Two American scholarly organizations in the past month have voted to enact academic boycotts against Israel, and an organization meeting next month in Atlanta is considering a less severe measure singling out Israel for criticism and special monitoring.
The American Anthropological Association, which with more than 10,000 members is the world’s largest professional organization for anthropologists, will become the largest U.S. academic
organization boycotting Israel if, as expected, the membership this spring ratifies the resolution overwhelmingly approved by the 1,400 people Nov. 20 at the group’s annual meeting in Denver.
That resolution calls for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions for “their complicity in violating Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law.” The resolution accuses Israel of colonial practices and mass human rights abuses and makes no mention of any Palestinian role or responsibility in the ongoing conflict.
While the boycott targets institutions, not individuals, it could have a chilling effect on contacts between Israeli anthropologists and their colleagues, including limiting access to the AAA’s journal and academic resources, said Aren Maeir, an archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University.
“I know a lot of academics in various fields who have felt the brunt of various boycott issues. There are some journals that either overtly or in a roundabout manner don’t accept Israeli papers. There are people who won’t come to Israel because of the political situation,” Maeir said.
“I have colleagues who are anthropologists, and this bothers them because it means, at least according to the decision, the AAA won’t enable Israeli institutions to buy their journal. An anthropologist can buy them on his own — they’ve stressed that they’re boycotting institutions, not individuals — but most people don’t buy the journals. They get them through the university libraries, so what are you going to do?”
The National Women’s Studies Association followed within days by announcing that more than 88 percent of its voting members supported a boycott, divestment and sanctions resolution against Israel.
“As feminist activists, scholars, teachers and public intellectuals who recognize the interconnectedness of systemic forms of oppression, we cannot overlook the injustice and violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, perpetrated against Palestinians,” the resolution’s sponsors wrote. “This resolution is an act of transnational solidarity aimed at social transformation for a better world.”
Smaller U.S. academic associations have endorsed a boycott, including the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association of Asian American Studies, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and the Association for Humanist Sociology. A boycott has been discussed by the Modern Languages Association and other groups, including the American Historical Association, the professional organization for teachers of U.S. history.
That organization is meeting Jan. 7 to 10 in Atlanta, and the only resolution on its business agenda is one targeting Israel, although the current text does not call for a boycott. Instead, it urges action to defend Palestinian academics, calls for an end to any attacks on Palestinian institutions, and vows to monitor “Israeli actions restricting the right to education in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
Again, no mention is made of Palestinian actions, nor are rights violations in other nations mentioned. Maeir said at least four times as many people have been killed the past four years in Syria as have been killed in a century of Jewish-Arab conflict.
“An anthropologist who supposedly knows about history, culture, etc., should have an expansive enough view of the world to say, for example, is the American Anthropological Association boycotting Turkey, which is occupying northern Cyprus? Are they boycotting Indonesia, which is occupying west Papua? Are they boycotting China, which is occupying Tibet? Are they boycotting Russia, which is occupying Crimea?” he said.
Emory anthropologist Mel Konner, who won the AAA’s Anthropology in Media Award in 2004, made a similar point in a letter of protest to the head of the association when the resolution was proposed. He criticized the appointment of an anti-Israel task force to create recommendations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and questioned the lack of similar panels to study China in Tibet, Russia in Crimea and India in Kashmir.
He didn’t recognize any of the names on the task force that produced the “thoroughly biased” report, but Konner, who considers himself liberal, said such an action isn’t surprising from what he considers the most left-wing of the major U.S. academic associations.
“It’s ridiculous. It only makes the Anthropological Association look foolish,” he said. He called such a boycott a violation of academic ethics, of the policy of the American Association of University Professors, of academic freedom and of freedom of communication.
“You’re talking about cutting off dialogue,” Konner said, adding that Israeli academics, especially in anthropology and related disciplines, are some of the strongest critics of Israeli government policies.
He also said a boycott is embarrassing to the association because its major corporate supporters include Intel, a major high-tech investor in Israel.
Harvey Klehr, an Emory political scientist who noted that, unlike Konner, he has zero influence with the AAA, said the whole boycott movement is a symptom of the degeneration of higher education in the United States.
“Ultimately, it’s going to have more impact on the scholarly association that does this, and not in a good way,” Klehr said. When scholars dive into politics, he said, they risk losing public support.
He added: “I think there’s a significant anti-Israel bias in higher education, partly fueled by anti-Semitism that won’t speak its name. And I think the BDS people have been very effective at demonizing Israel. I don’t think the response has been particularly effective.”
For now, Konner, Klehr and other concerned academics are discussing a more effective response. Possibilities include legal challenges based on association charters or even some states’ laws, efforts to expose the anti-Israel (rather than pro-Palestinian) motives of the BDS movement, and boycotts of classes taught by professors who boycott Israel.