newsBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

Israeli anthropologists to pro-BDS, US colleagues: We’re already fighting the state

Nearly 100 groups are pushing the American Anthropological Association to reject a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Pro-Palestine, anti-Israel BDS protesters hold a rally in New York during the fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, May 15, 2021. Credit: Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock.
Pro-Palestine, anti-Israel BDS protesters hold a rally in New York during the fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, May 15, 2021. Credit: Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock.

Many people of all backgrounds oppose the BDS movement, which they consider concerted antisemitism against the Jewish state. So the news that nearly 90 groups, plus a contingent of Israeli anthropologists, signed a letter urging the American Anthropological Association to reject a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions seems to fall in line with that belief.

But there’s a twist: All of these groups cite, in part, the fact that Israeli professors are actively fighting the Jewish state as a reason to avoid the boycott.

This includes the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, the Combat Antisemitism Movement, Hillel International, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, StandWithUs, StopAntisemitism and Zionist Organization of America.

Morton Klein, national president of the ZOA, told JNS exclusively on May 10 that the ZOA, which just realized that the letter opposes judicial reform in Israel, is now retracting its signature.

“ZOA believes this is an absolute democratic necessity,” he told JNS. “These reforms will make Israel more democratic, not less democratic. More elected officials will be involved in choosing Supreme Court justices, not mainly unelected Supreme Court judges and unelected Israeli bar association members.”

And Israel needs a “reasonable override provision,” Klein said, because “the Supreme Court regularly overrides Knesset-passed Israeli laws.”

Convened by the Alliance for Academic Freedom and the Academic Engagement Network, the letter from the groups urges the American Anthropological Association to “unequivocally reject” the resolution.

“Everyone agrees that it’s absolutely fine to be critical of Israeli policy. The key point is that boycotts—academic boycotts—are simply antithetical to academic principles,” says Miriam Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network

Among the reasons the letter cites is that Israeli academic institutions are not “complicit” in the oppression of Palestinians, but “the reality is that Israeli university leaders and faculty work hard to foster Arab-Jewish coexistence and ensure a diversity of opinion on their campuses, including support for Palestinian voices.”

“Moreover, Israel’s academics have long been among the most vocal critics of the Israeli state and its society. An academic boycott would undercut the important work for peace and social justice being undertaken by many Israeli academics, as well as constructive and potentially transformative efforts to bring Israeli and Palestinian scholars together on joint projects,” it added.

Although Israeli academic institutions “commendably rarely take formal political stands nor do they routinely weigh in on government policy,” recently, upon perceiving “a threat to the democratic character of the state they did not hesitate to act, collectively deciding to shutter their schools in protest,” according to the letter. “Punishing Israeli universities now of all times is nonsensical when the schools have shown themselves to be fierce champions of democracy and democratic principles.”

‘Antithetical to academic principles’

Other signatories of the letter do not interpret it as supporting judicial reform.

“The letter accurately describes the perceptions of the heads of Israel’s research universities, and subsequent actions they have taken,” Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, told JNS. “The letter does not take a political position on behalf of the groups that signed the letter.”

Miriam Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network—one of the letter’s organizers—told JNS that the letter’s reference to “most vocal critics” means disagreeing with specific decisions of the Israeli government but not broad critiques of the state or its legitimacy. For example, both supporters and critics of the judicial reform were welcome to sign, she said.

“Everyone agrees that it’s absolutely fine to be critical of Israeli policy,” she said. “The key point, of course, is that boycotts—academic boycotts—are simply antithetical to academic principles.”

Elman noted that left-wing, progressive Zionist groups, rather than conservative ones, were more hesitant to sign initially, due to the letter countering reference to Israel as an “apartheid regime” in the resolution.

“I would suspect that some of the groups on the far-left, who signed this, might be facing flak from others in their space,” Elman told JNS.

In June, members of the American Anthropological Association will vote on the resolution that calls on the organization to boycott Israeli academic institutions.

“The Israeli state operates an apartheid regime from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, including the internationally recognized state of Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank,” according to the resolution, which adds that “in 2018, the Israeli government enshrined the principle of Jewish supremacy in a law.”

The resolution calls for boycotting “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.”

‘Weaken ability of academia to speak truth to power’

In a March 20 letter, Ramona Pérez, association president, noted that the resolution received the 50 signatures of members in good standing required to move forward, and it will be put to a vote from June 15 to July 14. He noted that the association voted against boycotting Israel in 2016 with the membership “deeply divided on the issue.”

An April 3 letter from the Israeli Anthropological Association, which the American Anthropological Association posted on its website, opposed the resolution and called it “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.”

“Israeli academia is very often in an active fight against the actions of the Israeli state, as indeed it is at the present time,” the Israeli group stated. “A boycott can only undermine these efforts and weaken the ability of academia to speak truth to power.”

The group added that American universities did not collectively go under strike during the Trump administration.

“Are American universities not deeply complicit in the activities of the American military with no end in sight? Do American universities do enough to protect the American minorities targeted by the state? While we are fully aware of our own inadequacies, we nevertheless reject the narrative of American moral superiority,” it stated. “While many of us are critical of the Israeli government, one cannot but note the hypocrisy of the call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”

The association, which is based in Arlington, Va., was founded in 1902 and is “the world’s largest scholarly and professional organization of anthropologists,” per its website. It publishes 22 journals.

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