I am past President of the American Anthropological Association and this is why I am voting to boycott Israeli academic institutions

Eight years since the American Anthropological Association first considered the academic boycott of Israel, conditions for Palestinians have only gotten worse, and Israeli academic institutions are complicit. That is why I am supporting the new boycott resolution.

At this critical time, anthropologists who are members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) face a momentous decision. The matter before them is a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, positioned as a nonviolent act of resistance in common cause with the Palestinian people suffering the crimes of apartheid and persecution. Electronic voting on the resolution begins June 15 and will conclude on July 14.

I have grappled with this decision before. On November 20, 2015, a record-breaking 1400 members attended the association’s annual business meeting. The long night of discussion and debate ended decisively: a motion passed by a wide margin to bring the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions to the full membership for a vote the following spring. In unprecedented voter turnout, the resolution did not pass by a narrow margin. A record-setting fifty-one percent (51%) of the membership voted; the boycott was voted down, with 2,423 opposing and 2,384 supporting the boycott.

I know about this because at the close of that meeting, I was handed the president’s gavel, becoming AAA’s 84th president. Facing the matter at hand, my most difficult challenge was separating myself as an individual (and how I might act and how I might vote) from my duties as an officer of the association, a challenge I addressed by keeping true to the organization’s democratic processes and returning repeatedly to its bylaws. Over the course of a difficult six months preceding the vote, I and others among the AAA leadership and staff received harassing and threatening emails and phone calls from people outside the association who would have us withdraw the resolution altogether.

During those six months, I made it my mission to get out the vote, urging members to look to their own conscience for guidance and providing them the information they needed to make an informed decision. Included among that information was the AAA Task Force report on Israel-Palestine and a comprehensive bibliography on Israel/Palestine. Meantime, I convened a working group that produced eight actions concerning Israel-Palestine approved by the Executive Board in May of 2016. Among these actions was a statement of censure of Israeli policies and practices focused primarily on the denial of academic freedom and freedom of expression for Palestinians; it included a call to repeal Israeli laws that make it a crime to speak publicly in favor of a boycott.

This is not a matter of opinion; the evidence speaks to the horrific conditions Palestinians endure as a direct result of Israeli laws, policies, and practices. This includes the Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People that establishes the State of Israel “as exclusive to the Jewish People.” Moreover, Israeli academic institutions have a long and documented history of working to advance the country’s military and nationalist agenda, expanding its footprint into occupied territory, and neglecting the plight of the Palestinians. As one example, in a letter I received in December 2015 from the Association of University Heads, Israel, the 8 signatories representing sixteen Israeli universities, makes clear they perceive BDS as “an aggressive global anti-Israel campaign [that] is maliciously circulating vile slander and lies…with the sole objective of delegitimizing the State of Israel.” There is no mention of concern for the ongoing violations—the denial of life, livelihood, freedom of speech and academic freedom—that harm Palestinians.

A situation once described as a conflict and Israeli state action as “the Occupation” is now named apartheid by several trustworthy organizations. For example, Amnesty International’s research and data analyses have led it to conclude that Israel’s apartheid, in violation of international law, is “a cruel system of domination and crime against humanity.” Those words are abstract; the raw truth of the death and destruction experienced by Palestinians is practically unbearable to grasp. I read the multiple reports, the least I could do. There is no turning away from the painful facts.

Yet the United States does turn away from the facts. Since 2014, states began passing bills and executive orders against boycotts of Israel; today there are 35 states with legislation in effect. Rather than contest the long-held practice of conflating antisemitism with criticism of Israel, an ever-growing number of states and the federal government have or are considering codifying this conflation by adopting the IHRA working definition. According to a Congressional Research Service report in March of this year, Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II, receiving $158 billion in bilateral assistance and missile defense funding; almost all U.S. bilateral aid to Israel is in the form of military assistance. It is not polemics to claim that taxpayer dollars support the cruel system of domination and crime against humanity.

Having sat in a leadership position in the association, I know firsthand the challenges of responding to the varied points of view among its members, aligning decisions with the organization’s core values and mission, including that of protecting academic freedom, worrying about the association’s sustainability, and keeping a moral compass with respect to the human and political issues at hand. I am also aware of potential harm that may come to the association: some may drop their membership, some donors may stop giving, and some annual meetings may not be held in public convention centers in states with anti-boycott state contract legislation.

With all this in mind, the proposed boycott deserves a close reading. It calls for the AAA to: undertake a boycott of Israeli academic institutions until such time as these institutions end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law; implement this boycott according to the association’s governance procedures, bylaws and mission; recognize that this boycott pertains to Israeli academic institutions only and not to individual scholars, and that individual anthropologists who are members of the AAA are free to determine whether and how they will apply the boycott in their own professional practice; and support the rights of all students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Palestine and Israel and in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

I recognize that at times certain principles come into contradiction. If the AAA boycott does any harm to academic freedom, this must be weighed against the dead bodies and ruined houses that are the Palestinian plight. If members drop their association membership and donors withdraw, those who support the boycott ought to pledge to bring in 1-2 members each and to provide financial support to the association above their membership dues. Any other threats or harm to the American Anthropological Association can be met with commitment to stand up on its behalf. If the boycott proves ineffectual, this must be weighed against complicity with the silencing of the condition of Palestinians under apartheid, leaving them isolated, lonely, and invisible.

In wrestling with a decision, I understand my special obligation as an anthropologist to consider the suffering of others. I also understand that safety and security can only come when all people are safe and secure; militarism, occupation, and apartheid are counter-productive to that goal. I am aware of the power structures that reproduce inequities and the social suffering that results, leading to a sense of responsibility to take action on behalf of those who are dehumanized, dispossessed, and displaced. I have examined the data and the arguments, and understand the risks that may befall the association, considering threats already made and those that may come. As a Jew, I have looked to the moral teachings from my mother’s prayer book to help guide me. Perhaps none is more important or relevant than the imperative to pursue “justice, justice,” a word written twice to “teach us that we must practice justice at all times, whether it be for our profit or for our loss, and towards all men [sic], Jew and non-Jew alike.”

In the end, I will vote in favor of the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, the only decision my conscience will allow.

The views expressed here are of the author only and do not represent the position of the American Anthropological Association or its leadership.