Anthropology Group Takes Step Toward Israel Academic Boycott

At its annual meeting earlier this month, members of the American Anthropological Association rejected a resolution that would have blocked the passage of an academic boycott of Israel. While a boycott, if it emerges, would be controversial, it may make sense in the association's historical context.

A controversial movement among academic organizations to boycott Israel appears to have a new center stage.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA), a major higher-education group that counts more than 12,000 members on its roster, was host to a tense scene at its annual meeting in Washington, DC, earlier this month, after more than 700 members voted on a measure to oppose an academic boycott of Israel. Just a handful of members supported the measure, paving the way for a potential adoption of a full boycott next year.

The proposal, which argued that “a resolution supporting a boycott of Israeli academic institutions is negative in its aims, while this resolution is positive in its content,” had drawn backlash before the vote. Some members believed the measure aimed to shut down debate on an important topic before it started.

As of Monday, nearly 1,100 anthropologists had signed a document, most under their own names, supporting a boycott of Israel’s academic institutions.

“As anthropologists, we feel compelled to join academics around the world who support the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli academic institutions,” the petition states.

An AAA task force is studying the academic issues that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict entails and considering whether and how the association might act. The task force will advise AAA’s executive board by next fall.

growing Movement

AAA’s move comes roughly a year after the American Studies Association (ASA), a much smaller group, stoked controversy by approving a boycott of Israel’s universities. The boycott initiatives are an offshoot of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement aimed at forcing Israel to comply with international law and enforce Palestinian rights. Boycott supporters say the measures are needed because of  a lack of academic freedom for Palestinian academics and students in Israel and because Israeli universities support state policies that violate human rights.

The Association of American Universities has condemned academic boycotts on free-speech grounds. Despite the controversy, ASA has stood by its decision. “The effort here is about putting into context the boycott vote with all of the other kinds of social justice work we do,” ASA President Lisa Duggan explained to Inside Higher Ed last month.

Since then, other groups have considered boycotts, most recently the Middle East Studies Association.

A Progressive Streak

A decision by the American Anthropological Association to support a boycott would be consistent with its history of speaking out on hot-button political and social issues and with the progressive political persuasion of many members. Elsewhere at the annual meeting, a clear example of this was on full display.

With protests over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police going strong in the District during the week of the conference, many of the association’s members took part in a “die-in” to draw attention to the recent grand jury decisions involving the two slain men.

“These incidents reflect a blatant disregard for the value and dignity of their lives and the communities in which they live,” a website for the event stated.

At the same time as the Israel vote, the association passed a resolution expressing outrage at cases similar to those of Brown and Garner.

The association has also discouraged the use of Native American racial slurs by pro football teams and encouraged Ebola aid workers to gain a stronger cultural understanding of the regions where they’re volunteering.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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