By: Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar
In 2016 the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions for their involvement in the illegal occupation of Palestine both gathered significant steam and faced a huge roadblock. In the United States, the country that largely underwrites and funds the Israeli occupation, the call to boycott initiated in 2004 by Palestinian civil rights organizations movement has had some impressive successes, with eight associations endorsing it thus far, notably in academic fields that challenge Eurocentrism. The movement continued to grow last year as scholars across disciplines learned more about the Israeli occupation and its consequences. Several larger academic organizations discussed or voted on the boycott call, including the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Modern Language Association (MLA). As criticisms of the Israeli state and Zionist ideology spread, backlash intensified.
We are part of the diverse group of anthropologists of different backgrounds, including Israelis and Palestinians, who have organized a movement to convince the AAA membership to adopt the boycott. For several years, we have worked to educate our colleagues about both Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and the boycott as an effective tactic by which to support those rights. We’ve done this through panels, roundtables, dozens of op-eds, videos, webinars, teach-ins, email outreach, and canvassing on the floors of various anthropology conferences. As the MLA begins its discussions of the boycott, we offer this retrospective on the AAA vote last spring.
In late March 2016, two weeks before the full AAA membership was to vote on the boycott resolution, we gave a talk on our recent book, Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. The book examines the political and economic pressures that shape how US-based scholars, across generations, have researched and taught about the Middle East since World War II, through the lens of anthropologists’ struggles with sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and Zionism. We ended that talk on a positive note, suggesting that perhaps our discipline was finally on the verge of meaningful change. Our cautious optimism, as we put it then, was based in part on our experience of the November 2015 AAA business meeting. A preliminary vote on the boycott took place that evening, at what was by all accounts the best attended business meeting in AAA history. 88% of attendees voted to support boycott and place it on a ballot for the full AAA membership to endorse. We ended our talk at Berkeley with a hopeful sentiment that this preliminary success signaled the demise of the kinds of gendered and raced prejudices against the Middle East and Middle Easterners that we discussed in our book, as well as an end to earlier understandings of anthropology as an objective apolitical science. “There may well be a major seachange in anthropology,” we said, “We wonder whether, and hope that, the same is the case for academia at large.”
Our colleague Saba Mahmood was in the audience and offered what would be the most prescient comment of the day. She said that she did not share our optimism about the upcoming boycott vote, and that there was still a “sleeping giant” at the heart of the discipline whose head had not yet been cut off – a sleeping giant characterized by politically inert liberalism. Two months later, she was proven right. What began as an 88% victory among over 1000 business meeting attendees (approximately 10% of the AAA membership) became a narrow, 0.8%, 39-vote loss, as the approximately 5000 (or 50%) the Association’s 10,000 members who chose to vote were split essentially down the middle.
So what happened? As supportive colleagues reeled in shock from this unexpected loss, the first explanation they proffered was that direct outside interference must have sabotaged the vote. Indeed, there is significant evidence for this meddling, even at the top levels of the Israeli government. The Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs, Gilad Erdan, said that “intensive publicity work and groundwork with members of the association” led to the defeat. He linked the AAA outcome to other anti-boycott efforts globally, suggesting a coordinated and possibly state-led campaign to defeat the boycott movement. The chairperson of the Association of University Heads of Israel wrote to chancellors and presidents of major US universities, asking them to issue statements opposing the proposed AAA boycott before the vote. Many did just that in a joint letter publicized right after the AAA voting period opened, signed by the Chancellors of all ten University of California campuses plus UC President Janet Napolitano. Pro-Israel groups, led by Eugene Kontorovich, a Northwestern law professor and Israeli settler, filed a lawsuit against the members of the Council of the American Studies Association who had endorsed the boycott in 2013. Timed to coincide with the early days of the AAA boycott vote, this lawsuit seemed designed to intimidate AAA voters.
Other intimidation tactics marred the voting period as well, including blacklists and targeted harassment campaigns. For instance, the AMCHA initiative, which seeks to define any activity critical of Israel as anti-Semitism, created a blacklist of anthropologists supporting the boycott. It then sent systematic and repeated harassing emails to untenured scholars on this list, knowing full well that such faculty, with little job security, are especially vulnerable to outside political pressure on this issue. The AAA boycott threat appeared to spur the development of a new group, called the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), which then mobilized its non-anthropologist members to convince anthropologists to vote against the boycott. It proudly lauded the vote outcome as one of its achievements on its website, stating that it “amplified and distributed” messages from anti-boycott groups. Outside money mattered too. A Zionist advocacy organization called AMEINU provided direct support, including funding channels, to the primary anti-boycott group of anthropologists. And the Schusterman Family Foundation funded AEN as well as at least one anti-boycott anthropologist’s AAA membership fees, enabling them to vote; there is speculation that it funded many more.
