The American Anthropology Association – BDS Redux IV

BDS and AAA: Part IV


Howard Adelman

BDS is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that promotes among other things the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, Israeli academics and non-Israelis who are open to dialogue with Israelis. Some supporters of BDS may adopt more modest goals, such as boycotting only the first category, Israeli academic institutions and their representatives. Like BDS itself, these advocates dub themselves as defenders of human rights rather than opponents of Zionism whether they have a narrower focus of institutional opposition or target all academics who may engage in cooperation with Zionists, i.e., those who do not join the resistance movement against Zionism. The so-called more modest effort is the official position of Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (ABIAI), a self-funded lobby group consisting of graduate students, those called “contingent labourers” as well as faculty who are members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA).

Whether this more modest effort is tactical, because the supporters of BDS believe this is as far as they can go at this time, or principled because they do not believe in boycotting individuals and only institutions, may be moot since BDS as a movement itself, as I documented in my last blog, endorses boycotting individual academics if they believe in dialogue with Israelis. To escape being boycotted, individuals must adopt a position of opposition to the Zionist “oppressors,” of what is deemed co-resistance.

In my last blog, I wrote about BDS targeting and boycotting the Lebanese-French writer, Amin Maalouf. At the recent Association for Israeli Studies (AIS) meeting in Jerusalem that I attended, one of the best talks I heard at the conference was by Mohammed Wattad at the plenary session on, “Challenges to the Israeli Justice System.” To summarize and simplify his paper, he argued that the Israeli Supreme Court has been the foremost Israeli institution defending individual rights and democratic principles. However, that same Supreme Court is at risk as there is some evidence of the court pulling its punches recently in the face of the Knesset becoming a centre threatening individual rights and democratic principles.

Dr. Mohammed Wattad is currently the Schusterman Visiting Israeli Professor at UC Irvine and a professor of law at the ten-year-old Zefat Academic College in Tsfat that serves the Galilee. He had clerked with the Israeli Supreme Court. Wattad specializes in international and comparative criminal law, comparative constitutional law, international law and legal issues surrounding war, torture and terrorism. He is one of the scholars most targeted by the BDS movement for cooperating with instead of practicing co-resistance against “the enemy.” Though I never had a chance to find out, it would be ironic if he were indeed the son of the Israeli politician by the same name who served in the Knesset in the eighties.

Let me explain. Wattad (the politician) was born in 1937, a year earlier that I, but died tragically in an automobile accident almost thirty years ago when Professor Wattad would still have been barely a teenager. It is ironic because many of the Jews leading IJV (Independent Jewish Voices), strong supporters of BDS, are children of ex-communists and the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO) where I played basketball on Christie Street in Toronto as a young kid. The irony arises because the late Mohammed Wattad, the politician, once belonged to the Israeli Communist Youth, was a member of Hashomer Hatzair and was an MK for Mapam. The year he died he had left Mapam to join Hadash because he fell out with his Jewish colleagues in the party over the appropriate response to the First Intifada. In some sense, the Jewish children of UJPO in IJV may be engaged in a conflict with the Arab Israeli children of Israeli communist politicians. Unfortunately, I never learned who the father had been of the legal scholar, Mohammed Wattad. This is the second time I missed talking to Professor Wattad about this since I met him briefly when he was the Faculty of Law Halbert Fellow at the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto.

Mohammed Wattad is not the only scholar targeted by the boycotters. BDS has boycotted Michael (Mousa) Karayanni, the Dean of the Law School at Hebrew University whom I know only through his writings on multiculturalism, though I believe I met him long before he was dean when he lived at Neve Shalom. But I am not sure. In any case, BDS and its supporters, including those in the American Anthropological Association, endorsed the boycott resolution opposing “normalization” and collaboration, especially with Israeli scholars who represent institutions, which Karayanni certainly does as a dean. If he still lives at Neve Shalom/Wahat el-Salaam, he clearly espouses co-existence rather than co-resistance so fundamental to the ethos of BDS.

But my subject this morning is not so much the boycott against individual Israeli scholars, but the effort to enlist academic associations, like the American Anthropological Association (AAA), to support the boycott. The AAA has been a prime target over the last few years. A few weeks ago, it finally held a ballot to see if the members supported the resolution passed at an annual meeting to endorse the boycott. At the AIS meeting, Dani Rabinowitz in the panel on BDS offered a rundown of the running battle between the Israeli and the American Anthropological Association. (At the end of this blog, I will let you know the result, but if you do not want to wait, you can find the vote on the AAA website.)

Spoiler Alert! But a different sense of spoiler. This account may include errors since it is based mainly on my notes. Even if those notes were originally accurate, a dubious assumption, they are barely legible and serve only to remind me about what Dani said, or, at least, what I believe I remember him having said.

Dani Rabinowitz is a cultural anthropologist teaching at Tel Aviv University, not to be confused with my philosophical colleague of the same name who writes on religious epistemology and is at Oxford. Dani (the anthropologist) offered a political context for the effort to enlist the AAA, an account of why AAA, like a very few other academic associations, were open to the entreaties of BDS, and then outlined the progress of the debate on a number of campuses. Part of the attraction of anthropologists to BDS is because AAA has been very sensitive to issues of racism, and anthropologists were once used to justify and rationalize racism. ABIAI as well as BDS ostensibly oppose racism and claim (falsely) that Zionism is founded on racist premises. The basic political agenda argues that Israel should not exist.

