Anthropologists Respond to Frequently Asked Questions About a AAA BDS Resolution

We would like to thank the editors of Savage Minds for inviting us to kick off this important conversation on a potential AAA resolution in support of BDS. Over the past four posts, we have tried to highlight some of the key reasons for why anthropologists in particular should honor the call to boycott that was originally issued by a united Palestinian civil society in 2005. From our analysis of the role archeology plays in the dispossession of Palestinians to our overview of historical boycotts within the AAA and discussion of academic freedom, we made the case that BDS is the only sensible, effective, and appropriate response to the current situation.

That being said, the conversation on BDS is far too important to be fully covered in four short blog posts. We would like to thank everyone who took the time to read carefully and respond respectfully, either in the comments or privately, to seek out further clarification on these important issues.

In this last post, we will attempt to answer some of the most common questions we have received. If you have a question that is not answered below, please leave a comment and let’s continue to have this serious conversation about how best to respond to ongoing Israeli mass violations of human rights.

I. General Questions about BDS

1. What is BDS? What are the goals of the movement?

BDS is an acronym that stands for, “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.” It refers to a 2005 call, endorsed by over 170 Palestinian civil society movements, to use non-violent tactics in order to pressure the Israeli government. The call urges various forms of boycott until Israel meets in obligations under international law by:

  1. Ending its occupation of all Palestinian land;
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, promoting, and protecting the rights of Palestinian refugees, as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

For more on the history of the BDS movement, see our first post or look at the website of the BDSmovement, USACBI, and PACBI. If you’d like a more substantive introduction, we’d also recommend checking out Omar Barghouti’s (2011) book, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights.

2. Why must refugee rights be a part of the BDS call?

BDS is a rights-based movement. It emphasizes the human rights principles upon which any solution must be based. Between 1948 and 1967, over a million Palestinians were expelled from their homes. According to the most recent estimates, they and their descendents now comprise the largest (and longest) refugee crisis in the world, leaving more than five million stateless Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA. The United Nations has repeatedly reaffirmed the right of these individuals to return to their homes, including in: UNGA 194 (1948), UNSC 236 (1967), and UNGA 169 (1980). These fundamental rights, which are legally-enshrined, must be respected as part of any just settlement.

Moreover, it is not the role for us as anthropologists to dictate the terms of Palestinians’ struggle for freedom. Just like we would never lecture our ethnographic informants about how best to lead their lives, we should likewise refrain from trying to control from afar the terms of Palestinian liberation. Our role should be to support those who would struggle to attain their own basic rights and freedoms in any way we can. We have been presented with a reasonable, effective, and non-violent platform for realizing Palestinians’ human rights. The question before us is whether we will endorse or reject that call.

For more information on Palestinian refugees, we recommend this report from the Palestinian NGO Badil, as well as this thoughtful collection of articles on the right of return from the Israeli NGO Zochrot.

3. But does this mean that an academic boycott resolution implicitly endorses a one-state solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict?

No. BDS does not take any position on what the ultimate political outcome of the Palestine/Israel conflict ought to be, only that the three principals named above be respected. Some individuals and groups within the movement endorse a specific solution – one, two, or no states – while others do not.

What unites these diverse political groups is the belief that respecting the basic human rights of all people who live in the land is a necessary precondition to any final outcome. As Omar Barghouti puts it in his book, BDS: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights:

While individual BDS activists and advocates may support diverse political solutions, the BDS movement as such does not adopt any specific formula and steers away from the one-state-versus-two-states debate, focusing instead on universal rights and international law, which constitute the solid foundation of the Palestinian consensus around the campaign.

In other words, at stake here is the broad human rights principles that must underlie any just end to the conflict. The AAA resolution should follow the lead of the BDS movement in endorsing a rights-based approach. And so no, a resolution would not constitute an endorsement of any specific policy or political outcome.

For more on this issue, we recommend these two short-but-to-the-point articles by Ali Abunimah here and here.

4. Can an academic boycott really work?

It has in the past. South African leaders from Nelson Mandela to Desmond Tutu have cited the international boycott of South Africa as a contribution to ending apartheid. Moreover, we have strong evidence that, despite still being in its infancy, the BDS movement has already altered the conversation in significant ways, both in the United States and in Palestine-Israel. U.S. officials have repeatedly cited BDS as placing significant pressure on Israel to end its occupation. Likewise, Israeli officials are starting to realize that their policies come at an increasingly significant cost. And Palestinian non-violence movements finally are receiving a modicrum of support from the international community.

