AAA Boycott Vote Postmortem

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:

The organizers of the resolution managed these feats despite a general opposition to boycotts of Israel that includes governors, financiers, university presidents, and heads of state.

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, and other actions taken as part of the wider BDS movement have provoked a backlash. Steven Salaita summarizes some recent developments:

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.

For those who missed it, earlier I wrote three posts laying out my argument in support of the boycott: here, here, and here.

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.

  1. 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. 

9 thoughts on “AAA Boycott Vote Postmortem

  1. The role played by outside groups? I feel left out! I have been a member of the AAA since the mid 1970s, currently in very good standing, yet I was never contacted by any outside group, let alone the Israeli government, about the resolution. Even the Napolitano letter went to the AAA, not to me. Was I ignored? Should I feel boycotted?

    Kerim writes “Despite the evidence of outside influence, I personally suspect that their total effect upon the vote might not have been that great.” I suspect this a completely accurate. The periodic emails sent to AAA members by prominent anthropologists argued both for and against the resolution, and anyone who cared enough to vote certainly read arguments for both sides of the issue. I suspect that the final vote was an example of the psychological principle that no action is a No vote or, in this case, not voting is the same as a No vote. The resolution could only pass if its supporters voted for it, so the Yes votes are more likely to be representative of the level of support within the AAA as a whole, while the 49% who did not vote are more likely to include a higher percentage of people opposed to the resolution. We’ll never know, but while the vote was close, I suspect that the sentiments among members are less so.

    Finally, and on behalf of my fellow “older” AAA members, let me suggest that long-term members are no less members, but the impression that we are more conservative is a spin that conveys the wrong impression. Less radical is probably closer to the truth, which is quite different from ‘more conservative’. You might also ask how many student members voted, and what is the percentage of them who will still be members in 10 years? — wondering how many temporary or short term AAA members voted can cut both ways.

  2. Will the AAA release information on new memberships over the past two years that might or might not demonstrate that the deck was stacked going into the boycott vote?
    In any event, the fact that the measure did not pass by an overwhelming majority, coupled with Virginia Dominguez’s shameless whitewash of the issue in the AA World Anthropology section, demonstrate that the Association is spineless and essentially irrelevant to contemporary political discourse. As a recent contributor here has noted, it is impossible to “decolonize” an entity built of the bricks of colonialism.
    With that in mind, it may be useful to consider the similarity between the AAA as a professional association and political parties — particularly the Democratic party — in the US. Both are organizations that have come to exist for their own sake: they are a collection of functionaries who lack critical vision and thus conflate their own interests with those of their constituents.
    Let me therefore suggest a set of equivalences:
    Virginia Dominguez = Debbie Wasserman Schultz
    American Anthropological Association = Democratic National Committee
    Bernie Sanders’ campaign = the boycott motion before the AAA

    Finally, it remains to ask: With a large and increasing number of thinking Americans abandoning political parties to become independent voters, why retain membership in a professional association as ideologically bankrupt as the AAA? With one, possibly compromised, vote now done, why not conduct a new vote — this time with your feet?

  3. Thanks for this useful summary. I agree with you about the “outside” funding not having much impact on votes. What I found most interesting about those revelations, however, is that it demonstrated with whom those opposed to the boycott resolution were willing to work.

    I think that Laura Deeb’s and Jessica Winegar’s concept of “compulsory Zionism” is useful for understanding why the boycott resolution did not (quite) pass. There is an entrenched, systematic, structural history of compulsory Zionism in the US that has to be overcome. The recent scene of former Congressman Robert Wexler respond to Cornel West’s deferential asking if the word, “occupation” could go in the Democratic convention’s platform captures this nicely.

    The above is why it has taken three large scale attacks on Gaza, in all their spectacular murderousness, (in this sense the Israeli state does understand “terrorism’s” power which is communicative-it’s just that it’s backfired on Israel) to move US citizens to recognize that the two state solution is gone. That’s the disturbing testimony to that “compulsory” nature of Zionism in the US. I hate to say this, but I think it’s true-it would take another Israeli attack on Gaza such as occurred in 2014 to get an overwhelmingly “pro-BDS” email vote.

  4. Prof. Drummond: The information provided by Alisse Waterston yesterday indicated that membership in the AAA has grown at a modest but steady rate of about 1% for each of the past three years. While this does not guarantee that anyone joined merely to vote one way or another, it doesn’t look like a smoking gun pointing to some irregularity.

  5. Barbara, just Lee.
    If some last-minute conspiracy to add voting members to AAA was not behind the failure of the boycott resolution, I’d say: So much the worse. It’s one thing that the AAA establishment should embrace a conservative view of the Israel-Palestine issue, as represented by Virginia Dominguez’s one-sided whitewash in the World section of the AA — the organization’s “flagship” journal. Oh, imperialist metaphor! It’s quite another that more than half of AAA members should turn out to vote, and see the resolution defeated. What does that say, not only about the AAA as an institution headquartered in D.C. and thus just another voice from the Beltway, but about the 11,000 odd anthropologists themselves? If they see their “No” votes as a defense of academic freedom, would they extend that right to Noam Chomsky, denied access to Israel and the West Bank in 2010 and held for hours for interrogation by the Israel Defense Force? In their desire as serious academics to acquaint themselves with the literature, have they perhaps read any of Chomsky’s and Steven Salaita’s works on the Palestinian issue?
    It was these thoughts and others that led me to suggest the analogy between the AAA and the Democratic National Committee, between Virginia Dominguez and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and between the failed boycott resolution and Bernie’s failed campaign. Are American anthropologists truly so rooted in the establishment? If not, why belong to AAA? It’s probably not gonna get you a job worth anything; precious few will read that AA article you’ve sweated blood over; your voice as an anthropologist is lost in what passes for public intellectual life in the US. Why not cast loose, set yourself adrift in the sea of social media where editorial boards, tenure committees, and peer reviewers count for little or nothing?

  6. Lee: I have not commented on the substance of the boycott resolution, and instead responded simply to the widely-made claim or charge that a significant number of supporters or detractors joined the AAA at the last minute in order to vote — a claim often accompanied by the belief that the membership dues of these new members was paid for by one or another lobby, either pro-Israel or anti-Zionist. And my point was that, apart from a few questionable anecdotal cases, there seems to be no evidence that this happened. That said, I was also surprised by the outcome, and I do not disagree wit the sentiments you express.

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