This is the third post in a three-post series of personal reflections on the AAA boycott vote. The first post discussed my own childhood Zionist education, while the second post addressed the false claim that the boycott unfairly singles out Israel.
Last November anthropologists attending the AAA business meeting in Denver voted by an astounding 1040-136 to endorse the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, but this was just a resolution to put the boycott to a vote, not an actual endorsement of that boycott by the entire AAA membership. The actual voting is now taking place by electronic ballot. It started on April 15th and lasts until May 31. For this reason it is crucial that all AAA members, whether or not they support the boycott, vote to make their voices heard in this historic decision. Because each update to the AAA website seems to make it even more difficult to navigate, please read this useful guide on how to vote.
It’s in the Resolution
What do we mean by an academic boycott anyway?
What if I told you that the answer can be found in the the boycott resolution?
First and foremost, it can’t be emphasized enough that the boycott only applies to institutions, not to individuals.
Israeli scholars will still be welcome to participate in AAA meetings, use funds from their institutions to attend the meetings, publish in AAA journals, and take part in other AAA activities in their individual capacities. The boycott does not preclude communication and collaboration with individual Israeli scholars. Indeed, one of its goals is to encourage dialogue about human and academic rights in Israel/Palestine grounded in a set of shared principles of justice.
Secondly, AAA members will still be free to “make their own decisions about whether or not to support the boycott in their own professional practice, such as whether to accept Israeli grants, attend conferences in Israel, or publish in Israeli journals.” That’s right, even if the boycott is passed, AAA members are personally free to pretty much do whatever their conscience dictates.
The same isn’t true for the AAA itself, which will not be able to include Israeli institutions in programs such as AnthroGuide, the Departmental Services Program (DSP), the Career Center, and the Graduate School Fair. It also restricts the AAA from accepting advertising from, or selling Anthrosource access to Israeli institutions. Individual Israeli academics, however, would still be able to access Anthrosource by becoming AAA members.
Wait a minute. This sounds like rather weak tea. Why even bother? Is this just about making ourselves feel good without actually doing anything difficult?
Yes, it is largely symbolic, but you’d think that of all people anthropologists would understand the power and importance of symbolic action. Although the boycott is not itself an act of civil disobedience, the political logic that motivates the boycott is similar to other forms of nonviolent protest.
For one thing, while it it may be true that the boycott doesn’t ask much of most AAA members, speaking openly in defense of the BDS movement is certainly not without risk. A recent report documented how “the application of intimidation, spying, and surveillance on US campuses is increasing” in response to the boycott movement.
But more importantly, just as civil disobedience works by exposing the hypocrisy of unjust laws, the boycott challenges the principle of ‘academic freedom’ in order to highlight the gap between such a principle and the lived experience of Palestinian academics. As Palestinian anthropologist Dina Omar put it: “academic freedom is the ability to go to school without being shot.” Israel presents itself as a “shining city upon a hill“:1 open, democratic and free. The boycott, by challenging what it means to have academic freedom under occupation, seeks to expose the truth behind the shiny facade.
Here’s what the boycott resolution says about Palestinian “academic freedom”:
Whereas Israel has obstructed Palestinians’ right to education by destroying Palestinian universities and schools in military strikes; periodically raiding and forcing those institutions to close; preventing Palestinian anthropologists from freely studying their own society; preventing Palestinian archaeologists from accessing, studying, stewarding, or protecting their own cultural heritage; and restricting Palestinians’ movement which limits their ability to attend and work at universities, travel to conferences, and study abroad; and
Whereas the Israeli state and universities systematically deny Palestinian students in Israeli educational institutions rights and resources equal to their Jewish Israeli counterparts; and
Whereas Israeli scholars and students who criticize Israeli state policies and who support the academic boycott of Israeli institutions do so under threat of sanction; and
Whereas Israel routinely harasses and imposes severe restrictions on foreign academics seeking to attend conferences or conduct research in the occupied Palestinian territories, as well as on scholars of Palestinian origin who wish to travel to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories; and
Whereas Israeli academic institutions have been directly and indirectly complicit in the Israeli state’s systematic maintenance of the occupation and denial of basic rights to Palestinians, by providing planning, policy, and technological expertise for furthering Palestinian dispossession;
Read “Israeli Violations of Palestinian Academic Freedom & Access to Education,” or the final report of the AAA Task Force on AAA Engagement on Israel-Palestine (PDF) for more detailed documentation of these claims. (You can read my summary of the Task Force Report here). And, for those seeking a more ethnographic account which gets at the stories behind these depressing facts and figures, you should read anthropologist Kamala Visweswaran’s powerful piece about Palestinian Universities and Everyday Life under Occupation.
OK. OK. I’ve read the resolution, and all the supporting documentation. I get the logic, I really do. But what do you really hope to accomplish? I’m still not sure how this is supposed to change anything.
In the first post in this series I explained that “I supported the boycott resolution because I felt that it would open up a public space that would allow for questioning of . . . deeply ingrained assumptions.” By challenging the legitimacy of Israel’s image as a “shining city upon a hill” the boycott has already made a difference. As the pseudonymous ben Alek wrote on this blog:
Israeli sensitivity to this kind of international criticism is a result of a very long history . . . Israel’s colonial apparatus, both within and beyond the Green Line, depends on securing sufficient assent from world powers. From its inception, Israel has paid a great deal of attention to debates about its actions.
In his post ben Alek documents some of the reactions that the boycott movement has already provoked. For instance, a year ago, “Israeli President Reuven Rivlin held an ’emergency’ meeting… to discuss the academic boycott, which he described as a ‘strategic threat.’”
Ben Alek also makes a point that often gets ignored by those who question the utility of the boycott: our collective silence sends a signal of tacit approval since “The lack of international criticism is crucial also to explaining the settlements and continuing occupation . . . ”
While it is true that a boycott by the AAA on its own wouldn’t count for much, if approved the AAA boycott be part of a larger movement. We would be joining the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS), the American Studies Association (ASA), and a growing list of international institutions and individuals supporting the boycott.
Thus concludes my brief series of posts on why I voted for the boycott. I know that these arguments may not be enough to convince everyone, but my goal has only been to explain why I personally find them persuasive. I haven’t addressed many of the common objections to the boycott which, in my last post I called “squirrels.” I don’t, for instance, see any evidence in the boycott resolution that any of this is motivated by antisemitism. But if you are still on the fence you might want to read two articles that do take the time to patiently respond to such objections: Dialogue vs. BDS? Responding to arguments against an academic boycott of Israel, and Myths and Facts About the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions. If even these posts fail to move you, I hope that you will still take the time to make your voice heard by voting before the end of May.