Scholars must speak out against anti-Israel academic boycotts - opinion

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) announced last week that they have voted in favor of a “Resolution to Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions.”

 PREVIEW A demonstrator waves a Palestine flag during a pro-Palestine rally in New York City, U.S., May 18, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/BRENDAN MCDERMID)
PREVIEW A demonstrator waves a Palestine flag during a pro-Palestine rally in New York City, U.S., May 18, 2018

On Monday, July 24, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) announced that its members had voted 2,016 to 835 in favor of a “Resolution to Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions.”

The passage of this resolution reflects multiple ironies, contradictions, and double standards.

First, the resolution was presented within the framework of the AAA’s “deep commitment to academic freedom and open debate.” Of course, academic boycotts are antithetical to these core values that define the academy, preventing faculty, students, and other scholars from effectively engaging with their counterparts at the targeted institutions.

Second, the field of Anthropology is ostensibly committed to the understanding of other societies, cultures, and experiences. Yet, with this resolution, the AAA as an institution is essentially cutting itself off from the perspectives and lived experiences of Israeli anthropologists. How will AAA members gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of Israeli society if they cannot conduct research in partnership with Israeli institutions?

Sadly, the scholars most likely to be impacted by the implementation of this resolution are graduate students and junior faculty, who would benefit the most from taking part in study-abroad programs, research projects, academic conferences, symposia, workshops, museum exhibits, and archaeological projects, all valuable educational opportunities which are now under threat.

Third, the resolution maintains a singular focus on Israel – and a deafening silence about the travesties committed by many other nations. It accuses the Israeli academy of being complicit in actions against Palestinians when, in fact, Israeli academics have often been among the most vocal critics of Israeli government policies and have worked hard to promote Arab-Jewish coexistence on their campuses and beyond. This double standard underscores how the purpose of this resolution is not to promote human rights, but to isolate Israel – and only Israel.

Finally, this resolution will have no discernible impact on the policies of the Israeli government but may indeed negatively impact Jewish and Zionist faculty and students in the US. Numerous studies and reports have documented that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement coarsens the discourse on campus, promotes prejudice and hate against Jews on campus, and leaves many Jews feeling demoralized and disempowered within their academic institutions and disciplines. Having a prominent academic association essentially endorse a core tactic used by the BDS movement will alienate Jewish and Zionist scholars from their academic fields of study and dissuade students from pursuing anthropology.

While the full practical implications of the resolution’s implementation remain to be seen, the AAA has already authorized a host of measures that will surely harm individual scholars and students—in Israel and beyond. According to the AAA’s Executive Board’s announcement, the boycott would prevent Israeli academic institutions from “being listed in AAA’s published materials, advertising in AAA publications, websites, and other communications channels, using AAA conference facilities for job interviews, participating in the AAA Graduate School Fair, participating in the AAA Departmental Services Program, participating in joint conferences or events with AAA and its sections, and republishing and reprinting articles from AAA publications in Israeli journals and publications.”

Due to the actions of a small group of ideologues (after all, only 37% of eligible AAA members voted on the resolution), the AAA has done severe, perhaps irreparable damage to its reputation as an academic institution. If the boycott is indeed implemented, the AAA will have devolved from an academic association ostensibly committed to open intellectual inquiry into an advocacy group mandating political and ideological orthodoxies. It will push away many of its own members who do not want to be associated with discriminatory policies, and it will face legal challenges for pursuing such policies, particularly in states with anti-BDS laws on the books.

In the meantime, anthropologists who wish to take a stance for academic freedom and against double standards have a range of options. They can reach out to senior administrators on their campuses to ensure that they maintain or even expand joint programs with Israeli institutions. They can present about contemporary Israel, Jewish identity, and antisemitism at conferences, providing AAA members the opportunity to hear new perspectives. They can encourage their campuses to disaffiliate from the AAA, and drop their own membership, as long as it continues its policy of boycotting Israeli institutions.

The passage of the boycott resolution at the AAA will unfortunately serve as inspiration for ideologues at other associations to pursue similar campaigns. It is up to responsible scholars to demonstrate that discrimination has consequences.

Miriam F. Elman is the Executive Director of the Academic Engagement Network (AEN),Raeefa Z. Shams is the Director of Communications and Programming at the AEN.

This op-ed is published in partnership with a coalition of organizations that fight antisemitism across the world. Read the previous article by Liora Rez.