A Flawed Strategy

By: Cynthia Saltzman, Ph.D. Rutgers University-Camden, NJ

I oppose, for reasons I outline below, any effort to involve the AAA in any boycott of Israel, Israeli institutions, or Israeli scholars or programs. Along with my strong support for Israel, I have long opposed Israeli settlement policies and support a negotiated two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with negotiated adjustments.   I therefore appreciate efforts to come up with alternative statements to resolutions which support academic boycotts of Israel. I do feel, though, that the alternative resolution, “Engaging Israel-Palestine,” is too one-sided to reflect fairly and seriously the genuine complexities of the situation and the long list of missed opportunities by both sides in the quest for a just and mutually beneficial peace settlement.

More also needs to be said about the AAA Israel-Palestine Task Force Report itself. The 120 “interviews” that were collected were (at least in my case) carefully crafted statements. To the extent that my opposition to the AAA’s possible support of the BDS campaign (and I assume others who made similar arguments) were glossed over and summarily dismissed in a cursory way, the report is deeply flawed. Here are some of the views that I expressed to the Task Force committee regarding my strong opposition to an academic boycott of Israel.

  1. First, as others have noted, the boycott, despite denials from its proponents, threatens to silence individuals and not just institutions. I am very concerned that if the AAA votes in support of the BDS campaign, Israeli scholars will have a very difficult time participating in future anthropological meetings in the United States. Will Israeli scholars be able to wear name tags that list their Israeli university affiliation? Will they feel estranged and targeted at our meetings? What about American students who are currently in Israel or hope to study in Israel? How will support of a BDS position affect them? Will they themselves be retaliated against simply because they might receive some sort of financial or other support from Israeli institutions? A boycott would have consequences, intended and unintended, not only for the government of Israel but for our own colleagues, students, and friends.
  1. The larger question remains why it makes moral sense to single out Israel for a boycott. What are the deeper implications of such an act? Should we be boycotting China for its occupation of Tibet? The disproportionate attention that the AAA is paying to Israel is mind-boggling when one considers that the list of countries with serious human rights violations is endless, and includes major power such as China and Russia and smaller countries such as Uganda and Haiti. The human rights records of some other countries in the Middle East is particularly egregious. Consider in this respect Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and many other nations. Nor is Israel alone in being involved in an ongoing occupation and territorial dispute with its neighbors; other prominent examples include, of course, Russia as well as Turkey, Armenia, and Morocco.
  1. More broadly, we also need to confront the issue of implicit or structural anti-Semitism. I do not believe that most of the supporters of the boycott in the AAA are consciously anti-Semitic. Far from it. But as scholars who rightly study and emphasize “structural racism” and other forms of unconscious bias, we should be equally sensitive to the ideological and other biases that have at times influenced portions of the BDS movement. We also need to understand, with the same rigor that we bring to the rest of our anthropological work, how the mood generated by BDS can degenerate into the sort of explicit anti-Semitism displayed, for example, in the recent outrageous treatment of a student at UCLA, see: http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2015/02/23/ucla-students-jewish-background-questioned-during-vote-for-judicial-board/, or the targeting of Jewish students at campuses all over the country. As scholars, however pure our own motives, we need to take into account the larger context in which our actions are embedded. And as teachers we need to consider the spillover effects of such actions on many of our students.
  1. Finally, as someone who is critical of many of Israel’s current policies, I wonder what good a boycott would actually do. Would it help strengthen the many voices in Israeli civil society including Israeli anthropologists who call for a renewed effort to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians, and whom incidentally the AAA Task Force did not consult for its report? Would it influence the Israeli government to alter its policies? Would it help build bridges between Jewish Americans and Muslim Americans? Would it help strengthen the ability of anthropologists and anthropology as a discipline to be a credible voice in American and international political discourse. Or would it, to the contrary, as I suspect, either have no effect or accomplish the very opposite of all these laudable goals?

I would not want to be a member of the AAA if it supports the BDS campaign because the AAA would no longer represent the voice of academic freedom and open inquiry that it claims to champion. Moreover, as the committee members who wrote the Task Force report are not experts in the field, spent so little time in the West Bank, and never spoke to most Israeli anthropologists, when the AAA membership votes at its annual meeting in Denver, it will be voting on a politically motivated, biased report that makes some of us who hope to continue an Israeli/Palestinian dialogue feel that our presence is no longer welcome in the AAA.

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