Roberto González: #Anthroboycott Vote Should Not Be Suppressed

[this essay originally appeared on the blog of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors]

Guest blogger Roberto J. González is an alumnus of UC Berkeley. He is chair of San José State University’s anthropology department and author of several books including Militarizing Culture: Essays on the Warfare State (2010) and Zapotec Science: Farming and Food in the Northern Sierra of Oaxaca (2001). His position on academic boycotts differs from that of the AAUP, which can be found here.

gonzalezLast month, University of California President Janet Napolitano sent a bewildering letter to the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the world’s largest professional association of anthropologists.

The document, co-signed by the chancellors of all 10 UC campuses, expresses concern about a proposed AAA resolution supporting an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It urges “Association members to consider the boycott’s potentially harmful impacts and oppose this resolution.”

Napolitano’s letter betrays an Orwellian disregard for what it claims to protect: academic freedom.

The timing of Napolitano’s letter is deliberate. The AAA’s 10,000 members began voting on the boycott resolution in mid-April, and will continue casting ballots until May 31. Napolitano seeks to influence the election outcome by discouraging scholars from voting their conscience.

If its rank-and-file members ratify the resolution, the AAA will become the largest and oldest academic association to do so.

Napolitano’s statement was clearly designed to intimidate UC faculty and students voting on resolution. It is astonishing that senior University administrators would interfere with the Association’s democratic processes.

The AAA did not create the boycott resolution on a whim. In 2014, The Association’s leaders recognized the need to examine the situation in the occupied territories, and convened a Task Force on Israel-Palestine made up of scholars from diverse backgrounds representing broad political views.

The Task Force released its report last October. It “catalogues the lengthy history of displacement, land loss, discrimination, restrictions on movement and free speech, and adverse health and welfare effects that Palestinians have experienced as a result of Israeli state policies and practices.”

In the meantime, more than 20 scholars of different ethnic and religious backgrounds had quietly prepared and submitted a boycott resolution before the AAA’s November 2015 annual conference in Denver.

At that meeting, AAA members made history. More than 1000 people packed the main ballroom of the Colorado Convention Center and engaged in thoughtful, civil, and sometimes emotional debate about the pros and cons of the proposed resolution–and the Israeli occupation.

After three hours of impassioned debate, attendees voted overwhelmingly to support the pro-boycott measure by an 8-to-1 margin.

Now that the resolution has been submitted to the AAA’s entire membership, Napolitano and the UC chancellors have decided to meddle in the election process.

Their obsession with the internal business of a professional association is an irresponsible use of taxpayer money. Don’t UC’s top administrators have more important problems to resolve?

The anti-boycott letter is a sign of the desperate efforts being made to suppress the growing boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, which is modeled after the international campaign that helped end South Africa’s apartheid regime in the early 1990s.

If the UC administrators had taken the time to read the anthropologists’ proposed resolution or the AAA Task Force report, they might have avoided making outlandish claims–such as the notion that the boycott would restrict “our scholars’ ability to choose their research and colleagues.”

Napolitano apparently didn’t even take the time to proofread her letter: she incorrectly refers to the American Anthropological Association as the “American Association of Anthropologists.” One wonders why signatory and UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks–an anthropologist–didn’t correct the error.

UC Irvine professor Mark Levine recently noted that the academic boycott does not focus on individual scholars. Instead, it “suspends institutional cooperation and collaboration with Israeli institutions that are in any manner complicit in the occupation, which sadly most Israeli universities clearly are.”

Among the concerns identified by those supporting the AAA resolution is the destruction of academic freedom for Palestinian colleagues living under Israeli occupation. Faculty who protest Israeli policies are subjected to surveillance or retaliation, while Palestinian students routinely face discrimination.

Evidence of widespread human rights violations and adverse health effects experienced by Palestinians living under occupation has driven thousands of American scholars to support the boycott.

Many supporters have been blacklisted, harassed, or intimidated. But such treatment has a way of strengthening the resolve of those at the receiving end.

One thing is clear: Faculty, students, and alumni of one of the world’s greatest public university systems will not be cowed by the words or actions of a few administrators, no matter how highly situated they might be within its hierarchy.