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Why U.S. anthropologists voted to boycott Israeli academia

The American Anthropological Association is on the way to becoming the largest such association to endorse the Palestinian boycott call. Here’s why.

By Lisa B. Rofel (see note below)

Supporters of academic boycott during the annual business meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Denver, Colorado, November 21, 2015. (photo: Alex Shams)

Supporters of academic boycott during the annual business meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Denver, Colorado, November 21, 2015. (photo: Alex Shams)

On November 20, a record-breaking 1,800 people showed up to the largest business meeting in the history of the American Anthropological Association, to vote on a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions until such time as they end their complicity with the state’s systematic human rights violations. When the ballots were tallied, 88.4 percent of the votes had been cast in favor of the boycott resolution. If the measure is approved on the electronic Spring Ballot, the AAA will become the largest academic association in the United States yet to endorse the Palestinian call to boycott.

This vote was the culmination of over three years of education and discussion, including an official AAA Task Force on Engagement with Israel/Palestine, charged with analyzing the situation from an anthropological perspective. In October, the task force delivered a devastating final report, documenting in stark terms the severe toll the Israeli occupation takes on Palestinian lives. The task force concluded that the occupation is best understood as a settler-colonial project, that state violence severely impedes Palestinian scholars and students, and that Israeli universities are complicit in perpetuating these ongoing violations.

The significance of these findings cannot be overstated. Anthropologists specialize in the study of human diversity. For this reason, the AAA’s 1999 Declaration On Anthropology and Human Rights urges us to respond “whenever human difference is made the basis for a denial of basic human rights.” Anthropologists’ overwhelming support for the academic boycott comes out of the finding that, under Israeli rule, to be Palestinian is to be subject to systematic discrimination.

Academic freedom for all?

The astounding turnout and margin of victory for the boycott was a decisive rejection of the well-worn talking point that academic boycotts somehow violate academic freedom. This myth obscures the fact that, currently in Israel/Palestine, academic freedom is the privilege of the few. As the AAA’s Task Force on Engagement with Israel/Palestine pointed out, Israeli policies – from restrictions on the import of basic research equipment, to tight controls on movement, and military attacks on Palestinian universities – make academic freedom impossible for most Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Within the Green Line too, academic freedom is increasingly restricted. Public institutions in Israel can lose their funding if they even commemorate the Nakba, and individuals in the country can be sued just for calling on others to boycott. Israeli universities have launched reprisals against both Jewish and Palestinian students and faculty who voice dissenting viewpoints, even for something so anodyne as expressing hope that all Palestinian and Jewish civilians remain safe during wartime.

AAA members felt particularly compelled to take action on this issue because the U.S. government has shielded the Israeli government from demands to end the occupation. The boycott campaign has arisen in this context as a successful grassroots movement that aims to end the status quo and take a stand for justice. It responds to the over 170 Palestinian civil society groups – including the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees – who have urged solidarity in the form of boycott, sanctions, and divestment (BDS) campaigns. And it reaffirms the principle that academic freedom is a right of all students and scholars. Although individual Israeli scholars will still be welcome to publish in AAA journals and attend its conferences, this resolution states that the association will not collaborate with institutions that apply an ethnic or political litmus test to academic freedom. If Israeli universities cease their collaboration with the state and end their discriminatory policies, the boycott of theses institutions will also cease. Until then, we will apply the same principles that have led the AAA to engage in boycotts of institutions that discriminate against LGBTQ persons, endanger immigrants, or engage in unfair labor practices.

Resorting to distortion of reality

Having been soundly defeated by democratic means, boycott opponents are resorting to misinformation in the wake of the vote. Last week, on this very website, Michele Rivkin-Fish joined this smear campaign, decrying the boycott vote as a mere “spectacle,” and the product of a “well-organized and loud minority of anthropologists.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

The decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions has been a model of scholarly engagement and democratic process. What started off as a discussion among a small group of scholars quickly spread through research articles, blog posts, and conference panels. Leading experts from our discipline applied anthropological methods and theories to a controversial yet urgent public debate. Anthropologists who research Israel/Palestine weighed in, the vast majority expressing support for the boycott. And after three years of careful deliberation, American anthropologists have decided to act upon our core values.

Far from representing only a “minority of anthropologists,” as Dr. Rivkin-Fish claims, the boycott resolution was passed in the largest business meeting in the history of the association. While past years saw the association struggle to reach the 250-person quorum, this year a record-breaking 1,800 anthropologists showed up. The meeting ran two hours past its allotted time – due in no small part to ADIP’s repeated use of obstructionist parliamentary procedures – the overflow crowd stayed put, waiting late into the night to cast their vote. Since the Ferguson-Palestine solidarity alliance began in the summer of 2014, people of color in the United States have come to realize they share a great deal in common with the oppression and racism Palestinians experience under Israeli occupation. The diverse coalition that rose up to support human rights in Palestine will continue to turn out to mobilize for similar human rights campaigns in the future. To represent this as anything less than a historic outpouring of support for the boycott is disingenuous.

At the same meeting, the AAA membership also overwhelmingly rejected an anti-boycott resolution put forward by Anthropologists for Dialogue in Israel/Palestine (ADIP). The resolution failed to take any concrete action on behalf of human rights, instead proposing a vague and unworkable charity scheme.

While the anti-boycott resolution cynically deployed the discourse of “dialogue,” the group’s definition of “partners for dialogue” did not appear to extend very far. Tellingly, there was not a single Palestinian among the 17 signatories of ADIP’s resolution. Nor has a single Palestinian scholar been featured on ADIP’s website or on their conference panels. The “dialogue” envisioned by Dr. Rivkin-Fish and her allies is one confined to Israeli Jews and American Zionists. Recognizing both the problematic content and context of ADIP’s proposal, the AAA membership voted down the resolution 1173 against to just 196 in favor.

True dialogue flourished not at ADIP’s exclusionary panels, but at the pro-boycott panels. There, a diverse array of voices – of all faiths, ages, races, genders and sexualities, and creeds – gathered to discuss how best to respond to violations of human rights and academia’s complicity in them, in Palestine/Israel and beyond. Together with the record-breaking business meeting, these panels reveal a new kind of progressive coalition emerging in the United States.

Lisa B. Rofel is a Professor of Anthropology at University of California, Santa Cruz.  She has spent many years challenging the effects of U.S. imperialism.

Along with Prof. Rofel, this article was co-authored by two Ph.D. candidates in anthropology in Chicago, both of whom have lived and worked in Palestine and Israel on and off for over a decade. They asked that their names be withheld due to the recent targeting of non-tenured academics who have expressed support for the boycott movement.

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    1. Tony Riley

      Deluded nonsense.

      As a Black woman, you would automatically be treated as inferior if you ever visited Gaza.

      Total bimbo.

      Reply to Comment
      • Rochelle

        As a black woman myself, who visited Gaza on a humanitaroan mission to give out backpacks to Gazan children, I would like to say Tony’s racist, bigoted, and deluded statement is absolutely false–infuriating to say the least since he has most likely NEVER visited Gaza and seen first hand the warmth of the Palestinian people even though Israel has put them through hell. It is racist people like him that impede the peace process

        Reply to Comment
        • Merkava

          ALL-IN-ONE: Modern anti-Semitism, Hypocrisy, Racial Segregation And Racial Discrimination Of African Americans and Latinos in United States Education System

          Studies conducted by experts show that racial discrimination still exist against African Americans and Latinos in the United States schools and universities:

          “Sixty years after the Brown decision, segregated schools are the norm for the majority of Black and Latino students. Millions of American students continue to attend separate and unequal schools. In 1968, 76.6 percent of Black students and 54.8 percent of Latino students attended majority-minority schools. For Black students, those numbers have remained virtually unchanged, while Latino students are today substantially more segregated than they were a half-century ago: as of 2010, 74.1 percent of Black students and 79.1 percent of Latino students attended majority-minority schools. Even more distressing, the number of Black and Latino students attending schools that are more than 90 percent segregated has increased: between 1980 and 2009, the number of Black students attending these schools rose from 33.2 percent to 38.1 percent, and the number of Latino students attending these schools increased from 28.8 percent to 43.1 percent. Although the causes of this trend are numerous, the federal government bears some responsibility for its failure to provide the vigorous leadership, adequate enforcement, and sufficient resources necessary to combat segregation”.

          The kind of racial discrimination that exists in the US today also exist in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran – not just against minorities, but most importantly against women. In these countries, being LGBTQ gets you the death penalty by beheading or hanging! No such discrimination exists in Israel.

          Why then is the AAA not boycotting the United States or any other countries? Why is the AAA boycotting ONLY the Jewish State – with claim (i.e. “discriminatory policies of Israeli universities”) that is verifiably a LIE?

          Are Prof. Rofel & Co. therefore not hypocrites and bigots?

          Why is it too difficult for Rochelle to understand that the government of Gaza, HAMAS, started a war against Israel by launching missiles and rockets into Israeli civilian populations? Why can he not understand that HAMAS and the Palestinians still want to import heavier missiles and weaponry into Gaza to continue the war against Israeli civilians and are themselves responsible for the sufferings of ordinary Palestinians and that if and when HAMAS demilitarizes and agrees to turn Gaza into the Singapore of the Middle East, that Israel will be there every step of the way to make that possible? Has Rochelle ever been to South Africa and other parts of Africa where innocent African children are living in abject poverty and unnecessarily dying of curable diseases?! Is Rochelle aware that African American youths are swimming in their own blood in places like Chicago and that the number of people who died as a result of the last Israel-Gaza war is far LESS than the number of African Americans killed per year in the streets of the United States – by ordinary Americans and cops?! Does Rochelle realize that – as Ginger Eis explained below, in Israel Israeli Arabs have better education and better employment opportunities than African Americans, incl. Rochelle, in the US? Is it not baffling that Rochelle hates Israel more than he loves himself, while hiding behind the “Palestinians”?

          Reply to Comment
      • Season

        Finally the people are not falling for the Zionist BS. There was a time when the sunset never set on the British Raj. Now look at them?

        There will one day come a day when Israel+ the Al Saud family will be destroyed together maybe it will a few generation from now but it happen after all it is mentioned in the Torah.

        By the Tony R: Tell us how the Ethopian Jews are really treated in Israel for the colour of their skin?

        Reply to Comment
        • Merkava


          The Jewish State is actually the ONLY State in human history that goes to Africa and from there organizes and flies hundreds of thousands of destitute Africans of Jewish faith (incl. those whose Judaism are very questionable and their non-Jewish relatives!) to the Land of Israel and spends billions in integrating them into the larger Jewish family known as Israel, affording them quality education and jobs. You can whine about racist acts by individuals here and there (which btw is a fact of life in everyone everywhere on earth is subject to in different forms!), but no other country in the history of man, has done what the Jewish State did and will continue to do with Ethiopian Jews. We are PROUD of our record and intend to make it better.

          BDS died at birth. Deal with it!

          Reply to Comment
    2. Ginger Eis

      Hateful Fools!

      1. At the inception of the Jewish State in 1948, Israeli Arabs numbered 156,000. SINCE then, Israeli Arabs have been successful and very fruitful. TODAY, the Israeli-Arab population has multiplied 10-fold!

      2. Free or heavily subsidized is on of the ways in which Israel redistributes wealth and life chances amongst ALL her citizens – equally! The educational level of the largely peasant and illiterate Arabs of 1948 has skyrocketed from two years then to 12 years today. Their educational level is much higher than Syrians (seven years) or Yemenites (2.5 years). Israeli Arabs are one-fifth of the graduates of the Technion Engineering School and one in ten of all university students. Two-thirds of Israeli Arabs graduate from high school and one-third pass the college entrance examination. The educational level of Israeli Arabs is almost twice that of Chinese and almost three times that of Indians .

      3. In Israel there are Arab members in the Supreme Court, diplomatic corps, civil service and police. There are Arab doctors and nurse who work daily together with their Jewish counterparts in the same hospitals treating the same patients without regard to their race, ethnicity, gender, age, etc. There are Arab lawyers representing their Jewish clients, etc.

      4. Arabs enjoy political privileges unknown elsewhere in the Middle East. Israel grants Arabs freedom of speech, right to vote in open elections, minimally censored newspapers, radio and television, rule of law and independent judiciary. There are 16 Arab members of the Knesset!

      5. Arab women have equal rights rare in Muslim Arab societies. They can vote and be elected to office while polygamy and child marriages are forbidden. Over one-half of Arab high school graduates are female. Et cetera, et cetera..

      6. In terms of quality education and employment opportunities, Israeli Arabs are by far better off than African Americans and other minorities in the United States. The reason? The Jewish State invests more in her minorities and has done more to integrate them than the United States has done re its own minorities!


      Prof. Rofel and her anonymous contributors claim:

      “If Israeli universities cease their collaboration with the state and end their discriminatory policies, the boycott of theses institutions will also cease. Until then, we will apply the same principles that have led the AAA to engage in boycotts….”

      QUESTIONS TO Prof. Rofel and her anonymous contributors

      A. In which “discriminatory policies” are “Israeli UNIVERSITIES” engaged in? If no such “discriminatory policies” exist, why then do you and your anonymous contributors use FALSE claims to smear and demonize the Jewish State and her citizens?

      B. How do you expect Israeli universities to “cease their collaboration with the state” without which it will cease to exists and cease educating the Arabs you so dearly wish to protect – heavily subsidized/for free?!

      SHAME ON YOU, Professor!

      Reply to Comment
      • Ginger Eis


        2. “Free or heavily subsidized EDUCATION is ONE of …..”

        was meant in number .2 above.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Eis, you ever see the Saturday Night Live skit with Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase that ends with this exchange?
        Chevy: “Roseanne?…Roseanne, the topic is not ‘eagle rights’ it’s ‘equal rights’…’equal rights’…not ‘eagle rights.'”
        Roseanne: “Oh! … Never mind!”

        As Dr. Rofel makes clear, the AAA is targeting the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza and matters related. It’s not targeting “the things Arabs enjoy” in Israel. The AAA made its decision after the most careful and considered deliberation. And the AAA has similarly targeted, by boycott, institutions elsewhere in the world that discriminate against LGBQT persons, endanger immigrants, or engage in unfair labor practices. As for discriminatory policies and actions by Israeli universities that factored into the AAA vote, you must have missed Professor Rofel’s paragraph, above–under the heading, “Academic freedom for all?”–that begins with “The astounding turnout and margin of victory for the boycott was a decisive rejection of the well-worn talking point….”

        Hope that helps. Thanks.

        Reply to Comment
        • Merkava

          Yet another rambling mumbo jumbo from the resident jerk. So, according to this jerk, BEN, the AAA is boycotting the Jewish State because of the “occupation”?

          Does BEN not understand that between 1948-1967 there was NO “occupation”, NO Palestinian state and the Palestinian Arabs never demanded state?

          Does BEN not understand the what he calls “occupation” is a result of war imposed on the Jewish State by five Arab State to annihilate the Jewish State?

          Does BEN not understand that “occupation” is NOT illegal under international law?

          Does BEN not understand that Israel has already offered the Palestinians (a) A State of their own comprising of (b) 100% of Gaza, (c) 100% equivalent of the West Bank and (d) East Jerusalem neighborhoods as their Capital and that the Palestinians themselves rejected it?

