Tuesday, September 26th | 11 Tishri 5784

August 31, 2023 11:25 am

Anthropology Boycott of Israeli Universities Is Misguided and Discriminatory

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avatar by Cynthia Saltzman and Geoffrey E. Braswell


A pro-BDS demonstration. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

On July 24, 2023, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) implemented a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, seven years after a similar vote failed by a slim margin. Only 37% of eligible members of the AAA participated in the recent vote, with 2,016 members supporting the boycott and 835 voting against it. The low vote count implies that a sizable majority of the membership chose not to endorse any position on a boycott, and a minority has now determined the AAA’s actions against Israeli universities.

Any academic boycott — and we oppose them all — contradicts the AAA’s core mission to serve the community of anthropologists and foster intellectual exchange. It threatens academic freedom, in principle and in practice. It also compromises the AAA’s role as a forum for robust continuing debate and scholarly investigation.

The respected Kalven Report of the University of Chicago advocates that universities avoid speaking with one voice on controversial issues, because this inhibits free inquiry and dissent. The AAA, as a community of scholars, should abide by similar principles, and remain a home of continuing debate and scholarly investigation. Rather than foster polyvocality surrounding a complex issue, the boycott of Israel seeks to silence social critique by implementing a single official position.

Supporters of the boycott insist that institutions — not colleagues in Israel — are its targets. Nonetheless, it is impossible to separate the two.

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To justify the boycott, the AAA accuses Israel of operating an apartheid regime “from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” including the internationally recognized state of Israel.

This echoes the rhetoric of those who reject the nation’s right to exist within any borders. The boycott fails to reflect the humility required before wading into a conflict with a complicated history and a controversial present. The AAA’s decision to pursue such an intellectually and ethically shallow course is especially sad, given anthropology’s historic commitment to contextual understanding, deep description, and broad-mindedness. To cut off ongoing informed conversation and genuine dialogue is against anthropology’s mandate.

A boycott of Israeli institutions explicitly ties the AAA to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In doing so, the AAA itself may be subject to sanctions in 35 US states that have laws, executive orders, or resolutions against the BDS movement and boycotts focused solely on Israel, raising questions about the location of future annual conferences, as well as the participation of anthropology departments at state universities in official AAA activities.

Furthermore, the AAA will lose many members over an issue that only one quarter of its members actively supported.

The academic boycott of Israel will produce specific and abhorrent practical consequences. Here in the US, many faculty members and students who are Jewish and who support Palestinian self-determination, but who also believe that Israel has a right to exist, will no longer feel welcome in the AAA. Many believe it is no longer a safe place for Jews.

Moreover, negating Israel and its supporters emboldens antisemitic expressions and actions. The broader project of delegitimizing Israel threatens the rights of Jews, wherever they live, to embrace their identity and live without fear.

The effect in Israel also will be counterproductive.

As argued by the American Association of University Professors, the target of any boycott should be the specific policies of governments, not the students and faculty who might even oppose those same policies through public demonstrations, as is happening today throughout Israel. The AAA’s attack against universities therefore aids and abets the current Israeli government in its attempt to suppress dissent of critical voices. The boycott also will severely hurt the nearly 20% of students in Israeli higher education institutions who are themselves Palestinian.

We repeat that we are against all academic boycotts. But singling out Israel as the sole target is both hypocritical and antisemitic. Let us not ignore the AAA’s assertion that universities are “complicit” with their government in “a reign of oppression … including by providing research and development of military and surveillance technologies.” This is an allegation that can be made against many nations.

Following the logic of the referendum, the AAA should also boycott Chinese universities for their complicity in the creation of a surveillance state and the genocides in East Turkestan and Tibet, Russian universities for research and development that support the war in Ukraine, Iranian universities for collaboration in the oppression of women, and the universities of the nations that have criminalized — in some cases to the level of capital punishment — the expression of queer gender and sexuality. Moreover, the logic of the boycott also strongly applies to universities in the US. When our own imperfect democracy is challenged, should we expect support from our colleagues in other nations?

American anthropologists must support our colleagues at universities throughout the world. In fact, they are often on the front-lines, challenging oppression and struggling for democracy. Peace, mutual respect for all human rights, and an end to suffering will not come about by hardening people’s hearts with academic boycotts. These laudable goals can be achieved only through dialogue — not by stifling it. The AAA boycott against Israeli universities and academics is nothing more than antisemitism hiding behind the virtue-signaling sophistry of a false morality.

Cynthia Saltzman is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, & Criminal Justice, at Rutgers University-Camden, and Geoffrey E. Braswell is a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology, at the University of California, San Diego.

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