At the annual meeting in Washington in 2014, of the ten thousand members, 638 of the 662 of the members who voted, or 95.8%, supported a debate on the issue. Four out of five academic panels at the association meeting dealing with BDS in 2015 were stacked with supporters of the boycott. The business meeting had a record attendance – 1500. The impression was that an overwhelming majority favoured a boycott. The vote in favour of the boycott was confirmed by a huge margin of those in attendance – 1044 to 136. A ratification ballot was to be held in 2016 and social media were flooded with arguments leading up to the electronic ballot. My notes say they were 125,000 views expressed, but that seemed inordinately high and I suspected I had either heard wrong or made an error in my notes. But a quick survey of various sites suggests this figure may be accurate.

As the debate continued over six weeks, a number of factors seemed to influence the outcome. First and foremost, those promoting the boycott had for years been organized as the Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (ABIAI). They were a very determined and focused lobby group. (

Secondly, they were assisted by the fact that the current leadership of the AAA supported the boycott and the executive members may have been promoted into leadership roles to push the boycott. Third, as is frequently the case in academic organizations, scholars who are focused on their scholarship and uninvolved in advocacy issues take a backseat to academic advocates with an agenda, whatever that agenda might be. Fourth, at the annual meeting to debate the issue under the chair, Nathan Brown, three of the four panelists favoured the boycott. Fifth, as I have experienced personally (I do not participate in such debates any longer), instead of a normal academic detached presentation of different views and interpretations, instead of a debate that is both civil and informative, the discussion becomes suffused with vitriol and even name-calling, overwhelmingly from the side opposed to cooperation and in favour of co-resistance. Sixth, it was reported that archeologists and many physical anthropologists resigned over the determination to become an advocacy organization.

88% of the membership, an overwhelming number, endorsed holding a referendum on the sanctions resolution at the AAA Denver convention. Given all this lead up to the electronic vote, the wonder is that, of half the members of AAA voting on the issue (almost 5,000), the no side won by a margin of 39 votes, 2,423-2,384 (50.4%-49.6%). The pro-boycotters were undeterred by their defeat. They vowed to continue the fight. After all, their loss was influenced by a professional legal advisory (commissioned by the AAA I was told, but on this I am uncertain), that, given the constitution of the AAA that defined the organization as purely academic and the organization as explicitly chartered not to engage in advocacy, the AAA was subject to being sued if the resolution to endorse the boycott was adopted. ABIAI called the initiation of such a suit by the Israeli anthropologists as “frivolous.” The resolution precluding the AAA from engaging in any formal association-level collaborations with universities or research centers in Israel was defeated even though it did not include preventing Israeli scholars from participating in AAA activities or collaborating with AAA members. In other words, even a modest sanctions resolution that modified the BDS position did not pass.

Despite this setback, the decision to hold the vote in the first place was considered by the supporters of the boycott as a historic step forward in putting the boycott issue in front of an academic association. The claim that the U.S. enabled Israel to allegedly engage in widespread and systematic abuses against Palestinians had been publicized, even if the truth value of that assertion was not fairly examined in a comparative light. The past three years of debate about the boycott brought exponentially more discussions of Palestinian claims in the AAA than ever before in the association’s history. An AAA Task Force claiming settler-colonial practices by the Israeli government and its predecessor, the Zionist movement, had been given wide publicity and a degree of academic respectability. Separately, over 1,300 anthropologists signed a petition pledging to uphold the boycott through their own personal practice.

Those academics claimed they were in the vanguard opposing the denial of Palestinian rights to an education by opposing the aid and unconditional political support Washington provides to Israel and America’s history of colonialism. ABIAI advocates lauded expressing solidarity with Palestinian colleagues (excluding, of course, Palestinian scholars like Wattad and Karayanni). Israeli policies, according to these BDS advocates, only obstruct and never advance Palestinian education, a bare-faced lie if ever there was one. These BDS advocates claimed that they had achieved this degree of success in spite of intimidation and disinformation by opponents, as if their own propaganda was free of disinformation, and boycott proponents had not engaged in catcalls at an academic meeting. They also claimed that untenured and adjunct scholars had been targeted and harassed without documenting that assertion in any way. Perhaps the claim is true and that alone would be worthy of debate and strong protest. But this assertion is made as a claim, like many of its other claims, without empirical evidential support.

Members of ABIAI and BDS openly lobbied to advance the boycott, but criticized civil society organizations, including Jewish organizations and others, for lobbying to oppose the boycott in the name of academic freedom. Why should the ABIAI have the exclusive right to lobby? Should not the reverse be preferred – that academics should argue for the right of civil society organizations, to lobby to advance their positions while academic institutions and organizations, except in extreme circumstances, restricted their activities to testing the truth claims of those organizations?

The problem is that for boycott lobby groups, defeat at the ballot box does not entail respect for a democratic outcome, but merely signals the need for a renewed effort to succeed the next time. The Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (ABIAI) will press on with its campaign to “educate” colleagues about Israel-Palestine to mobilize anthropologists to support Palestinians through a boycott. This is not regarded as harassment of professional colleagues who simply want to go on and produce high quality professional scholarship independent of any political position. But, of course, the pro-boycott lobbyists regard this as a cop out and a failure to assume their responsibility to oppose cooperation in favour of co-resistance.

With the help of Alex Zisman