Why We Need an Open Discussion at #AAA2014 about the Academic Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

[this post originally appeared on the Anthropology News site]

Farha Ghannam
Jessica Winegar

This year’s AAA is likely to host its liveliest conversations in a long time. The AAA Executive Board and the AAA Program Committee have scheduled a “Members’ Forum on AAA’s Engagement with Israel/Palestine” on Thursday, December 4, from 1-2:15 (Marriott Salon Ballroom 2). The AAA also welcomes contributions to its blog on the topic, and in particular on the growing boycott of Israeli academic institutions. There are also four panels about the boycott (including one against it) on the program. The discussion sections of these panels, and the members’ forum and blog, are all open forums where AAA members, regardless of their positions on the conflict or the boycott, are welcome to express their views and learn from one another [After this article was submitted, the AAA announced that the Members’ Forum would focus on facilitated discussion in small groups -@anthroboycott]. It is likely that most of the 10,000 members of our association do not hold set positions on these matters and would like to learn more, in light of the dramatic news of the Gaza war this past summer, the wave of other US academic associations discussing and/or passing boycott resolutions, and the fact that nearly 1000 of their colleagues within anthropology have already signed a petition to boycott Israeli academic institutions. A discussion needs to happen and our association has provided several forums to facilitate it. People will be able to hear from their colleagues who are experts in the region, and learn exactly what the boycott entails and does not entail. As AAA Executive Director Ed Liebow said in a recent interview, such discussions will “help [members] make up their minds about nature of the Association’s engagement” with this issue.

Yet some of those opposed to the boycott seek to stifle this discussion, as they have with other academic associations and on campuses nationwide. For example, an initiative called AMCHA recently posted to its website a list of Middle East scholars (including anthropologists) who signed the boycott pledge and encouraged students not to take classes with them. This group also wrote a report accusing UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies of anti-Semitic activity and anti-Israel bias, which provoked the Middle Eastern Studies Association to write a letter denouncing its “deeply flawed and highly tendentious methodology” and to conclude that the goal of the report was to “stifle the free and open discussion of, and the vigorous exchange of opinions on, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on college and university campuses.” Meanwhile, the Israeli Anthropological Association (IAA) sent a letter to the AAA purporting to support the “free exchange of ideas” but then argued against the “call for considering a boycott of Israeli institutions.” The letter accused the AAA of stacking the annual meeting with sessions in support of the boycott. Its authors misrepresented the facts, and did not acknowledge that the AAA in fact abided by the standard process by which panels are submitted and reviewed. The Association has also structured the members’ forum to ensure broad and open participation: it will be conducted with names of speakers selected at random and each given two minutes at the microphone. Another group letter from 40 other Israeli anthropologists to the AAA condemned the IAA’s effort to silence discussion at our annual meeting. These Israeli anthropologists pointed out that the IAA, contrary to its claims, has never taken a strong stance against Israel’s occupation of and wars against Palestinians, and has never “dissociated itself from the Israeli society-military complex.” These Israeli anthropologists call for an “open and public discussion” of the boycott at the Annual Meeting, as countless members of our discipline have called for open discussion of the AAA’s stance on political issues.

Indeed, a public discussion of whether or not anthropologists, or the AAA as a body, should adopt a boycott of Israeli academic institutions is wholly consistent with the history of the discipline and of the AAA. From Franz Boas’ public statement against anthropologists using their discipline as a cover for espionage work to the present, anthropologists—both independently and through the AAA—have discussed taking (and in some cases have) strong stances on a number of issues: apartheid in South Africa, Namibia, and Burundi; violence against civilians in the former Yugoslavia and Pakistan; violence against indigenous and minority populations in Chile, Brazil, and Bulgaria; the use of torture; the Pinochet coup in Chile; and the misuse of anthropological knowledge in the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System. As an organization, the AAA has also discussed numerous boycotts, and even decided to participate in them on several occasions: of the Fulbright-Chile program in 1975; of the State of Illinois in 1999; of the Hilton hotel chain in 2004; of Coca-Cola in 2006; and of the State of Arizona in 2010. Some anthropologists argue that none of these positions are comparable to the proposed boycott; others argue that they are. The point is that anthropologists need to discuss current political events and discuss their form of involvement in them; they need to be able to discuss the similarities and differences between public positions taken by the AAA in the past and those proposed for today.

Because most AAA members are citizens of or teach in the US, they have a stake in US policy. The US supplies more military aid to Israel than to any other country. Israel receives the lion’s share of its military aid (over $233 billion since 1948) from the US. The US government systematically supports Israel’s use of that military aid to displace, oppress, or kill thousands of people. As an American association, the AAA has discussed and/or taken stances on forms of state violence of much smaller magnitudes and in cases where the US plays little role.

It has done so because, in part, the profession sees itself as “committed to the promotion and protection of the right of people and peoples everywhere to the full realization of their humanity…When any culture or society denies or permits the denial of such opportunity to any of its own members or others, the AAA has an ethical responsibility to protest and oppose such deprivation.” (See the 1999 Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights.)

Why should Palestinians not be given the same consideration? Especially when our Palestinian academic colleagues have asked us to do so. This brings us to the final imperative to have open discussion of these issues. The two major bodies representing Palestinian academia—Palestinian Federation of University Unions of Professors and Employees (PFUUPE) and the Palestinian Council of Higher Education—along with a host of other civil society organizations (including the General Federation of Trade Unions) have called on the international community to support the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. They argue that this is now necessary “given that all forms of international intervention have until now failed to force Israel to comply with international law or to end its repression of the Palestinians” and that “Israeli academic institutions (mostly state controlled) and the vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics have either contributed directly to maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying the above forms of oppression, or have been complicit in them through their silence.” We have been asked by our colleagues in Palestine to have this discussion, at the very least.

Just as the AAA has repeatedly responded (either positively or negatively) to initiatives from numerous international academic entities to make public statements on a range of issues, it should do so now with our colleagues teaching in Palestine. Taking their call seriously requires having open discussion of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions at the Annual Meeting. To ignore their call, to not promote discussion, would be to silence Palestinians yet again, and to go against the tradition of the discipline.

Jessica Winegar is associate professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, and former chair of the AAA Committee for Human Rights.  Her research has focused on aesthetics and cultural production in the Middle East, and the politics of knowledge production about the region.

Farha Ghannam is associate professor of anthropology at Swarthmore College and former president of AAA’s Middle East  Section. She is the author of Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo  and Live and Die like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt.