Why Voting Matters: The American Anthropological Association’s Upcoming Vote to Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions

[this post originally appeared on the Huffington Post]

Junaid Rana & Nadine Naber

In two weeks, the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) nearly 10,000 members will begin voting on a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. It might just pass, if judging by preliminary voting at last November’s AAA business meeting is any clue. Scanning the large hall, in which some 1500 hundred members attended, well beyond capacity, it was impossible for us not to feel victorious over the explicit support for Palestinian liberation and self-determination and to feel that there was a major changing of the tide within anthropology, and within academia at large. Not only was this the largest turnout in recent memory; it was also a massive shift in demographics. The meeting made clear that the AAA is far more diverse than it was even just a few decades ago; that recent generations of young scholars and graduate students are far more willing to participate in conversations regarding social justice than ever before; and that women anthropologists continue to lead some of the most urgent conversations of our times. Yet what is not clear, despite the unprecedented turnout of that business meeting, is exactly how many AAA members will vote on the actual resolution starting April 15. While academic association voting percentages are often dismally low, some might wonder whether voting matters at all and whether an academic boycott has any relevance to the Palestinian condition.

The academic boycott has not been merely symbolic as its critics claim, but a mechanism for opening up what the Israeli government has made impossible — such as engagements between U.S.-based scholars and scholars based in Palestine. While anti-boycott detractors often claim that boycott will shut down conversations, they fail to mention the many scholars pushed out, left out, targeted for harassment, and/or fired for adding Israel to all of the states that they critically examine. Indeed, the academic boycott has already impacted public discourse in the United States and internationally. That an academic association in the U.S. is discussing it is already a monumental step in solidarity work, something that for both of us has been an ongoing challenge in our research and teaching careers. The narratives of Palestinians and the critical debate on Palestine and Israel in U.S. academia follow a clear pattern of institutional normalization of stifling free speech through administrative sanction (http://palestinelegal.org/the-palestine-exception/). The goal of these tactics is to intimidate, bully, and even prosecute those who stand up for Palestine.


Following the attention that followed the American Studies Association (ASA) endorsement of the academic boycott in 2013, a number of acts became possible that were previously untenable. First and foremost is the public critique of Israeli settler colonialism. The lifting of the silence on the colonial occupation of Palestine has led to broader participation in the ASA by scholars that felt previously marginalized or had no organized voice, and expanded conversations on U.S. empire, racism, and U.S. settler-colonialism. The new possibilities brought about by the ASA boycott importantly included more direct outreach to international scholars and active invitations to scholars in Palestine and Israel who would have otherwise not been able to travel. Beyond the positive impact on the conference proceedings, these openings inspired new teaching, research, and advocacy-based projects and commitments to mutual respect, trust, and accountability between ASA scholars and scholars in Palestine.


While we are hopeful that the AAA will pursue policies that enact a wide range of solidarities with Palestinians, we also worry that anything less than an unequivocal victory for the boycott resolution will create uncertainty in how the association should proceed. The AAA has a chance to become the largest academic association to join the academic boycott in the United States, and importantly, the vote will serve as a mandate for the AAA executive board to pursue further action as outlined in the Task Force on Israel Palestine Report. A defiant voice that is emphatic in volume will send a clear message of how the tide has turned in the AAA. The more unprecedented the voter turnout and the more massive the win, the more exclamatory the message for the future impact of the vote.. It must be seen as a component of a collective and international strategy of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, called for by Palestinian civil society with a clear understanding of its symbolic and material implications that requires the active participation of all of those who believe in ending the injustices Palestinians have endured. For AAA members who in principle support the boycott, voting en masse will insure a victory that is greater than any backlash or attempt to diminish the power of the victory. This is an opportunity to institutionalize accountability to Palestinian people within AAA, and for anthropologists in the U.S. academia to join those other academic association that have put themselves on the line in the name of social justice and human rights.


It must also be stated that this vote comes out of a history of progressive and decolonial struggles within anthropology. Voting for boycott continues the tradition of anthropologists standing on the right side of history, lifting up critiques that challenge the status quo, challenging U.S. empire, U.S. settler colonialism and their allies, and demanding the AAA follow suit. Following several years of debate leading to this vote, we cannot underestimate the significance of how far the AAA has come on the issue of the Israeli colonization of Palestine. Discussing Palestine broadly and publicly in the professional setting of AAA has been an enormous shift, one that in itself has already created intellectual and scholarly possibilities for inquiry that were at one time unthinkable.


Yet even in anthropology, a field that often appears to take activist-scholarship and the critique of colonialism for granted, teaching and writing critically on Israel has been met with vehement attack from the threat of being denied tenure to the pressure to either repress one’s critique or change one’s research topic in order to get a job or research funding. Anthropologists who have addressed Israel critically have been labeled anti-Semitic; radically extreme; or supporters of terrorism. For example a recent study of anthropology and the research area of the Middle East illuminates the pressures and challenges facing researchers in obtaining funding, jobs, and tenure, particularly when they address Palestine. In U.S. academia, it is more clear than ever that while critiquing Israeli policies of killing, land confiscation or expansion will be met with repression or worse, calling for the death of Arabs and Muslims most often goes unchecked. For anthropologists writing on Palestine-Israel, the choice between intervention/speaking vs. non-intervention/silence is a game-changing professional choice.


After over 25 years have passed since the original publication of Faye Harrison’s remarkable volume Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology of Liberation, we must still ask what does decolonization and liberation mean to the discipline? How do we speak the silences of a discipline that says everything is on the table? And more practically, what can we do?


We need to vote. We need to vote for academic boycott to provide a clear mandate for the AAA leadership to abide by the Palestinian call to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction. To vote is to counteract the intimidation of those who would not have us speak against Israeli settler colonialism and occupation. To vote for academic boycott is to continue anthropology’s decolonization. A vote for academic boycott shows a commitment to both an ethical position and actions from within the center (not the margins) of AAA in tandem with political struggles of liberation.


Nadine Naber is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago.


Junaid Rana is Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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