The largest academic organization of anthropologists in the US will hold a vote this week on whether to boycott Israeli academic institutions for their involvement in Israel's discrimination and oppression of Palestinians.
The American Anthropological Association's (AAA) vote, which will take place online from June 15 to July 14, is part of a growing movement within the anthropological community in the United States to restructure the field away from what scholars say are racist and colonial origins.
The supporters of the resolution have argued that Israeli universities are complicit in Israel's violations of Palestinian rights, which have been denounced as apartheid by several human rights groups and UN experts.
The resolution has also sparked controversy and debate among anthropologists. The previous vote in 2016 failed by a narrow margin of 39 votes, with some anthropologists opposing the boycott as a political interference that would harm academic freedom and dialogue.
The resolution proposes to prohibit the AAA from collaborating with Israeli universities, such as hosting conferences and organizing joint programs.
“Be it resolved that the AAA as an Association endorses and will honor this call to boycott Israeli academic institutions until such time as these institutions end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law,” the text of the resolution states.
If the resolution passes, the AAA board will decide how to implement the boycott and under what conditions it could be lifted.
Jessica Winegar, a socio-cultural anthropologist at Northwestern University and a long-time supporter of the Palestinian-led movement Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), said that the vote is an opportunity for the association to stand on the right side of history.
"Anthropology is a discipline that has not always done enough reflection on how it itself has been complicit in colonialism," Winegar told Middle East Eye. "And now is an opportunity for the association to really stand on the right side of history, on the side of academic freedom, on the side of anti-racism, on the side of decolonization."
Winegar said that her work in anthropology led her to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and support the BDS movement, which calls for people and groups across the world to cut economic, cultural and academic ties with the occupying regime to help promote the Palestinian cause.
Since 2005, the boycott campaign has sought to sanction all Israeli products made in the occupied Palestinian land. The BDS movement has been successful in causing economic damage to Israel and raising awareness about its occupation and abuses of Palestinians. It has also faced backlash from pro-Israel groups and governments that have labeled it “an existential threat.”
Many Israeli universities have close ties with the regime’s military industries, and some are also complicit in Israel's occupation of Palestinian land by having buildings or campuses on occupied territory. For example, Tel Aviv University has several partnerships with Israel's military and hosts the the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a think-tank close to the Israeli military establishment.
The INSS has helped shape Israel's military doctrine towards Palestinians and neighboring Arab states.
If the measure passes, it would be a historic change for the AAA, which has never supported a boycott of academic institutions before. Even during the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the AAA did not endorse a boycott against South African universities.
"Our association has never undertaken such a boycott before. Even in the case of South Africa and the height of the anti-apartheid movement, our association raised concerns that are derived from our scholarship, but did not join any boycott," Ed Liebow, AAA's executive director, said.
Liebow added that the issue has been quite divisive among AAA's membership. The anthropologists opposed to the boycott say they don't align with the influx of pro-Israel groups that have been campaigning against the vote.
“What's divisive about the issue is not so much the policies and practices of Israel, especially in the last several years; it's really a question of what the association ought to do about it," Liebow said. "I think if you polled people, a very large percentage of them would say that we need to see changes in Israeli policies and practices with respect to Palestinian academic freedom. The question is what we can or ought to do about it as a scholarly society."
Attitudes in the United States have shifted as well, with recent polling showing that people are more sympathetic to Palestinians than they were to Israelis.
Meanwhile, the BDS movement has been gaining momentum and allies in various spheres and sectors. The acclaimed writer Sally Rooney refused to let an Israeli publisher translate her novel, invoking the BDS call. Two European cities, Barcelona in Spain and Liege in Belgium, severed their ties with Israel this year.
Many workers' unions in the US have expressed their solidarity with Palestinians, and some have even joined the boycott of Israel for its crimes and violations. And in 2021, the biggest teacher's union in the US came close to endorsing the BDS movement - but the vote fell short.