A Historic Night for the American Anthropological Association

[click here for a Storify of tweets and photographs from the meeting]

On Friday evening in Denver, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) endorsed the Palestinian civil society call to boycott Israeli academic institutions by over 88% in the most well-attended business meeting in the association’s history. The measure will now be forwarded to the entire membership for a final vote by electronic ballot in the spring.

As heirs to a long tradition of scholarship on colonialism, anthropologists affirm, through this resolution, that the core problem is Israel’s maintenance of a settler colonial regime based on Jewish supremacy and Palestinian dispossession backed by the U.S. government. By supporting the boycott, anthropologists are taking a stand for justice through action in solidarity with Palestinians. The AAA is the largest scholarly association yet to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions at an annual meeting.

What follows is a detailed account of that historic night and the context that made it possible.


The Road to Denver

For three years, Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions has campaigned to educate and mobilize the Association’s membership in support of the boycott by organizing numerous panels at AAA annual meetings in Chicago (2013), Washington, DC (2014), and Denver; publishing over 30 essays and statements by anthropologists in multiple venues, including by Palestinians and Israelis; and gathering over 1,200 signatures in support of the boycott.

The campaign worked especially hard to explain that the boycott would apply only at the institutional level. Individual Israeli scholars would remain welcome to attend AAA events (including with funding from their home institutions) and publish in its journals, and AAA members would be free to determine whether and how to implement the boycott in their own practice.

In August 2014, the Association’s leadership responded to growing interest in the boycott among members by appointing a Task Force on AAA Engagement with Israel-Palestine. At the Washington annual meeting later that year, an anti-boycott resolution attempting to short-circuit debate was resoundingly defeated. The Task Force proceeded to interview over 120 anthropologists and undertook a research visit to Israel/Palestine. In October 2015, the Task Force issued a 130-page report unanimously recommending that the Association take substantive action on the situation in Israel/Palestine.

In the run-up to the Denver meeting, support for the boycott continued to grow, including endorsements from Jewish Voice for Peace and Friends of Sabeel-North America. Local chapters of these organizations as well as Coloradans for Justice in Palestine offered volunteers and logistical assistance, helping dozens of AAA members – many of them graduate students – to canvass in support of the boycott. Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions is especially grateful to our colleagues in the Association of Black Anthropologists and the Association of Latina and Latino Anthropologists for their solidarity and support. Finally, the campaign received a last-minute boost in the form of an endorsement from the U.S. Green Party.

Opposition to the boycott coalesced around a group calling itself “Anthropologists for Dialogue in Israel/Palestine,” (ADIP) which consisted of a dialogue wing and a “Tea Party” wing. The first included mostly Israelis describing themselves as “moderate” critics of the occupation who nevertheless reject any substantive action to challenge the status quo. The latter comprised mostly American scholars who were hostile not only to the boycott but to anthropology’s various attempts to confront issues around colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and empire over the past 40 years and openly longed for the discipline’s return to the pre-Civil Rights era. Both factions of ADIP repeatedly invoked with varying degrees of subtlety the spurious charge of anti-semitism to smear the boycott.

As momentum for the boycott grew, ADIP struggled to develop a coherent strategy, alternately attacking and praising the AAA Task Force. ADIP’s vision of dialogue was also exclusivist, as the group did not have even a single Palestinian or Arab member. Indeed, ADIP’s most visible attempt to tokenize a Palestinian was a posthumous one: ADIP leader Dan Rabinowitz claimed to have been friends with the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said and bizarrely suggested that Said would have opposed the boycott had he been alive today.

As the conference drew near, ADIP became increasingly desperate. It threw money at the problem by paying to be a conference sponsor; putting on a reception; having advertising inserts in conference tote bags, and — to the ire of many attendees — purchasing a banner ad in the conference’s mobile app. ADIP’s media strategy meanwhile descended into hyperbole: in an op-ed published in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, ADIP insinuated that the boycott movement could one day provoke Israel into launching a nuclear attack.


Saying No to the Status Quo

By the time of the annual business meeting on Friday evening, interest and excitement around the boycott reached a critical mass. For three days, dozens of canvassers had been mobilizing members with literature, buttons, and cookies. Attendance at the vote shattered all previous records. The 1500-seat ballroom reached capacity and overflow seating outside the meeting room had to be quickly procured. The makeup of the crowd — which included many students and people of color — was far more representative of the AAA’s overall membership than is often the case in the Association’s business meetings.

Before the membership were two resolutions: The first proposed by ADIP was substantively similar to the anti-boycott resolution defeated in Washington, with additional declaratory clauses echoing the U.S. State Department’s stances on the long-defunct “peace process.” It also included a proposal for the AAA collect voluntary contributions for a fund to support research and teaching in conflict areas. The second was the resolution endorsing the Palestinian civil society call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

The ADIP resolution was first on the agenda.  The mood in the room was electric.  Of the nine members to speak on the measure, seven were opposed. Lisa Rofel from UC Santa Cruz rose first to challenge the resolution as a thinly-disguised vindication of the status quo. Rofel reminded members that dialogue by itself need not lead to justice, and that 22 years of U.S. government-sponsored “dialogue” has led only to more expropriation and colonization of Palestinian land. Nadine Naber from University of Illinois Chicago reminded members of parallels with other struggles for justice: “I would like to ask AAA members, would you have told civil rights activists not to boycott buses and instead dialogue? Would we have told the United Farm Workers not to boycott grapes?”

