Another US academic boycott win for Palestine solidarity

Why the American Anthropological Association boycott vote victory is important for Palestine solidarity
6 min read

T.R.Abu El-Haj & I.Feldman & F.Adely

01 September, 2023
The American Anthropological Association’s vote to boycott Israeli academic institutions is significant for Palestine solidarity amidst growing censorship, as well as the fight for academic freedoms, write Thea Abu El-Haj, Fida Adely & Ilana Feldman.
We hope that this AAA action will also lead other scholarly associations to respond to the Palestinian call, write Thea Abu El-Haj, Fida Adely & Ilana Feldman. [GETTY]

In July, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) announced that the membership had resoundingly voted “yes” on a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. 71% of voters chose to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). With this historic decision, the AAA became the largest academic association to adopt a boycott, joining the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the Middle East Studies Association, the National Women’s Studies Association, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, in this commitment to standing with Palestinians in their struggle for justice.

In addition to receiving the strong majority of votes cast, more members of the association (37%) participated in the referendum than in any other vote, save one—the last time the AAA considered a boycott resolution. In 2016, 50% of the membership participated in a vote that resulted in a near tie—with the boycott resolution losing by 39 votes out of almost 5000 cast. Even though the result was a disappointment, it too represented a remarkable shift in discourse and engagement with Palestine among anthropologists.

Academic boycott of Israel

The decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions is a product of two main factors: a long-term campaign of education and engagement within the AAA by Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (Anthroboycott) and the ever-more obvious apartheid policies of the Israeli government which make it increasingly difficult for social-justice minded people to continue to make an exception of Israel.

The Anthroboycott campaign began in 2013, starting with the aim of educating the AAA membership both on the situation in Palestine and on boycott as a tool of political pressure. For a scholarly society that has long understood human rights and advocacy on behalf of indigenous and marginalised populations to be a crucial part of our mission, responding to the Palestinian call could seem to be an easy choice. But members of the AAA, like so many others, long made Israel an exception to their commitments to social justice. Through panels, webinars, blog posts, essays, and opeds, the Anthroboycott collective worked to challenge this exceptional treatment.

The effectiveness of this education campaign was clear when a boycott resolution (very similar to the one just passed) was endorsed by a vote of 1040-136 at the AAA business meeting in Denver in 2015.The public debate about Israeli policies of colonisation and ongoing oppression and displacement of Palestinians at the 2015 annual meeting was unprecedented. Given the censorship surrounding any criticism of Israel in the US, many of us had never imagined such a frank and critical discussion would happen at a mainstream academic association. With this overwhelming support, the resolution was put before the entire membership.

Despite the disappointment of the narrow defeat of the first resolution, we had a sense that the conversation in the AAA around Palestine had changed irrevocably.

Conditions for Palestinians continued to worsen dramatically over the ensuing years. Israel has intensified its violence against Palestinians, enacted both by the military and by settlers. It has increased restrictions on Palestinian life and opportunity, including with the recent issuing of regulations which impose draconian limits on the ability of Palestinian universities to bring international faculty, academic researchers, and students to their campuses. These new measures are only the latest in an entrenched system of policies designed to limit Palestinians’ rights to any, let alone a fair and equitable, education, including most egregiously school closures, and military attacks on schools.

Moreover, with legislation such as the 2018 Jewish Nation-State Basic Law, Israel has affirmed that Palestinians can never have equality or even real membership in the polity as currently configured. These developments have compelled many human rights organisations to finally acknowledge what Palestinians have long understood and documented: the Israeli system is one of apartheid. 

Even as we were not sure what would happen with a second boycott attempt at the AAA, we felt it was imperative to bring the question to the membership again. Given the importance of US support for Israel in sustaining apartheid (including nearly $4 billion annually), it is especially pressing for Americans and American organisations to be vocal in opposition. As a scholarly society, it is vital that the AAA take a stand in favour of academic freedom for all. Because Israeli academic institutions are not simply bystanders, but active agents in this system of apartheid, the boycott of Israeli academic institutions is our most effective means to do so. 

A wider call to action

The impressive support the resolution garnered affirms to our Palestinian colleagues that we have heard their call and we stand beside them in their struggle. As Rami Salameh put in eloquently: “Support for BDS is a message of hope.”

We hope that this AAA action will also lead other scholarly associations to respond to the Palestinian call.

Palestinians have organised and struggled for decades to highlight Israeli human rights violations and on-going policies of settler colonialism. There are signs that this tireless advocacy has begun to transform public perceptions about Israel in the United States, including within the Jewish American community. Attempts to silence critics of Israel and to criminalise the right to boycott continue, but a change is underway and this AAA resolution is a powerful contribution to this organising.

This vote is also a critical win in the fight for academic freedom and freedom of speech in the United States, where educators are increasingly under attack and educational content is being censored. Efforts in many states to ban critical race theory, or to censor an honest accounting of histories of slavery and racism in the United States, are drawing from the same playbook that has used state legislators to limit the right to boycott.  The passing of the AAA resolution is a win for both Palestinian solidarity work and for the broader solidarity work that is critical for justice for all.

Thea Renda Abu El-Haj, Professor of Education at Barnard College, Columbia University, is an anthropologist of education. Her research explores questions about belonging, rights, citizenship, and education raised by transnational migration, and conflict. Her second book, Unsettled Belonging: Educating Palestinian American Youth after 9/11 published by the University of Chicago Press, offers an ethnographic account of young Palestinian Americans grappling with questions of belonging and citizenship in the wake of September 11, 2001.

Ilana Feldman is Professor of Anthropology, History, and International Affairs at George Washington University. Her research focuses on the Palestinian experience, both inside and outside of historic Palestine, examining practices of government, humanitarianism, policing, displacement, and citizenship. She is the author of multiple books, including most recently, Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics.

Fida Adely is an Associate Professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University and the Clovis and Hala Salaam Maksoud Chair in Arab Studies. Her research interests include education, labor, development, and gender in the Arab world. She has a forthcoming book (2024) entitled Working Women in Jordan: Education, Migration, and Aspiration.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.