The AAA Process and Discussions of the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions

[this post originally appeared on the blog of the American Anthropological Association]

Today’s guest blog post is written by AAA members, Fida Adely and Lara Deeb

At the upcoming (December 2014) annual meeting of the American Anthropological Society (AAA), several panels will take up the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, providing a context for learning about how anthropologists have been and could be further engaged in a just resolution. Several of these forums specifically focus on discussion of the call for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. We support this boycott, but whether or not you agree with our position, we would like to clear up some circulating misinformation about how the discussion is taking shape in the AAA.

As of late, a number of people outside anthropology who are either opposed to an academic boycott, and/or opposed to any discussion or debate of such a boycott, have criticized the AAA for failing to provide “balance” in this annual meeting programming, implying that somehow this was deliberate on the part of the AAA, or at best, a glaring oversight. It is important to note that all of the panels mentioned above were vetted through the standard review process for proposed events at the annual meeting, the deadline for which was February 15 of this year (see the call for proposals). Indeed, the panel on the AAA program that, based on its title, will present an argument against the academic boycott was also submitted and vetted through this process. If there are fewer panels that seem to argue against the academic boycott rather than support it, this is because fewer were submitted by AAA members for inclusion on the program.

To those who suggest that opponents of the academic boycott were “surprised” by the multiple panels discussing the issue on this year’s AAA program: It is worth noting that this is the second year that discussion of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions has taken place in this venue. The 2013 AAA Annual Meeting included a well-attended panel of papers addressing various aspects of the boycott, and at that panel, a draft resolution was circulated and attendees were informed that further discussion of the boycott would take place at the 2014 Annual Meeting. The passing of academic boycott resolutions at the American Studies Association, the African Literature Association, the Asian-American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and other academic associations should also have been an indication that similar discussions would arise at the AAA and elsewhere. This is not a matter that is somehow limited to anthropologists but a broader response from scholars to a call for solidarity from Palestinian civil society, in particular the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees. Clearly a few people understood that this would be discussed at the AAAs, as there is an anti-boycott panel on the program. If people do not find that particular panel “credible,” it is not the AAA’s fault.

There are a number of possible explanations for the dearth of anthropologists from major Israeli universities on panels addressing these issues. Those scholars may not have wanted to open up discussion of the academic boycott, as indicated by a letter from the Israeli Anthropological Association that condemns the AAA for its panel selections and for focusing on Israel as a key topic of discussion at the upcoming meetings. Yet it may also, instead, be an indication that it is not an easy task for Israeli scholars to publicly advocate the boycott of Israeli academic institutions – for fear ofreprisals or punishment under Israeli government anti-boycott laws. While boycott advocates are not calling for scholars working in Israeli institutions to boycott their own institutions, some scholars in Israel have spoken out in support of the boycott. More than forty Israeli anthropologists responded to that letter from the Israeli Anthropological Association in a counter-letter defending the right of their anthropology colleagues to have this discussion. Notably, quite a few of the signatories on the second letter chose to sign anonymously, highlighting the very real possibility of sanctions, especially for early career scholars. As demonstrated in the IAA letter, those opposed to the academic boycott of Israeli institutions have sought to shut down even the mere discussion of the boycott. The default “anti-boycott” position is to not address it at all. This may provide a possible explanation for why only one such panel was organized and submitted for inclusion on the 2014 Annual Meeting program.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the demand for “balance” in the context of an academic conference such as the AAA Annual Meeting is a puzzling one. What does balance mean in this context? That every argument should have a counter-argument? That AAA should henceforth review proposals with “balance” of theoretical and ideological leanings in mind? The AAA leadership’s job is to make sure panel proposals meet minimum criteria and are vetted through an established peer review process. They are not tasked with – nor should they be tasked with – micromanaging the conference program. Those who demand “balance” are asking the AAA leadership to interfere with existing process by which the conference comes together each year, something we are certain neither Association members or those in its leadership positions think is a good idea.

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