“People are not willing to be silenced” — Ilana Feldman on the Boycott

[this interview originally appeared on The Weave]

877At its recent meeting in Denver, members of the American Anthropological Association voted overwhelmingly in support of a resolution calling on the AAA to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Following the historic vote I reached out to Ilana Feldman, a member of the group that spearheaded the effort to bring the resolution forward. Feldman is Associate Professor of Anthropology, History, and International Affairs at George Washington University and author of the recently-released monograph Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza Under Egyptian Rule (Stanford University Press) and numerous other publications. Below is a transcript of our conversation, presented here as part of my occasional “Interweaving” series of conversations on contemporary global issues.

JC: What were the major factors that led you and others to begin the process of bringing forward the resolution that was ultimately approved at the recent AAA meeting?  

IF: The call for the AAA to boycott Israeli academic institutions is a response to a call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel from over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations, so it is first and foremost an action in solidarity with Palestinian society broadly and with our colleagues in Palestinian universities specifically. The boycott campaign within the AAA developed as part of this wider movement in recognition of two related things. 1) Israel’s oppressive policies towards Palestinians under occupation, discrimination against Palestinian citizens of the country, and denial of the rights of Palestinians displaced in 1948 and 1967 not only continue, but have become more extreme in recent years. Efforts to change these conditions within the framework of the so-called “peace process” and under the banner of dialogue have failed miserably. The BDS call recognizes the need for new political strategies. 2) The United States, and therefore American citizens, are deeply complicit in Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights, because of the enormous sums of money that our government provides Israel every year and because of the nearly unwavering support it gives Israel in international forums. As an American association, with membership largely drawn from people based in US-institutions, the AAA has a responsibility to engage on this issue. As anthropologists, with long-standing commitments to human rights and to standing with oppressed peoples, we felt compelled to act.

The vote was quite resounding – nearly 90 percent of the more than 1,000 people voting on the resolution supported it. Were you expecting that sort of victory?

The engaged response we had already seen to the long-process of collective education on conditions in Israel/Palestine and on anthropological responsibility to act in the face of these conditions – along with the fact that more than 1200 anthropologists had signed a related petition indicating their personal commitment to boycott Israeli academic institutions – gave us hope that the vote would be positive. We were gratified both by the historic turn-out for the business meeting – numbers overflowed the 1500 person capacity of the room – and by the robustness of the support for the boycott resolution. Throughout this long deliberative process we have been impressed by the seriousness with which the association – leadership and membership – has approached the task of understanding the issues at stake, both in Israel/Palestine and in relation to the boycott. The findings of the AAA-appointed taskforce were a powerful account of the facts on the ground and a call to collective action. The strength of support for the resolution is an outcome of this process of collective education.

What happens next?

The passage of the resolution at the business meeting puts the resolution on the spring ballot, where it will be voted on by the entire membership. Prior to the vote there is no doubt that opponents will try to discourage its passage, as they did vigorously in the lead up to the business meeting. We are confident that the full membership of the Association will take this opportunity to live up to our best ideals and stand in support of Palestinians.

I’m sure you are familiar with the report issued by the Center for Constitutional Rights on the growing wave of efforts on the part of what the CCR calls a “network of [staunchly pro-Israel] advocacy organizations, public relations firms, and think tanks” to intimidate defenders of Palestinian human rights on U.S. colleges and universities.  Do you have a sense of how much the AAA debate was affected by this kind of external pressure?

Anytime a serious challenge to Israeli policy is mounted there are, often hateful, attempts to frighten people into silence. These attacks often take the form of spurious charges of anti-Semitism, threats to individual careers (especially of vulnerable junior scholars), and threats to withhold donations from the institutions where critics work. We have seen evidence of such organized efforts underway in response to the AAA vote. My impression is that, even as more money is being devoted to shutting down criticism of Israel, these arguments are finding it harder to find a foothold. People are not willing to be silenced. We will certainly need to be vigilant in supporting individuals and the association in the face of intimidation campaigns.

One common element of many of these boycott efforts, particularly in academia, is the appearance of alternative motions that emphasize the importance of “dialogue.” How did this play out in the case of the AAA, and what does this say about the current state of liberal Zionism and its political horizon?

In the case of the AAA, opponents of the boycott did put forth a counter-motion that rejected the boycott of Israeli academic institutions (and any use of boycott as a political tactic) with the claim to offer “dialogue” as an alternative course of action. In resoundingly rejecting this proposal (196-1173) the membership recognized it for what it was: a call for inaction and support of the status-quo under the guise of “moderate” action. Not only has dialogue of the sort promoted by the “peace process” failed utterly, the anti-boycott call for dialogue was put forward by a group that: included no Palestinians, rejected the significant Palestinian call for boycott, and seemed to believe that dialogue must take place in Israeli institutions from which most Palestinians — those in the occupied territories and in exile — are entirely barred. It is only from a starting position that that does not give equal value to Palestinians that one could find the proposal credible, and the assembled AAA members did not.

In your view, how does this resolution fit into the longer history of the discipline and the AAA? Will we look back on this as a turning point in that history?

The AAA has a long history of taking stands, including engaging in boycotts, in support of our commitment to human rights and to standing with oppressed peoples. It also has a long history of having difficulty confronting issues in the Middle East generally, and Israel/Palestine specifically. So this boycott vote is both very much in line with our best traditions and an indication that we are collectively moving beyond some historical limits in our ability to live up to these traditions. I do think that we will look back at this vote – and at what I hope will be the adoption of the boycott by the full membership in the spring – as a very significant moment in AAA history. The vote itself is historic, but also the careful deliberative process by which we got to this moment is a model for engagement on other important issues.