By now you have probably heard that the boycott vote failed by an incredibly narrow margin:
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.
David Palumbo-Liu, Steven Salaita, Charlotte Silver, and Elizabeth Redden have all written excellent postmortems about the vote. Having read all four, it strikes me that there are three important points to be made: The first is that the AAA is still moving ahead with a statement of censure of the Israeli government and other actions. The second is the role played by outside groups that sought to influence the vote. And the third is the status of the BDS movement after the vote. Read on for my take on each of these three points…
AAA statement of censure and other actions
An email sent out by the AAA after the votes were tallied states that:
AAA members are generally in agreement that serious threats to academic freedom and human rights have been noted in Israel-Palestine as a result of Israeli government policies and practices, and that AAA should respond to these threats.
Elizabeth Redden’s adds more from AAA President Alisse Waterston:
she noted that each of the two formal resolutions put forward at the November business meeting — the one in favor of boycott that proceeded to the full membership vote and one against boycott that was voted down by business meeting attendees — both express concerns about Israeli government policies and practices, including Israel’s occupation of territories captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
“There is disagreement around the academic boycott, but there is a general consensus on the rest,” Waterston said.
I think this is incredibly important. The AAA largely disagreed about the the use of an academic boycott as a tactic but still expressed broad agreement over the injustice of the occupation.
The actions being taken are listed in full on a the AAA website. In addition to the statement of censure of the Israeli government they also include “a letter to relevant authorities in the US government identifying the ways in which US resources and policies contribute to policies in Israel/Palestine that violate academic freedom and disenfranchise Palestinians” and “ways to provide active resource support for Palestinian and Israeli academics as well as visiting scholars in the region.”
Role Played by Outside Groups
One of the most contentious issues raised by these postmortems is the role played by outside groups. Charlotte Silver states that “Gilad Erdan, the Israeli minister of public security and strategic affairs, credited Israeli and US-based lobby groups with the defeat of the resolution.” David Palumbo-Liu elaborates:
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.”
But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Steven Salaita’s summarizes:
I think the tremendous resources mobilized to oppose the boycott are a sign of the effectiveness of the boycott as a tactic (ironically, one of the things that opponents called into question). I also think that the organizers of the boycott deserve tremendous credit for how close the final vote was given such opposition.
Despite the evidence of outside influence, I personally suspect that their total effect upon the vote might not have been that great. While outside forces may have encouraged some people to vote who don’t normally vote, I also think this probably was true of the pro-boycott voters as well. I know it seems strange that the AAA passed the initial resolution by such a large margin (1,040 to 136) and the final vote was so close, but as someone pointed out on Facebook, the wider AAA membership is generally older and more conservative1 than those who attend the meetings.
Still, it would be nice if the AAA would release some more detailed numbers so that we could better understand whether outside groups had outsized influence. Was there an unusual jump in new AAA memberships compared to previous years? How many people joined (or re-joined) just to vote and what the breakdown was of these new (or renewed) voters? Releasing these numbers might assuage concerns about outside influence over the vote.
State of the BDS movement after the vote
It is important to understand that the AAA vote was part of a much wider battle. Elizabeth Redden lists other scholarly associations that have approved Israel boycott resolutions since 2013:
the African Literature Association, the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, the National Women’s Studies Association and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.
This month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered state agencies under his control to divest themselves of BDS-affiliated organizations and companies, a move that many legal scholars consider to be unconstitutional. Various colleges have sought to conceptualize criticism of Israel as a form of anti-Semitism and thus a type of hate speech. Those in support of BDS, in other words, are not merely in conflict with colleagues; they have run afoul of institutions capable of doing serious harm. Even those who oppose academic boycott should be mindful of the forces now using it as pretext to intervene on campus.
Charlotte Silver adds evidence of some of the intimidation tactics being used against BDS supporters:
The ultranationalist group Im Tirtzu purportedly outed the 22 Israeli academics, though their allegations were based on flimsy evidence.
Im Tirtzu has also called on Israeli universities to fire employees who support the boycott or demonstrate any criticism of Israel.
These are worrying developments and belie the idea that opponents are genuinely interested in “dialog.”
I think the fact that the final vote was so close shows that the AAA was not ready for a full fledged boycott. Nonetheless, the numerous discussions occasioned during the run-up to the vote certainly educated a lot of people about the state of academic freedom in the Middle-East. I know I personally have had some very productive private conversations over this topic. A few years ago it was much harder to have a civil debate about Zionism. In an important sense then, the call for a boycott was itself an important force in fostering dialog. As I sated above, the debate within the AAA was largely over the choice of tactics. Increasingly, everyone agrees that the status-quo is unacceptable.
UPDATE: On June 24, 2016 AAA President Alisse Waterston released a statement stating, in part, that:
AAA has closely monitored membership patterns to assess irregularities, especially year-over-year changes from January 1 to June 1. There has been absolutely no evidence of a spike in either direction regarding membership. AAA has seen a slow but steady increase in membership since 2014 (Jan-June 2014, 1% increase; Jan-June 2015, 1% increase; Jan-June 2016, 1% increase). This consistency has remained.
- Almost immediately after posting this article I regretted phrasing things in this way. Many older anthropologists are amongst some of the most radical intellectuals I know. However, even though some leading senior anthropologists supported the boycott, there is a well documented generational shift in attitudes towards Zionism in America and I don’t think that Anthropology is an exception to this. ↩