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newsBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

US anthropology group’s Israeli school boycott will harm students, critics say

The American Anthropological Association's decision marks a “dark day for higher education,” said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, AMCHA Initiative director.

A BDS movement protest against Israel. Credit: Mohamed Ouda via  Wikimedia Commons.
A BDS movement protest against Israel. Credit: Mohamed Ouda via Wikimedia Commons.

The membership of the American Anthropological Association voted 71% to 29% on July 24 to boycott Israeli academic institutions, referring to Israeli “apartheid” and Israeli colleges’ and universities’ “complicity in violating Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law.”

Just 37% of the association’s membership voted in the electronic ballot, held from June 15 to July 14, with 2,016 approving the resolution and 835 opposing it.

“This boycott pertains to Israeli academic institutions only and not to individual scholars, and also 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,” per the resolution.

Ramona Pérez, the association’s president, stated that the resolution was a “contentious issue, and our differences may have sparked fierce debate, but we have made a collective decision and it is now our duty to forge ahead, united in our commitment to advancing scholarly knowledge, finding solutions to human and social problems, and serving as a guardian of human rights.”

Part of the World Council of Anthropological Associations, the more than 120-year-old AAA calls itself “the world’s largest scholarly and professional organization of anthropologists” and states that it has more than 10,000 members.

According to the new resolution, the AAA will no longer list Israeli academic institutions in its published materials nor allow Israeli institutions to interview job candidates at association facilities. It also will bar journals and publications owned by Israeli institutions from republishing AAA-published materials and will prevent the institutions from participating in AAA conferences and events. 

Last April, the Israeli Anthropological Association told the AAA that boycotting Israeli schools was “counterproductive, especially at a time when Israeli academic institutions are at the forefront of the struggle to maintain democracy and equal rights for all citizens against an oppressive right-wing Israeli government.”

Sergei Kan, professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College, told JNS that he is “deeply troubled” by the association’s vote.

“While the advocates of the boycott claim that it would only affect institutions and not the individual Israeli anthropologists, this is blatantly untrue,” he said. “It is almost impossible to separate individual academics from their institutions, just as it would be impossible to separate myself from Dartmouth College, where I have been teaching.”

The resolution will further divide U.S. and Israeli anthropologists, according to Kan, who thinks American scholars will be reluctant to write letters of recommendation on behalf of Israeli scholars and to invite them to conferences.

Kan noted that just about one-third of the association’s membership voted. “This suggests to me that many members do not care one way or another and that the association has been increasingly highjacked by the radical leftists [and] Israel-haters,” he said.

Don Seeman, an anthropologist and associate professor of religion and of Jewish studies at Emory University, also criticized the resolution.

“I think this decision discredits the American Anthropological Association,” he told JNS. “When policymakers and ordinary people increasingly mock or ignore the insights of professional anthropology, the profession need look no further than this sort of rank politicization to understand why.”

“We have become an echo chamber of the most extreme and insupportable views,” Seeman added. “It gives me no pleasure to say this about a discipline that has so much to contribute to understanding of the human world, but the continual singling out of Israel from among every nation on the planet — including those with far more despicable human rights records — is, despite all protestations to the contrary, an expression of antisemitism.”

Miriam Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, stated that those who supported the resolution “continued to push the absurd claim that its application is limited to ‘institutions’—as if it’s possible to boycott universities and colleges without harming the actual people who work and study in them.”

“In fact, as we well know, there are many ways that individuals will be negatively impacted,” she added. “Indeed, the BDS movement actively encourages this targeting of scholars and students by recommending, for example, that study-abroad programs in Israel be shuttered and that professors refrain from writing letters of recommendation for students who want to study in Israel.”

“It’s disheartening to see a professional scholarly association violating the basic principles of academic freedom by throwing its weight behind a particular political and partisan viewpoint,” she said.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of AMCHA Initiative, said it’s “a dark day for higher education and, far worse even, a truly dangerous day for all students, especially Jews.”

“Unlike American studies or feminist studies or any of the other fringe disciplines that have endorsed an academic boycott of Israel, anthropology is a core discipline in the academy, which reaches many students and intersects with many other disciplines,” she stated. “Its commitment to academic BDS is likely to spread throughout the university like wildfire and have rippling effects for years to come.”

The biggest victims of the boycott will be not Israeli institutions, she added, but U.S. students. “Students will only hear a one-sided, anti-Israel perspective designed to turn them against Israel and its supporters, including Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus,” she stated.

“Congratulations, AAA, upon becoming the American Antisemitism Association,” tweeted Rabbi Yaakov Menken, managing director of the Coalition for Jewish Values. “The ‘Palestinian’ narrative violates every rule of actual anthropology, proving that this ‘discipline’ is now utterly meaningless. Reminder: 50% of the architects of the Nazi ‘Final Solution’ had Ph.D.s.”

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