II Frequent Criticisms of BDS

5. Is BDS anti-Semitic?


BDS targets Israeli institutions in response to Israeli human rights violations. It does not target Jewish individuals or institutions in any way, shape, or form. The only way that BDS could be considered anti-Semitic is by falsely equating Judaism and the state of Israel (and in the process erasing or ignoring the great and growing number of Jews who oppose Israeli policies and/or endorse BDS).

The BDS movement emerges out of a strong anti-racist analysis. This has been reaffirmed by many of the leaders of BDS movement in their statement: “The Struggle for Palestinian rights is incompatible with any form of racism or bigotry.”  It is further affirmed in the preamble to the ASA’s boycott resolution. As an anti-racist movement, BDS rejects any form of bigotry, including anti-Jewish racism.

6. Does endorsing BDS encourage violence towards Israelis?

The BDS movement is committed to non-violent action. For decades, Palestinian resistance movements have been criticized for adopting violent tactics. BDS represents a rejection of violent tactics, building instead a movement grounded in the principles of non-violent resistance. If we can’t stand up for that, then we are in real trouble.

7. Are you saying that an academic boycott will not affect Israeli scholars in any way, shape or form?

It is remarkable just how many arguments against BDS are not really arguments against this boycott, so much as arguments against any boycott. BDS is a tactic, not a goal. And like all other boycotts in the entire history of non-violent movements, a boycott is a blunt instrument. It is conceivable, for instance, that the Montgomery bus boycott may have harmed some bus drivers who did not individually support Jim Crow laws. Likewise, the AAA boycott of Hyatt hotels may harm a few branch managers who personally believe in workers’ rights. Similarly, it is entirely possible that a boycott of Israeli academic institutions may cause occasional hardship for certain Israeli scholars. Unfortunately, in the absence of effective action, individual opposition to oppressive policies does nothing to change their institution’s complicity in ongoing rights violations. Realizing this, a number of Israeli academics and activists have endorsed BDS as an effective strategy for amplifying their personal opposition to the policies of their universities and government. (Many of them were subsequently forced to leave Israel for expressing their political views). BDS seeks to encourage, amplify, and support those few critical voices from within the Israeli academy.

A boycott is not a tactic to be undertaken lightly. It is a last resort to be used only when all other measures have been exhausted. Moreover, the BDS movement deserves great credit for going out of its way to minimize the potential harm to individual scholars. BDS targets institutions that are complicit in Israel’s discriminatory policies. Individual scholars are still free to research, collaborate with American scholars, and attend our conferences, so long as they do so as individuals and not as representatives of their institutions.

8. But wouldn’t BDS harm Palestinians too?

Like supporters of South African apartheid – who used the exact same line – this argument is most often put forward by those who oppose taking any action against Israel’s occupation and discriminatory policies. BDS is the tactic that a united Palestinian civil society has settled upon. We trust a united Palestinian civil society to be able to weigh the costs and benefits of this action more than any foreign anthropologist or commentator.

III. Why Israel?

9. Why “single out” Israel?

This is another argument that is not actually against this boycott, so much as it is about all boycotts. If you have ever participated in a boycott – and if you are a member of the AAA, then you are participating in several – then you have “singled out” a target. That’s how boycotts work: by selecting a target that is violating somebody’s rights, understanding that they are vulnerable to external pressure, and bringing that pressure to bear.

10. Are you saying that Israel is the worst human rights violator in the world? What about the human rights situation in country X?

We are not in the business of ranking human rights violations around the world, nor should we be. Over the past four short posts, we have documented more than enough reasons for the AAA to endorse the united Palestinian civil society call to boycott Israel, from its 47 year long occupation to its denial of equal rights to citizens; from its refusal to allow 5 million refugees to return home to its ongoing war crimes in the current attack on Gaza; and from the complicity of its universities in these policies to the violation of Palestinian students’ right to education Moreover, the fact that the United States gives more foreign aid to Israel – more than $3 billion a year – than to any other nation on earth makes this an issue of great relevance to every American. Finally, the misuses of archaeological knowledge in the service of the occupation makes this an especially pertinent issue for the AAA to consider.

Boycotts are not a comparative tool, nor should they be. The AAA did not examine the record of every hotel or beverage provider before signing onto the Hyatt or Coca-Cola boycotts. Cesar Chavez did not examine every agricultural product in supermarkets before asking us to boycott grapes. When we are called to adopt a boycott, we should ask if it is effective and warranted, and not be cowered into inaction by the dead-end game of comparing and ranking suffering.