While the boycott certainly prompted greater Israeli state and institutional involvement in pressuring scholars, and amplified these efforts through the financial and organizational involvement of groups like the Schusterman Family Foundation, AMCHA, AMEINU, and AEN, such pressure on academics to be silent on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is not particularly new. Since at least the 1970s, academics who research or teach topics against the grain of dominant U.S. narratives about Palestine have taken significant career risks, and have been accused of bias and even treason in their teaching and public lectures and targeted by blacklists and hate mail. These pressures and risks have intensified this century with the War on Terror, the increase in numbers and reach of right-wing “watchdog” organizations, and the development of technologies which enable greater surveillance and public targeting of scholars. For decades scholars have been pressured to avoid public association with Palestine; opposition to the boycott in the form of letters from university presidents and chancellors and multiple harassing emails from other faculty members, brought these pressures to the foreground.
And while these tactics are familiar to Middle East scholars, many non-Middle East anthropologists were caught entirely off guard by them. Over the past three years of discussion about Palestinian rights and the boycott, many anthropologists whose work does not relate to the Middle East were exposed, for the first time, to these pressures. Colleagues frequently expressed to us surprise that graduate students or pre-tenure faculty were scared to publicly support the boycott or feared negative reprisal if they did. Unbeknownst to many of them, Middle East anthropologists’ early career experiences regularly socialized them into this highly politicized world.
But it is critical to recognize that such pressures, and evidence of a massive and coordinated anti-boycott campaign are not the only reason the resolution did not pass in the full AAA membership vote. They alone cannot explain why an 88% victory transformed into a loss, albeit razor thin. Put differently, why didn’t the outcome of a vote among the 10% of the AAA membership that attended the 2015 business meeting reflect the outcome when the full Association voted? Anthropology’s Politics reveals the other, less blunt but no less insidious, reason why the boycott movement stumbled in anthropology. Put simply, this is the longstanding fissure between scholars who understand politics and academia to be intertwined and those who believe they are separable. Many who were surprised by the vote outcome overestimated the degree to which the progressive perspectives visible in the business meeting represent the discipline as a whole.
The professional practice and demographics of anthropology embody both the post-World War II shift in U.S. domestic politics towards an emphasis on civil rights and the inclusion of female and minority perspectives, as well as the backlash against these shifts and continued reproduction of structural inequalities and discriminations. Many anthropologists think that their discipline champions (or should champion) the voices and perspectives of the marginalized, yet some of its practitioners have colluded with colonial and state power. Anthropology has become a heavily feminized discipline since the second wave feminist movement and attracts many non-elite scholars, yet it remains largely white, like academia in general. Anthropology is the most resolutely international of the social sciences in its breadth of research sites and privileging of fieldwork done “elsewhere,” yet anthropologists based in the U.S. mainly cite their colleagues working in U.S. institutions. And anthropologists frequently identify as politically left leaning and critical of capitalism, yet continue to work in increasingly corporatized university environments.
There is a demographic component to these tensions. Most of the scholars who became anthropologists before the 1990s because they thought the field was conducive to politically committed academic engagement in and about the Middle East were women and/or those with family or heritage ties to the region. With some notable exceptions, white men trained before the 1990s tend to hold on to notions of anthropology as an objective science, and of activism as compromising academic integrity. This is sometimes expressed in overt or microaggressive sexist or racist judgments of female colleagues or anthropologists of color. These demographic patterns of linking or delinking academia from political commitments were on full view during discussions of the boycott at the AAA.
