American Anthropologists Betray their own Values

While debating an academic boycott of Israeli universities Friday, an overwhelming majority of those attending the annual business meeting of the American Anthropological Association rejected a motion to reaffirm the discipline’s historic commitment to non-discrimination

A turning point in American academic history took place Friday night during the annual business meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). With an all-time record attendance of more than 1500, the Association debated a resolution to boycott Israeli universities which was eventually upheld. Minutes into the debate, the Association refused to take up an amendment to the boycott resolution which affirms the AAA’s “long standing support of academic freedom and its opposition to measures that foster discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability”. The proposed anti-discrimination clause was rejected by a crushing majority of those AAA members who were in attendance. With this rejection, and by embracing the boycott resolution which discriminates against Israeli universities later that evening by a 1,040 to 136 majority, the AAA repudiated its long cherished values of promoting pluralism and tolerance.

Apart from tabling this failed amendment to the boycott resolution, founders of Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel and Palestine (ADIP) also joined ten other anthropologists to offer an alternative resolution at Friday’s business meeting. This alternative resolution strongly criticized Israel’s policies and actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians, called upon the AAA to address injustice and human rights violations against them by investing in academic initiatives in the region, and rejected the call for academic boycott. This alternative resolution was rejected by the Business Meeting by an almost equally large majority as the adopted boycott resolution.

ADIP regards the boycott resolution as a boost to the Israeli government’s intransigence and a recipe for extending the occupation of Palestinian lands which Israeli has occupied since 1967. “Such actions” said Prof. Dan Rabinowitz of Tel-Aviv University, a co-founder of ADIP, ”play into the hands of the Israeli Right, who will herald it as further proof that ‘the world is all against us’ and that whatever Israelis do, even left leaning academics, they will be marginalized”. Rabinowitz, who together with Prof. Susan Kahn (Harvard) proposed the non-discrimination amendment to the boycott resolution which was rejected Friday. The non-discrimination amendment was supported by Professor Harvey Goldberg (Hebrew U.), Professor Yehuda Goodman (Hebrew U.), Professor Jackie Feldman (Ben Gurion U.), Prof. Amalia Sa’ar (Haifa U.) and other Israeli anthropologists who are known for their pro-peace stances and work. Professor Rabinowitz continued: “The rage and indignation at Israel’s actions was wrongfully and dangerously diverted by boycotters to sow divisions within the academic community which are counterproductive and, in the case of me and my Israeli colleagues, most depressing”.

Dr. Gila Silverman (University of Arizona), Co-founder of ADIP, who addressed the AAA business meeting Friday, said: “The AAA’s vote today demonstrated a failure on the part of anthropologists to truly devote themselves to listening, learning, and acknowledging social complexity. The AAA betrayed our Israeli colleagues by ostracizing and silencing them, and unfairly holding them accountable for governmental policies that they themselves have courageously opposed.”

Prof. Michele Rivkin-Fish (UNC, Chapel Hill) said after the vote: “Something significant and powerful in me has broken. I feel it viscerally: a physical blow, a kick in the stomach. It is the kind of personal loss in which you know that nothing will ever be the same again. What has broken is my belief in my profession. My trust in my colleagues”.

ADIP co-founder David M. Rosen, professor of Anthropology and Law at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said after Friday’s vote: “This resolution will curtail the ability of anthropologists, social scientists and humanists to teach and conduct research with an open mind on the issues affecting Israel and Palestine. In embracing the right to discriminate, the boycott resolution has dangerously delineated a new terrain. The AAA’s decision could boost and provide a cover for governments and political operatives everywhere that seek to marginalize or suffocate academic institutions and members of civil society. The boycott resolution is something the AAA and members who supported it will need to grapple with for decades.”

The boycott resolution carried by the AAA’s Business Meeting on Friday is preliminary. The only final decision taken is to bring it to an electronic ballot in April 2015, whereby all 12,000 members of the AAA will be asked to approve or reject it. ADIP shares the view of many that an electronic vote taken by members individually is different to a crowded meeting setting, where a well-organized, well-funded group truncated debate, willfully preventing participants from having an opportunity to listen to the present minority’s point of view. ADIP remains committed to its campaign against the boycott frenzy, for dialogue and reconciliation, and will be dedicating more energy and whatever resources it can obtain to keep its struggle going in coming months and years.

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3 thoughts on “American Anthropologists Betray their own Values

  1. Nicely worded response. I’m not in your academic community though many years ago I was an academic. It is completely obvious that the AAA resolution is going to be seen as the AAA taking sides in a tribal war: “Jews are bad, Palestinians are good”. The AAA is now officially partisan on a racial issue. When politicians dismiss the output of Anthropology as representing political advocacy and not scholarship they can now site policy to that effect.

    It is a tragedy when an organization corrupts itself. Thank you for fighting for human rights and decency in an environment where evil has taken hold.

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  2. Many good points made. Thank you for your advocacy. I am not aware of the history of resolutions in earlier days–did AAA sanction German universities during the Nazi era? Did German professors take stands? Have professors in Israeli universities taken stands against the illegal occupation of Palestine and the blockade against Gaza? I would like to have more information on the work of Israeli universities and the details of what a “boycott” would mean. Thank you.

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