Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

On boycotts of Israeli academic institutions: a reply

By UC Anthropology Collective

As anthropologists based in the University of California system, we object to Professor Robert Birgeneau’s and Professor George Breslauer’s attempt to interfere in the American Anthropological Association’s ongoing deliberation over the boycott of Israeli academic institutions (see their Berkeley Blog post).

We find it unacceptable that a former chancellor (Birgeneau) and former executive vice chancellor and provost (Breslauer) would lend their voices to the organized intimidation of critics of Israeli state policy, and we particularly worry about the effect of such intimidation on our junior and more vulnerable colleagues.

Names of 18 anthropologists from Berkeley and other UC campuses who signed this letter

Following three years of scholarly and reasoned deliberation within the American Anthropological Association (AAA), including the ground-breaking report by the AAA’s Task Force on Engagement with Israel/Palestine, a group of AAA members submitted a resolution calling on the Association to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, for consideration at the 2015 business meeting.

At that meeting, where member attendance exceeded all previous records, an 88% majority approved the resolution, which means that it will be placed on a ballot for a full membership vote this Spring. The process has been carefully deliberative and resolutely democratic, notwithstanding attempts to smear and discredit the process by boycott opponents who treat any attempt to pressure Israel into ending its systematic human rights abuses as anti-Semitism.

Institutionalized boycotts are a legitimate means of pressuring powerful economic and political entities to change their policies. The AAA has a long tradition of standing against unethical and politically reprehensible practices of our government, its strategic allies, and U.S. corporations. This includes the AAA’s stance against the violence perpetrated on the indigenous and minority populations in Chile, Brazil, and Bulgaria, against the Pinochet coup in Chile in 1973 and against the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The AAA has participated in several boycotts in the past, including against the Fulbright-Chile program in 1975, the State of Illinois in 1999, the Hilton hotel chain in 2004, the Coca-Cola corporation in 2006, and the State of Arizona in 2010.

The proposed AAA boycott is a response to our government’s unlimited and unconditional military and economic aid to Israel, and hence, a recognition of our own responsibility for that government’s abuses against Palestinians. Furthermore, it is a response to an international call from Palestinian civil society to stand in solidarity with Palestinians by endorsing the boycott. This resolution does not automatically entail accepting or rejecting any other boycott or political action.

The proposed boycott obliges the AAA as an association to refrain from collaborating with Israeli academic institutions. It is not a boycott of persons. Israeli scholars and scholars working in Israeli institutions can still attend AAA events and publish in its journals, and AAA members are free to decide whether and how to implement the boycott in their own professional practice. Yet professors Birgeneau and Breslauer claim that scholars and their institutions are somehow indistinguishable, a strange position for erstwhile proponents of academic freedom.

Professor Birgeneau’s and Professor Breslauer’s call for UC Berkeley anthropologists to reject the AAA resolution, reached through a democratic majority vote, is an instance of the kind of policing to which critics of Israeli policy have been subject on U.S. campuses. The boycott resolution is in part a response to such tactics, so that a legitimate space may be opened up for U.S. academics to critically rethink their own government’s support of Israel.

Far from shutting off academic debate, the AAA resolution has ignited a long-overdue discussion among Israeli and American anthropologists about the effects of the 60-year old occupation on the lives of Palestinians, including the severe constraints on Palestinian scholars.

Faced with the impending AAA vote, the Israeli Anthropological Association for the first time issued a statement in August 2014 condemning the Israeli occupation of Palestine even as it opposed the AAA boycott resolution. This in turn was met with a counter statement by a group of Israeli anthropologists in support of the AAA boycott.

Finally, professors Birgeneau and Breslauer cite baseless legal arguments to cower AAA members with the prospect of expensive litigation. Similarly menacing legal challenges were floated when the American Studies Association and other scholarly bodies endorsed the boycott; all of them turned out to be without ground.

In sum, we request that professors Birgeneau and Breslauer respect the academic freedoms and democratic institutional deliberations generating the proposal now before American Anthropological Association members, and refrain from using their status as former Berkeley campus leaders to intimidate faculty or manipulate this process in line with their personal political views.