seven members have previously endorsed the boycott of Israeli universities.  The participants include Omar Barghouti, the founder of BDS, no anthropologist he, Rebecca Vilkomerson, leader of the Jewish Voice for Peace,  Noura Erekat, a lawyer and a BDS activist, and the certified nutcase, Richard Falk, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

In the second panel, “Anthropologists of Palestine-Israel and the Academic Boycott of Israel,” five of six panel members have already endorsed the boycott. In the third panel, “Anthropologists and Controversial Engagements: the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions,” six of seven panelists have endorsed the boycott; the other has protested against study abroad programs in Israel.  Not a single anthropologist from an Israeli university is invited to participate in these discussions and all the critics in the fourth session, “Boycotting Israeli Institutions Of Higher Education Abridges Academic  Freedom,” although distinguished scholars and leading lights in the opposition to academic boycott but are from outside the AAA and likely to be ignored in a ghettoized session.[2]

Edward Liebow says that, to be considered at the meeting, resolutions must be submitted to the Executive Committee by November 5.  Rosen says that he anticipates a capstone spectacle in a scheduled “Members Forum” at the national meeting where speakers chosen by lot will each have two minutes to make a case. Rosen sees the whole arrangement as a method to help marginalize and muzzle those opposed to boycott.  The momentum in the AAA is surely with the boycott side.

To put it straightforwardly, in the name of “justice” these engaged anthropologists have committed to diminishing   academic freedom for all who work in or with Israeli academic institutions.  They seek to close off Israeli institutions and scholars — these only — from the international conversations of anthropologists and, at the same time, to close off American and international scholars from commerce with Israeli institutions, journals, and conferences.   In the name of making others hear their one-sided and univocal view of the conflict, they wish to clasp their hands roughly over their ears (and those of others) so they (and others) will not hear any arguments or evidence from Israelis or their American colleagues to the contrary.  This is bigotry, plain and simple, and an attack on academic freedom for all.

I like what anthropologist Gila Silverman of the University of Arizona wrote to the Executive Board:  if there truly is a desire to catalyze movement towards peace in Israel and Palestine, that is, to make a difference, academic boycotts are the opposite of what should be done.  The AAA “should be encouraging academic dialogue, theoretically and methodologically sophisticated scholarship, and [creative]curriculum development.”  There should be an initiative for greater academic engagement, not less; there should be advocacy for more research funding; and there should be challenges to universities to teach more and hire more faculty to openly and honestly engage the issues.

[1] “Towards an Informed AAA Position on Israel-Palestine,” Anthropology News (April 30, 2014), at

[2]  These include Ilan Troen, the editor of Israel Studies, Russell Berman, and Cary Nelson.


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