The outcome of the full membership vote can thus best be explained by a combination of the pressures exerted by external, often Israeli-led, organized opposition to the boycott and to the lingering mythology that anthropological scholarship – and by extension, anthropologists and their scholarly associations, like the AAA — can and should be “objective” and apolitical. These two sources of anti-boycott pushback parallel the two forms that such objections took: Organized pressure against the boycott often drew on spurious accusations that the criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic or redirected discussions away from Palestinian rights to concern for how the existing academic freedom of Israeli colleagues would be affected, in an attempt to shift the terrain of the discussion towards “scholars like us.” Anti-boycott voices also championed assertions that anthropology, as a scholarly discipline, had no business making political statements or taking political action. But the AAA has passed numerous political statements about other issues and places and people. It is only when Israeli violations of Palestinian rights are the issue that the latter argument is so vehemently deployed, as happened in response to numerous earlier attempts within the AAA to make statements in support of Palestinian rights. The coexistence and co-construction of these anti-boycott arguments remind us that we must understand the vote outcome as due to both external interference and pressure and longstanding dynamics within anthropology and the academy. The latter represent what Mahmood so presciently called the sleeping giant of the discipline.
This combination of dynamics explains why dozens of boycott supporters signed the boycott pledge anonymously and avoided publicly advocating for boycott in their departments and with colleagues. They explain why managers of AAA-related websites and publications always insisted to us that pro-boycott essays be paired with the same number of anti-boycott essays for “balance,” though the same stipulation did not apply to anti-boycott materials. They explain why the panels of anthropologists opposed to the boycott were made up of disproportionately older white male speakers as compared with the striking diversity of speakers on panels supporting the boycott. By the last year of boycott discussion, these anti-boycott speakers had moved from raising the old canard of anti-Semitism to questioning whether or not a boycott was acceptable academic practice, drawing on longstanding notions of anthropological “objectivity” or redirecting concern to academic freedom for Israelis, despite the fact that the boycott doesn’t target them in their individual capacity and that there were dozens of Israeli anthropologists who supported it. While certainly bolstered by “outside forces,” these tactics and positions go way back in the discipline of anthropology.
But the giant’s days may well be numbered. Indeed, there are two ways to look at the very close vote outcome – as an absolute loss or as a victory in terms of how far the movement for Palestinian rights has come in the past decade. Today, younger generations of anthropologists are challenging the kinds of liberal politics of an older anthropology that often rests implicitly on subtle forms of racism and paternalism. They are contesting the notion that anthropology’s relevance is narrow, and that activism or partisan politics has no place in the academy. Mirroring new political movements outside the academy, they are also building coalitions among different progressive causes. This is half of the answer to why there was such a discrepancy between the 88% victory in support of boycott at the 2015 AAA business meeting and 50-50 split of the full membership vote. That meeting hall was the most diverse gathering of anthropologists we have ever seen. These were anthropologists with a progressive activist bent, who understood that the issue of Palestinian rights is an issue of human rights about which we should all be concerned, that Israel-Palestine is this generation’s apartheid South Africa, as some have put it. It was also a relatively young gathering, as younger scholars are more likely to attend Association conferences, as they are interviewing for jobs or giving papers to build their careers. The electronic ballot for the full membership vote was open for a month and a half, and one could vote from one’s own home. One can therefore read the difference in the two outcomes as diagnostic of the demographic shifts in anthropology and as a return of earlier moments of heightened political consciousness in the discipline. Older, whiter, male, Zionist, liberal scholars still outnumber those who dominated the business meeting.
The other half of the answer lies of course, as many colleagues immediately noted, in those extraordinary efforts made by anti-boycott organizations to defeat the resolution in the full AAA membership vote. It isn’t difficult to see the overwhelming victory at the business meeting as a challenge to those who fear the boycott, including Israeli government officials. The mere fact that external organizations are throwing funding and labor at thwarting the mobilization efforts of a group of US based anthropologists, not to mention the pride that was expressed in those organized efforts after the resolution’s defeat in the AAA, shows that they view this growing movement as a threat. The extent of their attention to the academic boycott, and their treatment of a US academic association’s debates and votes as worthy of comment and funding, actually highlight the success of the boycott movement in raising critical awareness about Palestinian rights and Israeli violations among an ever-growing numbers of U.S. scholars. Perhaps we should understand this backlash as a sign that the boycott movement is doing something right. Perhaps the narrow loss of the AAA vote was not quite a loss at all.
 These include the Asian-American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies, the African Literature Association, the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and the Association for Humanist Sociology, and the American Studies Association.
Lara Deeb is Professor of Anthropology at Scripps College. Jessica Winegar is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University. Together, they are co-authors of Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2015).