Endorsing this boycott neither obligates or prevents us from taking appropriate action to address any other issue. If someone would like to make an argument that another issue that also deserves our attention and action – whether in the form of a boycott or any other policy – we will listen with open ears. We can, afterall, walk and chew gum at the same time. In the meantime, all we ask is that we approach this boycott with the same criteria and attitudes that we would any other proposed boycott.

IV. The Role of Academic Associations

11. Does a boycott harm academic freedom?

No. The academic boycott targets institutions only, not individuals. The academic boycott does not prevent Israeli scholars from speaking, writing, or publishing what they wish. Nor does it prevent individual scholars from attending our conference, participating in our association, or receiving our prizes, so long as they do so as individual scholars and not as representatives of their institutions. It targets those institutions for their complicity in Israel’s occupation and in its discriminatory policies towards Palestinian citizens and subjects.

The boycott demands that academic freedom be extended to all people who inhabit Palestine and Israel. It states that we will withdraw our support from Israeli academic institutions because they systematically discriminate against Palestinian students. It says that we will not participate in a university system that is enabling the occupation of Palestinian lands. And it says that we will not contribute to an Israeli regime that conducts regular military raids and imposes closures upon Palestinian universities. In other words, one key demand of the academic boycott is that they respect the academic freedom and rights to education of all people under their sovereignty. The text of the Association for Asian American Studies boycott resolution does a particularly good job of highlighting this aspect.

12. The AAA is a diverse association. Is it right to force all of our members to abide by BDS?

This is yet another argument that is not about this boycott so much as it is about all boycotts that the AAA may adopt. The AAA cannot force you to do anything. As an association, we boycott Coca-Cola for not having been “sufficiently proactive in protecting workers and their families from intimidation and violence” in Colombia. If you do not wish to abide by this boycott, the AAA does not control, condemn, or punish you for your grocery list. Adopting BDS makes a statement about what we, as a community of anthropologists, believe in. Like any community, we are a diverse group with differing opinions. That should not stop us from taking action when it is warranted and supported by a majority of the members.

13. Would endorsing BDS hurt our membership?

The AAA should endorse BDS because it is the right thing to do, just like we stuck to our principles when we boycotted San Francisco hotels, despite the financial strain that this caused our association.

Nonetheless, we take great encouragement from the fact that other scholarly groups have been rewarded for doing the right thing. Most recently, the ASA’s membership actually increased, following their decision to endorse BDS. According to their subsequent press release: “The ASA has also collected more membership revenue in the past three months than in any other three-month period over the past quarter-century and its ongoing ‘Stand with the ASA’ grassroots fundraising campaign has exceeded the association’s expectations thus far.” We hope that the AAA will be similarly rewarded should it choose to follow its conscience.

Isaiah Silver

Isaiah Silver is a pseudonym for two AAA members and Ph.D. candidates in anthropology in Chicago. Both writers have lived and worked in Palestine and Israel on and off for over a decade.

4 thoughts on “Anthropologists Respond to Frequently Asked Questions About a AAA BDS Resolution

  1. Your argument that BDS will have a peaceful outcome doesn’t seem to be consistent with the actions of Hamas. Many independent observers analyzing Hamas current unwillingness to accept the Egyptian-sponsored cease fire believe that Hamas is counting on Palestinian civilian casualties to increase BDS and related anti-Israel activities. This is also consistent with what is being revealed about their tunnels. Hamas has expended so much effort to store offensive weapons or to infiltrate Israel rather than to build shelters to protect against the anticipated Israeli response – or would you extend your justification for selective action against Israel to claiming that any other country would not respond to rockets fired at it?

    Please also remember that Hamas was the winner in the most recent free and fair election held by all Palestinians – and Hamas ran on an election plank that they would never recognize Israel. The party that came in third in that election was if anything more virulent than Hamas in its insistence that violence was the only way forward. Your claim that more and more Israelis support BDS flies in the face of the loss of electoral strength by the Israeli peace movement since that election and the second Intifada.

    You are eloquent in your support of non-violence. But if you were an Israeli looking at the merciless slaughter of each other among nearby groups that have in common the desire to destroy you, would you be willing to risk your life and that of your family and your community by gambling that these brutal groups would respect your non-violence?

    In summary, BDS does not support a peaceful resolution of the conflict

  2. Thank you for initiating this important conversation. I fully support the AAA adopting a BDS resolution…In fact, I think this is long overdue. Its one of the few things we can do (and something more than simply expressing solidarity) as concerned global citizens who are not in the region.

    For more on the politics of BDS, this is a great video:

  3. @Bernard: You seem very confused, sir. BDS has nothing to do with Hamas. You should read the posts again.

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