Full might of Israel lobby ekes out razor-thin win in anthropology vote

Following significant outside interference, members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) narrowly voted down a referendum measure endorsing the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

The resolution lost by just 39 votes, with 2,423 members voting against a boycott and 2,384 voting in favor.

A record 51 percent of the association’s members participated in the electronic vote that took place between 15 April and 31 May. The result was announced on Tuesday.

Gilad Erdan, the Israeli minister of public security and strategic affairs, credited Israeli and US-based lobby groups with the defeat of the resolution.

“In recent months many quiet activities are taking place in the field that led to a series of achievements, activities that weaken the delegitimization organizations that try to harm the state,” Erdan told reporters in Israel.

“This is a dramatic shift stemming from the intensive publicity work and groundwork with members of the association,” he said. “I welcome the Israeli and American anthropologists who worked against the decision, and the academic pro-Israeli organizations in the US that led the groundwork,” Erdan added.

“This statistical tie, with a negligible difference of 0.8 percent, exposes Israel’s weakness in combating the BDS movement,” said Haidar Eid, a steering committee member of PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

“All of Israel’s intimidation, smearing, and well-oiled lobbying could hardly blunt the rising tide of support for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality,” Eid, a professor of literature in Gaza, added.

“Despite our disappointment with the results of the vote we should not let today’s outcome obscure the tremendous gains the movement for solidarity with the Palestinian struggle has achieved within the AAA,” Ilana Feldman, a member of the organizing collective Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions and a professor at George Washington University, told The Electronic Intifada.

Feldman noted that 1,300 anthropologists have pledged to adhere to the academic boycott of Israeli institutions in their own professional capacity.

The resolution called for the AAA to refrain from formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, not individual scholars.

It was brought to referendum of the association’s 10,000 members after it was endorsed by an overwhelming 88 percent of members at last November’s annual meeting.

In April, 22 Israeli anthropologists anonymously signed a letter in support of the resolution, writing that they urged the AAA “to support them and their Palestinian colleagues in putting pressure on the Israeli state by boycotting the academic institutions which are complicit in these violations and crimes.”

Outside interference

While several other academic organizations have already endorsed similar resolutions, AAA is the largest to vote on the issue, prompting anti-boycott groups to marshal their forces to defeat the measure.

Before and during the election, Israeli universities, nongovernmental organizations and US-based Zionist groups employed various lobbying and intimidation tactics to defeat the referendum.

The ultranationalist group Im Tirtzu purportedly outed the 22 Israeli academics, though their allegations were based on flimsy evidence.

Im Tirtzu has also called on Israeli universities to fire employees who support the boycott or demonstrate any criticism of Israel.

The Academic Engagement Network, a US group dedicated to fighting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, helped mobilize faculty against the vote.

The Schusterman Family Foundation, a major donor to groups combating support for Palestinian human rights on US college campuses, helped fill the ranks of AAA with anti-boycott members.

The Israeli Committee of University Heads, known by the acronym VERA in Israel, also successfully urged the heads of major US universities to declare their opposition to the academic boycott ahead of the AAA vote.

VERA chairperson Peretz Lavie reportedly wrote a letter to the chancellor of University of California, Los Angeles, that his committee is “concerned that a final adoption of the boycott would lead to other organizations following suit.”

And in perhaps the crudest intimidation tactic, the AMCHA Initiative made public lists of the most vulnerable members of AAA – untenured and adjunct professors deemed critical of Israel – that were then used in harassment campaigns.

“They may have influenced the outcome of this vote, but they will not have the final word on this struggle,” Feldman told The Electronic Intifada.

Looking forward

The academic boycott resolution was the result of nearly two years of organizing and educating members. Last year, the AAA’s leadership formed a task force charged with investigating the issues related to an academic boycott.

In October 2015, the task force released a 130-page report, detailing the history of Israel’s human rights abuses and myriad forms of repression, and analyzing the call to boycott.

Composed of a diverse group of scholars, the task force wrote, “There is a strong case for the association to take action on this issue, and that the association should do so … If there ever was a time when this was a fringe issue within the association, that time has passed.”

Even though the boycott resolution was defeated, the AAA leadership will still take a series of actions to draw attention to Israel’s abuses of Palestinian rights.

This will include issuing a statement of censure to the Israeli government over violations of Palestinian human rights and academic freedom.

“The consensus within the AAA remains and that is that there are serious human rights problems that exist in Israel/Palestine as a result of Israeli state policy, practices and the occupation and that AAA must take a course of action,” Alisse Waterston, the assocition’s president and an anthropology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Inside Higher Ed.

Ilana Feldman told The Electronic Intifada that the AAA boycott collective will evaluate the actions as they are more fully developed.

“We continue to believe that boycott is the most effective action that the AAA as an organization and anthropologists as individuals can take in defense of Palestinian rights,” Feldman said.


Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Silver's picture

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist and regular writer for The Electronic Intifada. She is based in Oakland, California and has reported from Palestine since 2010. Follow her on Twitter @CharESilver.