WASHINGTON — The rejection by the membership of the American Anthropological Association of a resolution supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was “an important milestone in the effort to counter the BDS movement and in support of academic freedom,” the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) declared Tuesday afternoon.
“The AAA is the largest American academic association to consider a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, so the decision by its membership to reject this discriminatory and extreme measure is an important marker,” wrote ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt in a statement hours after the result of the two-month long online vote was released.
“Other academic associations should take note of how divisive this effort to delegitimize and demonize Israeli academia contradicted the very value of open exchange cherished by educators and academics. This was not about changing any specific Israeli policy. It was a bigoted and ham-handed attempt to indict any academic simply on the basis of their nationality,” he said.
“Importantly, the anthropologists made clear to their colleagues how an academic boycott would directly and unfairly harm Israeli anthropologists and anthropology students, and how it would violate sacrosanct values of academic freedom,” Greenblatt added. “This is an important milestone in the effort to counter the BDS movement and in support of academic freedom.”
The ADL singled out two groups — Anthropologists for Dialogue for Israel/Palestine and Against Anthro Boycott — for educating and mobilizing their colleagues against this resolution.
The ADL was not the only organization to see Tuesday’s results as a victory.
“Each time an organization dedicated to the free flow of ideas rejects the idea to boycott, divest or sanction Israel the world gets one step closer to a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,” said David Sherman, chair of the Israel Action Network (IAN), an initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America created to counter assaults on Israel’s legitimacy. “We applaud the membership for opposing this punitive measure.”
Slightly over half of the organization’s membership participated in the online ballot, with 2,423 voting against the academic boycott and 2,384 in favor. The association noted in a statement that with 51 percent of eligible members voting, the boycott resolution marked the largest turnout in the organization’s history.
The issue was first raised at the organization’s 2013 annual conference. The association then sent a task force on what it described as a “study visit” to the region in 2014. Upon its return, the task force published a report which recommended proceeding with a boycott resolution.
Some 1,100 anthropologists signed a petition to boycott Israel in August 2014, when Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions cited “Israel’s ongoing, systematic, and widespread violations of Palestinian academic freedom and human rights.” That motion to boycott Israeli academic institutions was rejected by the association in December of that year.
But BDS was back on the table during the organization’s annual meeting in November 2015, when members voted in favor of placing a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions on the organization’s spring 2016 election ballot.
At the time, the move was excoriated by Jewish organizations, with the ADL describing it as a “misguided attack” of academic freedom.
The resolution called on the association to refrain from formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions but did not ban relationships with individual scholars.
“The membership has spoken and we hear them,” AAA’s president Alisse Waterston said in a statement. “We appreciate this was a difficult vote on an important and contentious issue. I’m especially proud that our members participated in knowledgeable, thoughtful, respectful debate throughout the process, and that AAA offers a model for informed engagement on difficult subjects.”
The statement said association members “are generally in agreement that serious threats to academic freedom and human rights have been noted in Israel-Palestine as a result of Israeli government policies and practices, and that AAA should respond to these threats.”
In response, the association’s Executive Board said it has approved a set of actions that can be taken, including issuing a statement of censure of the Israeli government; issuing a letter to US government officials to identify ways in which the association believes that US policies contribute to Israeli policies that violate academic freedom and disenfranchise Palestinians, and approving ways to provide active resource support for Palestinian and Israeli academics as well as visiting scholars in the region.
Both the American Studies Association and the Asian American Studies Association have approved similar motions.