          Does BEN not understand that it is NOT the job of the AAA to make sure that the Arabs get every INCH of land they claim is theirs and that getting or not getting every inch of land has nothing to do with “human rights” ?

          Prof. Rofel writes: “If Israeli universities cease their collaboration with the state and end their discriminatory policies,….” Does BEN NOT understand that there are NO “discriminatory policies of Israeli Universities” and that the Professor’s claim is a verifiable LIE? What kind of an idiot is BEN?

          Reply to Comment
          • Mike

            There is only 1 way to interprete AAA: Jew haters !

            Reply to Comment
          • Felix Reichert


            1. We are not talking about the period from 1948 until 1967, almost 50 years ago. We are talking about the situation TODAY. Not that difficult to understand.
            But of course you’re only trying to derail the discussion, as Hasbarists always try to when it’s not going their way.

            2. The occupation is the result of a war that Israel started. Israel attacked first in 1967, even though military intelligence of Israel AND of its allies said the Arabs were NOT about to attack.

            3. Israel never offered the Palestinian leadership any of the things you claim.

            4. What the AAA’s “job” is is not up for debate here. They are taking a political stand, just like they did many times before when military dictatorships (like the one Israel installed in the West Bank) violate human rights.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            FELIX:” We are not talking about the period from 1948 until 1967,”

            Why not? What has changed?

            1. Before “the occupation” the Arabs made war on us coz they wanted to destroy the Jewish state.

            2. After “the occupation” which came about because Jordan attacked Israel in 1967 (yea look it up Felix), the Arabs are still making war on us but now they use the “occupation” as an excuse, even though they know full well that the “occupation” could end if they sign a peace deal with us which includes our terms.

            Reply to Comment
          • Merkava


            This baader-meinhof-thug who calls himself “Felix Reichert” is at it again with his quite idiotic claims. Let’s examine them one by one, shall we?

            “1. We are not talking about the period from 1948 until 1967, almost 50 years ago. We are talking about the situation TODAY. Not that difficult to understand. But of course you’re only trying to derail the discussion, as Hasbarists always try to when it’s not going their way.”

            Riiiight! “we are talking about TODAY”, ONLY because Jews are involved. Like your Baader-Meinhof comrades, your awkward, racist sense of “justice” and “human rights” awakens only when you hear the words Jews and/or Israel. You aren’t very clever, are you, hypocrite?

            “2. The occupation is the result of a war that Israel started. Israel attacked first in 1967, even though military intelligence of Israel AND of its allies said the Arabs were NOT about to attack.”

            You have made that claim before and when challenged to provide your source, you provided FALSIFIED QUOTES, some of which are not recorded anywhere or traceable to ONLY “Radio-Islam”! In any case, (a) a state of war does not exist only AFTER the first shot is fired, wars do start BEFORE shots are fired. Pre-emptive/anticipatory Self-defense is part of the Right of Self-defense under CIL and Article 51 UN-Chatter allows for pre-emptive Self-defense. You really are a buffoon, are you not?

            “3. Israel never offered the Palestinian leadership any of the things you claim”.


            Study the letterhead of the map vvvvery, vvvery carefully, moron.

            “4. What the AAA’s “job” is is not up for debate here. They are taking a political stand, just like they did many times before when military dictatorships (like the one Israel installed in the West Bank) violate human rights.”

            (a) See my response to Rochelle;
            (b) See Ginger Eis’ post below.

            BTW, Israel’s presence in JUDEA and SAMARIA is well justified under International law. See artikel 51 UN Chatter and UNSC Resolution 242.

            Reply to Comment
    3. ann

      I think its a well meaning, thoughtful and helpfully descriptive article. However, I think there are a few problems in the bds argument which might be interesting to hear thoughts about.

