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Was The Anthropological Association BDS Vote A Defeat, Or Sign Of The Movement's Development?

More than half of the association's 10,000 members participated against massive pro-Israel pressure.

Photo Credit: YouTube

When in 2013 the American Studies Association voted for the academic boycott of Israeli institutions, the near silence of the American press regarding the cause of Palestinian rights was broken. From that point on, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, created from within Palestinian civil society, has been increasingly successful and increasingly in the news. Suddenly the idea of academic boycotts could no longer be considered merely symbolic.  

The result of the recent vote by the American Anthropological Association on a boycott resolution was highly anticipated—it is the largest academic organization in the world to consider such a resolution, twice the size of the American Studies Association. The organization “studies humankind in all its aspects, through the study of archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research.”

But both sides in the AAA debate over Palestine put forward two very different notions of how the field should or can act politically. The group opposed to the boycott, which includes no Palestinians, argued that while,

“We vehemently oppose the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza…Anthropology is about communication, grasping multiple perspectives, and understanding diverse histories; it can contribute to unpacking standard slogans and negotiating compromises. Boycotts erode this ethos: anthropologists taking absolute positions will not help the Palestinian cause.”  

Conversely, those in favor of the boycott saw another role for anthropology:

In responding to the Palestinian call, we seek to practice what the AAA calls an “engaged anthropology” that is “committed to supporting social change efforts that arise from the interaction between community goals and anthropological research.” Anthropological research has illuminated the destructive effects of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian society. And the Palestinian community has called for an academic boycott of Israel as a necessary step to ensuring Palestinian rights, including the right to education.

In the end an astounding 51% of its 10,000 members participated. The resolution failed by exactly 39 votes: 2,423-2,384 (50.4%-49.6%)—a statistical dead heat. Lisa Rofel asserted: “I take this incredibly narrow margin as a virtual tie vote. We have come such a long way in a very short amount of time. We have opened a space for discussion of Palestinian rights that did not exist before. This virtual tie means we should continue our efforts.”

While the anti-boycott side was quick to declare victory, and Inside Higher Education asserted the vote was a “setback” to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, the import of the vote is much more complicated than that. In fact, a small group of academics withstood the combined forces of powerful academic figures, several well-funded external organizations, and what appears the direct collaboration of the State of Israel, to achieve parity. 

How was the anti-boycott side aided and abetted by outsiders? To begin with, in an unprecedented move, the president of the University of California system, Janet Napolitano, composed a letter to the 11,000 member AAA that she and all the chancellors of the UC system signed, which states in part: “An academic boycott goes against the spirit of the University of California… We urge Association members to consider the boycott’s potentially harmful impacts and oppose this resolution.”  In his response to that letter, Professor Roberto Gonzalez wrote: “Napolitano’s statement was clearly designed to intimidate UC faculty and students voting on resolution. It is astonishing that senior University administrators would interfere with the Association’s democratic processes.”

Outside interference also took the shape of external organizations lending financial and other kinds of support to defeat the resolution. The pro-boycott group Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions asserted, “outside organizations poured enormous resources into derailing the boycott through intimidation and disinformation. These groups organized harassment campaigns targeting untenured and adjunct scholars who supported the boycott; lobbied university presidents across the country to intervene in the vote; paid AAA membership dues for boycott opponents; called for the firing of Israeli scholars accused of supporting the boycott; and, just as the AAA began voting, filed a frivolous lawsuit against the American Studies Association for its own endorsement of the boycott in 2013.”

And finally, it now seems that even the state of Israel took part in the campaign of this U.S. professional organization. Upon news of the defeat of the resolution, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan declared, "This is a dramatic shift stemming from the intensive publicity work and ground work with members of the association."

This indicates the clear interference of the state in the democratic deliberations of the AAA, and beyond. The news article in Israel National News goes on to say:

According to Erdan, the AAA vote against BDS joins a series of achievements in the struggle against the boycott movement, including the advancement of legislature in numerous states around the world against the boycott organizations, closing the bank accounts of BDS organizations and more.

"In recent months many quiet activities are taking place in the field that led to a series of achievements, activities that weaken the delegitimization organizations that try to harm the state," said Erdan.

In spite of this narrowest of defeats, and the toll the battle against these amassed forces must have taken in the pro-boycott side, they have “vowed to continue” their campaign: “The past three years of debate about the boycott have brought exponentially more discussion of Palestinian rights in the AAA than ever before in the Association’s history. This includes a ground-breaking 130-page report by an AAA Task Force recognizing the settler-colonial practices of the Israeli government. These represent important first steps towards opposing Israeli human rights violations. Separately, over 1,300 anthropologists have signed a petition pledging to uphold the boycott through their own personal practice.”

Amahl Bishara of Tufts gave this statement to AlterNet: “We are proud of how our campaign has strengthened discussions around anthropology and settler colonialism. Our movement is about academic freedom for all, and we will continue the struggle toward this goal. Palestinians have no choice but to continue, because Palestinian rights are threatened every day. This campaign in anthropology is invigorated by Palestinians’ persistence and strength, and by a will to build an anthropology committed to, as the 1999 Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights states, ‘the right of people and peoples everywhere to the full realization of their humanity.’"

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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