‘Our Liberation Will Not Be Complete Until Everyone’s Is’: A report from the American Anthropological Association boycott debate

In Washington, DC on Friday, the American Anthropological Association’s annual business meeting was packed with more members than any other time in recent memory – over 700. The meeting room….

In Washington, DC on Friday, the American Anthropological Association’s annual business meeting was packed with more members than any other time in recent memory – over 700. The meeting room was so crowded that hotel staff had to take down a wall with the adjoining room to accommodate everyone.

On the agenda was a proposed resolution against boycotting Israeli academic institutions. This effort to shut down the boycott discussion backfired spectacularly: members present overwhelmingly voted down the measure, which mustered a mere 52 supporters.

The atmosphere in the room was electric, as anthropologists from across the profession discussed the boycott and the ongoing violations of Palestinian academic freedom and human rights. Of the 24 members who spoke, three-quarters opposed the resolution, arguing that it was an attempt to shut down a crucial debate.

In recent months, over 1,000 anthropologists have signed a boycott pledge to protest Israel’s ongoing, systematic, and widespread violations of Palestinian academic freedom and human rights. Anthropologists campaigning for the boycott elected not to pursue a resolution at this year’s AAA meeting in favor of building the broadest possible support among members over the coming months. They sponsored a series of panels at the conference to raise awareness about the boycott and about human rights violations in Palestine. Despite this, opponents of the boycott sought to short-circuit the debate by forcing the AAA to take an anti-boycott position now.

After the resolution was presented, Lisa Rofel of UC Santa Cruz reminded members that the discussion about boycotting Israeli academic institutions within AAA has only just begun and should not be shut down.

Rofel also criticized the resolution’s false claim that the boycott seeks to harm Israeli scholars. She reminded colleagues that the boycott does not apply to individuals and pointed to the model of the ongoing boycott against the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for the firing of Steven Salaita. Rofel explained, “scholars who were invited to give talks [at UIUC] have canceled talks and will not do business with the institution. However we have all been encouraged to invite faculty from UIUC to our own campus. That’s what a boycott looks like.”

Under the boycott, Israelis would still be permitted to participate in AAA meetings and publish in its journals. Zareena Grewal of Yale University reminded the audience that the American Studies Association’s support for the boycott did not prevent numerous Israelis from attending that group’s recent annual meeting.

Anthropologists specializing in Israel/Palestine who spoke at the meeting overwhelmingly endorsed the boycott and opposed the resolution. Ilana Feldman of George Washington University said that 25 years of working in Israel/Palestine “gives me the information I need to know that boycott is the right action we need to take to stand in support of Palestinians.”

Several members debunked the myth that a boycott would undermine efforts to change Israel from within. Nancy Scheper-Hughes of UC Berkeley cited recent conversations with Israeli dissidents that persuaded her to reject the resolution. An Israeli graduate student also took to the microphone, arguing that “conversations do not take place in a void, but are embroiled in power structures. Boycott is not ending the conversation but changing the terms of it.”

Other graduate students also spoke out against the resolution, reflecting the widespread support for the boycott in AAA’s newer generation. One said: “I oppose this resolution as a Jew and because during my Passovers growing up, we used to say that our liberation will not be complete until everyone’s is.”

Rema Hammami from Bir Zeit University in Palestine announced that she was “thrilled to finally be at an academic conference where the problems faced by Palestinians have been centrally discussed.” Hammami reminded her American colleagues that the United States is “deeply implicated in enabling Israel’s actions” through military, diplomatic, and financial aid. Hammami also expressed regret that aside from the actions of a few courageous individuals, Israeli academic institutions had shown no solidarity with Palestinian colleagues, even when universities like Bir Zeit were effectively strangled by Israeli army checkpoints.

About a quarter of the speakers at the meeting supported the resolution, often repeating its false claim that the boycott applies to Israeli scholars as individuals. Sergei Kan of Dartmouth College insinuated that support for the boycott is anti-semitic because it “suggests that AAA has a Jewish problem” – drawing groans from the audience.

AAA members present rejected the resolution by acclamation, with only 52 of the over 700 present voting in support. The room erupted into applause and cheers.

Immediately after the resolution was defeated, AAA members unanimously approved a statement composed by members of the Association of Black Anthropologists on racialized police violence in the United States. The statement is here.

The staggering defeat of the anti-boycott resolution has helped create a new reality within AAA, one in which boycotting Israeli academic institutions has become a plausible and ever more likely course of action.

Meanwhile, boycott opponents began blaming each other for their defeat almost immediately. One blog claimed that anthropologists in Israel foresaw the disastrous outcome and tried unsuccessfully to persuade its author, Columbia University’s Paula Rubel, to withdraw it.

[To view a compilation of livetweets and photos from this event, click here]

(Hat tip Betsy Taylor)