      Having visited the middle-east recently, it seems to me that the zionist and jewish communities in palestine (aka “israel”), have developed a boycotting culture.
      Its a society that use boycotting based on people, groups, various ethnic origins, ideas, locations, politics, attitudes to judaism, innerfamily affiliations, etc. (eg various groups, like rabi X’s group will boycott rabi y’s group.)
      In other words, we are talking about a group of people that has developed ways which seem to incorporate boycotting into its social, cultural and political life. Boycotting might be a part of its being. While I disaggregate with the over all spirit of sentiments in:
      it seems worth while to mention that, as the article points regarding the political rights’ reactions towards boycotts; such actions are perceived as a part of an over-all jewish oriented narrative where non-jewish people have a tendency to both mis-understand and be hostile towards the jews.

      I think that these cultural elements within the zionist and jewish communities in palestine, elements which seem to incorporate activities it perceives as “against it” – as a part of its own cultural narrative, might merit considering activities that might compel these people to confront and end the occupation of palestine.
      It seems to me that, rather unfortunately, bds kind of activities are seen by the very occupation that should alter its ways, as a reconfirmation for the need to occupy.
      Am basing this on recent conversations with people identify themselves as “israeli left”. In these chats, people assured me, in form of “trust me, I know”, that bds activities are indeed a part of this strange non-jewish malaise which makes people mis-understand the peaceful and general well meaning intentions of the so called “state of israel”. Hence, given the jewish and zionist communities perceive themselves as having been through 1000’s of years in which every generation has had to endure some existential threat or another – bds will come to be just one of these threats in the jewish historical bin..

      Well.. My 2p.. Hopefully am kind of wrong, and good luck with helping to end that occupation!

      Reply to Comment
      • Deborah

        Your analysis is not persuasive. It’s impressionistic and sounds like someone who traveled to Israel for a relatively short period of time and doesn’t know the society well. In addition, it does not demonstrate any comprehension of Palestinian society, politics, etc.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Ben

      “Ar this point in the game when it comes to Israel, with nearly 50 years of military occupation and 67 years of systematic discrimination against Palestinian citizens and no end in sight, it can no longer be just about hearing all the voices in the room. Open dialogue and freedom of speech are crucial for education and raising awareness, but that is only half of it. The other half is knowing when to cut certain voices out and when to take action.”

      Read more: http://forward.com/opinion/327114/what-ayman-odeh-teaches-us-about-the-limits-of-liberalism/#ixzz3uS3YzPPB

      Reply to Comment
      • Merkava

        BEN, now that you have finished copying and pasting your usual anti-Israel propaganda, maybe you might want to take a look at this portrait:

        The portrait of a fool

        BEN claims his from the “US” and “Great Britain”

        BEN has no job;

        BEN not looking for a job;

        BEN is dependent on foodstamps to survive;

        BEN has PAID subscription for Jewish publications ONLY, and NONE form his own country or elsewhere.

        BEN dwells on different Jewish websites EVERY SINGLE day fixating on- and obsessing with the Jews and Israel, ranting and raging with multiple aliases (Eliza, Bryan, Eva, AverageAmerican, Lauren, “Israel”, “David”, etc.) and calling for boycott. BEN’s life is under occupation: occupation by Jews and Israel.

        Obsession with Jews and Israel is a psychiatric illness. In your specific case this illness is very advanced given that you spend 24/7 on the comment sections of Jewish websites copying and pasting, ranting and raging and employ multiple aliases to do that, incl. posing as a chic!

        Seek professional help, BEN!

        Reply to Comment
    5. Poxipa

      “U.S. government has shielded the Israeli government from demands to end the occupation”

      Shielded? Can an investment of $2 billion a year in the occupation can be reduced to shielding? Did prof. Rofel ever address any complaint to the US government? Did prof. Rofel ever suggest that the American Anthropological Association discuss taking actions against “America” and boycott US state grants? Or does she think she is exercising radical activism by complying with the power relations in the Middle East (and in the international academia) and the positivist belief that the US is merely a passive supporter of Israel?

      Reply to Comment