In an admirable effort to protect the members’ privacy, the Association’s leadership opted for secret ballots. Unfortunately, attendance greatly exceeded expectations and stretched the capacity of the AAA staff, causing the meeting to run well over its scheduled end time as votes were collected and counted.

Despite long exhausting days at the conference and other professional and social commitments, most members in attendance stayed on after the ADIP resolution was defeated by 1173 to 196.


Poison Pills and Poetry

After the defeat, the boycott resolution was put forward to the membership and Ilana Feldman from George Washington University presented it:

As anthropologists we are committed to stand with oppressed peoples. Here we have a historic opportunity to stand with human rights — to put our voice behind this collective movement for justice. Here in the US, we have a particular responsibility.

The aim of the boycott is to reject the status quo and to support academic freedom for all. A great strength of boycott is that  it speaks to multiple audiences. It speaks to the Israeli public, telling it that the world is saying no to occupation. It speaks to the American public, telling it that we demand a change, that the status quo is no longer acceptable. It speaks to Palestinian colleagues, saying that we hear them and support their call. Years of scholarly engagement with Israel/Palestine have led us to support the boycott. By supporting this we join the international movement in solidarity with Palestinians.

Sensing that defeat was inevitable, ADIP opted for a scorched earth approach intended to smear the boycott and the AAA membership. Before debate could even start on the resolution, Dan Rabinowitz introduced an amendment citing 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 Rabinowitz amendment was a poison pill. It was crafted to misleadingly cite the AAA’s longstanding opposition to discrimination against individuals in order to portray the boycott of Israeli institutions as an invidious form of “discrimination” on the basis of national origin. Yet, if rejected, critics could then slam boycott supporters for having rejected a proposal masquerading as an anti-racist amendment. Fortunately, members present immediately saw through the charade and the Rabinowitz amendment failed to gain enough votes to even be debated.

With Rabinowitz’s delaying tactics out of the way, debate on the resolution finally commenced. Most speakers vigorously supported the boycott — often speaking from their research and personal experiences — while ADIP’s sclerotic stalwarts continued to recycle standard anti-boycott talking points. The contrast was especially striking between the last two speakers. Sergei Kan from Dartmouth — who in last year’s meeting accused the AAA of “having a Jewish problem” — blasted colleagues for supporting the boycott and claimed without evidence that young scholars are being coerced into supporting the boycott. The final speaker, Kamran Asdar Ali from UT Austin, deflected Kan’s bombast with a mild joke and proceeded to quote the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz: “Those who mix the poison of oppression / Will not succeed, today or tomorrow.”

The boycott resolution was then voted on and passed, 1,040 to 136.

Before supporters could celebrate, however, a new resolution appeared from the floor mandating that the AAA provide its publications database to students without charge if they access it using IP addresses in “the Levant.” The proposal’s authors failed to explain how the proposal would function in practice, given the ease with which one can falsify IP addresses. More importantly, the draft resolution completely ignored the fact that under the boycott, any Israeli would still be able to purchase unlimited access to AAA’s publications database at a steeply discounted rate for “Less Developed Countries” of $US 30 per year – the same rate as for Palestinians in the region.

Like the Rabinowitz measure, the draft resolution seemed designed to force members to choose between adopting an ill-conceived surprise proposal without adequate time for deliberation or rejecting it at the risk of appearing to be unreasonable. And once again, the membership recognized the resolution for the gimmick that it was and declined to waste time on it.

Finally, Ellen Oxfeld of Middlebury College proposed a resolution from the floor that would require the AAA to divest from companies profiting from the occupation. It is unclear if there are any such investments at this time, although the AAA leadership has said that the Association has no investments in Israeli companies. While Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions did not sponsor this measure, we support divestment and other economic sanctions in support of Palestinian liberation. The divestment resolution passed but because it was proposed from the floor – as opposed to being proposed in advance of the business meeting – it will be sent to the AAA Executive Board for further consideration.

November 20 was a historic day for the Association, affirming the finest anti-colonial, anti-racist traditions within the discipline of anthropology. It was also a major step forward in exposing U.S. audiences to the contradictions between Zionism and progressive principles and added another voice in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions thanks our local and national partners, as well as the various AAA sections, for their solidarity and support. We applaud the heroic endurance of AAA members who stayed to vote on the resolution despite the opposition’s attempts to delay, derail, and distract. We will continue to work to educate the entire membership of the AAA on the situation in Palestine/Israel, as we work towards ratifying this historic resolution on the Association’s annual Spring Ballot.