Several US-based scholarly associations have recently undertaken debates or passed resolutions with respect to Israel/Palestine. We have discussed related issues in recent years in a variety of panels at the AAA Annual Meeting, and within section conversations. This winter, some members approached the Executive Board and the Executive Program Committee for the 2014 AAA Annual Meeting to discuss how to open up these matters to association-wide conversation.
The debate over Israel/Palestine is historically important and anthropologically relevant. We believe the association is well placed to offer AAA members a chance to gain an anthropologically informed perspective on the region and on the broader questions it raises, and to participate in productive conversations about them. Our members can provide us with a diverse set of lenses through which to explore and understand these questions.
Just as important, we have an opportunity here to develop modes of mutually respectful exchange on controversial anthropological topics that will serve us well now and in the future. After all, anthropologists work at understanding multiple perspectives for a living; indeed, it is one of our signature strengths. If we are able to have a focused conversation in which opposing views can be expressed and complexities can be acknowledged and understood, we will have made progress in exploring how to make dialogue work despite—or maybe because of—difference. We believe this is a worthy goal in and of itself.
We know that this subject is controversial and potentially divisive, but we think our approach can actually strengthen the association. It is important to facilitate exchange in ways that allow members to feel they have had a chance to learn what they want to learn, and say what they want to say, in ways that respect the integrity of anthropology and the legitimacy of our members’ perspectives. It is also important to take the time to have this conversation well, and with all interested members—recognizing that while some of us have been thinking about some of these issues for a long time, others may well be relatively new to this set of topics and deserve to have the chance to inform themselves to their satisfaction.
We will not pre-empt activities our members might want to propose, but we also want to offer some of our own. In this spirit, we are starting with (1) a series of 2014 annual meeting events that will allow for circulation of information and exchange of perspectives; and (2) this space here, on the Anthropology News website, open to anyone to read and share, with an option for comments and discussion for current AAA members.
Please be mindful of the AN policies and guidelines for submitting comments as well as commentaries. We encourage lively conversation and debate, but at the same time we expect it to be professional and respectful.
In this text, we’d like to provide a bit of background information, and invite members to add more information that will help the association decide on appropriate courses of action. Let’s be absolutely clear on one matter: at this moment we do NOT take any position for or against a boycott or any other form of statement or action. Instead, we offer this information to facilitate open dialogue about the many issues concerned, and to help the AAA think through those issues, especially as they relate to anthropology, anthropologists and the association. More information is accumulating all the time, and we plan to maintain a place on an ongoing basis to provide links to this growing body of resources. Comments are open to AAA members, and we just ask your patience in giving AN staff time to check member status before comments get posted.
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is a global campaign that started in 2004 in response to calls from Palestinian civil society organizations. Its aim has been to pressure Israel regarding a range of Palestinian rights. The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) coordinates the global campaign. BDS involves various campaigns: consumer, cultural, and academic boycotts; divestment; and sanctions. We focus here on academic and cultural boycott, since this has been the dimension most discussed among academic associations recently (although we welcome comments on the other dimensions as well). The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) issued a call in 2004 for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. FAQs about the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel contain further information on various aspects of the boycott strategy.
On December 4, 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA) National Council proposed a resolution on the academic boycott of Israel; a membership vote involving nearly 25% of ASA’s 5,000 members voted 66%-34% in favor of the boycott. The ASA boycott bars the ASA as an organization from entering into partnerships with Israeli institutions and bars the ASA (again, as an organization) from issuing invitations to Israeli academics as official representatives of their universities—e.g., invitations to deans and provosts. It does not bar individual Israeli academics from attending conferences or entering into research collaborations with ASA members, unless they are funded by their university or other Israeli institution.
Other academic associations that have adopted a boycott include:
- British Association of University Teachers, 2005 (rescinded one month later).
- Asian American Studies Association (AAAS), May 3, 2013.
- Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), December 15, 2013.
- Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI), April 4, 2013.
- Federation of French-speaking Belgian Students, April 2013.
- The University and College Union of the UK, in 2008 and 2011, called for the circulation to all members of the call to boycott, but stopped short of formally endorsing the boycott.
- March 2014 the Modern Languages Association (MLA) executive board decided to put before the membership a resolution condemning Israeli travel restrictions seen to violate academic freedom that had been passed by a vote in its delegate assembly in January 2014.
We have closely monitored these unfolding developments. The circumstances are complex, but the general questions raised for AAA are straightforward: Should AAA take a position? If so, why? What is the range of appropriate positions we might take?
We recognize that a wide range of positions could be taken by AAA, including no action, further information-gathering, deeper consideration of what the exact nature of AAA interest in the debate might be, and even whether we have left out key positions that ought to be considered.
We also recognize that a boycott is not the only possible AAA response, should the AAA choose to act. Without prejudicing an open-ended conversation, we present some alternatives to a boycott that have been proposed or can be imagined within the scope of the debate as it has been presented here. Others are certainly also imaginable. Here are just a few other possibilities:
- Resolution condemning Israeli policy toward Palestinians with specific reference to violations of international law, human and civil rights; and a resolution condemning US participation in supporting the occupation. (AAUP distinguishes a “censure” from a “boycott”; this would be like a censure in AAUP terms).
- Call for universities to divest from Israel or businesses (like Sodastream, Dell, General Electric and Hewlett-Packard) that help sustain inequitable treatment of Palestinians. (This could be modeled on the AAUP position on the South African divestment movement: AAUP supported economic divestment from South Africa, but opposed an academic boycott.)
- Advocate a more selective boycott.
- Use AAA resources to create special opportunities for Palestinian scholars or for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.
- Organize events at Palestinian universities to help build momentum behind existing international efforts to overturn restrictions on foreign passport holders living and working in the Palestinian areas.
- Join the campaign to pressure TIAA-CREF to divest from companies that profit from the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
- Take up the MLA resolution calling for US scholars to be allowed to accept invitations to visit the occupied territories.
- Produce carefully researched “intervention” letters to protest violations of academic freedom, following the approach of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA).
We believe we can benefit from the wisdom of our sister societies when it comes to guaranteeing a process for airing what are bound to be deeply felt and passionately expressed perspectives. We are mindful, for example, that it took the American Studies Association six years of various kinds of dialogue within the association before the membership adopted a boycott resolution. In addition, we feel that ASA and MLA experiences teach us that: (1) it is best for debate in AAA to be led by AAA members, rather than by non-members who may have less to lose from polarization of the membership; (2) it is important to ensure space for presentation of multiple perspectives; (3) association-wide discussion should be moderated by honest brokers who are respected by all.
In addition to starting the discussion here, the AAA Executive Board, in collaboration with the 2014 Annual Meeting Executive Program Committee, is working on the following:
- Considering organizing a task force. Our membership has considerable expertise on the Israel/Palestine issue, and on related questions.
- A forum or roundtable to be held early in the annual meeting. While the format has not yet been fixed, the event is likely to start off with a small number of presentations of a range of perspectives, followed by discussion.
- Screening informative films and documentaries at the 2014 Annual Meeting.
Robust advance notice will be given to the membership about fora on this topic at the annual meeting. As always, if any resolutions are introduced for the AAA membership to consider at its business meeting, AAA staff will provide assistance.
We look forward to a deliberate, considered and educational dialogue. Those of you who follow Monica’s From the President column in Anthropology News might remember her opening remarks from her very first column: disagreement is fine; in fact it is healthy. But we need to be aware of her Canadian sensibilities, so it has to be polite. Merci infiniment, et au plaisir d’échanger avec vous toutes et tous.
Monica Heller is president of the AAA and professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
Hugh Gusterson is special advisor to the AAA president for public affairs and professor at George Mason University’s department of cultural studies.
Alisse Waterston is vice president/president-elect of the AAA and professor of anthropology at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Edward Liebow is AAA’s executive director.