When the final history of the academic boycott against Israel is written, 2014 will likely have a prominent chapter.
The first union in the U.S.–UAW 2865, which represents University of California student workers–voted to boycott Israel. The Critical Ethnic Studies Association and African Literature Association endorsed the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. And earlier in the year, the membership of the American Studies Association (ASA) voted in favor of the academic boycott of Israel, setting off a firestorm of protest among pro-Israel advocates and lawmakers.
But 2015 is also shaping up to be a big year for the academic boycott. Anger over Israel’s continuing occupation, and its assault on Gaza last summer, is driving the discussion.
Two more prominent academic associations, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), could consider the academic boycott. Both associations are already embroiled in debate over boycotting Israel. In early January, the American Historical Association voted down the opportunity to consider resolutions that were critical of Israel because proponents did not submit materials on time.
Passage of pro-boycott resolutions at 2015 conferences would raise the profile of the BDS movement in the U.S, though its impact would be largely symbolic.
That prospect has people like Cary Nelson, the professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and a prominent opponent of BDS, warning that the movement has the potential to become a powerful political force. (Nelson did not answer requests for comment on this story.)
For now, the debate is about the debate. At the AAA’s conference in December 2014, a resolution condemning BDS was overwhelmingly voted down, paving the way for future discussions on academic boycotts and, potentially, a resolution for BDS.
“This is a huge win for keeping both Palestine and academic boycott on the table within the association and signals a significant shift in the public discourse – the first time Palestine is put front and center in anthropology,” J. Kehaulani Kauanui, an Associate Professor of Anthropology and American Studies at Wesleyan University, told me in an e-mail. “Abiding by the academic boycott is a way of strengthening a sharp historical shift within the discipline in openly criticizing colonialism and racism – including those forms of violence within the US.”
Nadia Abu El Haj, another pro-BDS anthropologist at Columbia University, added in an e-mail that “we are in the process of regrouping and discussing the meaning and importance of an academic boycott of Israeli universities with fellow members of the AAA, which will help us to come to a decision about how best to proceed.”
In November, the Middle East Studies Association, the leading scholarly institution for those who study the region, gathered for their annual conference in Washington, D.C. A resolution affirming scholars’ right to engage in debate about BDS and that urged the association to set up official processes for discussing the movement easily passed. The resolution now goes to the whole 2,700-strong membership for a vote. The full membership vote will take place at the end of January.
Historically, MESA has shied away from taking strong stands on contentious issues like Palestine, though members of MESA have taken it upon themselves to advocate for BDS. In August, as Israeli bombs rained down on Gaza, over 100 Middle East scholars issued a statement calling for boycotting Israel. Advocates of BDS within MESA say that the current resolution that only calls for the right to discuss BDS is needed before any pro-boycott resolution is considered.
“We felt MESA is not ready. It needs time for colleagues who, for a variety of reasons, are not primarily concerned with the issue of Palestine,” said Jens Hanssen, a pro-BDS member of MESA and an Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean History at the University of Toronto. Hanssen was referring to MESA scholars’ wide variety of interests, from Islamic philosophy to contemporary Iran, that ostensibly have little to do with Palestine.
Hanssen believes the resolution affirming the right to debate BDS will pass. After that, he says, MESA would be obliged to host online discussions about the issue to educate its members and hear out people’s concerns, though he believes the vast majority of members disagree with Israeli state policies.
Opposition to MESA adopting BDS is likely to come from a variety of quarters–and not just the usual pro-Israel forces outside the association.
“What is much more difficult to understand and think through are the legal implications for an association like MESA” if they endorse BDS, said Hanssen. “This gets into all kinds of other territories that are not primarily connected to Israel/Palestine as an issue of injustice. They’re connected to the power structures, the financial circuits, when you study the Middle East in the United States.”
The inevitable backlash to endorsing BDS could hit MESA particularly hard because it is headquartered at the University of Arizona. Lawmakers in Arizona could pressure the university to cut its ties to MESA. (After the ASA voted for boycotting Israel, legislators in a variety of states threatened the funding of the academic group, though no bill with teeth passed.) And some of MESA’s institutional members–mostly Middle East Studies departments–receive federal funding from the U.S. government. That funding is already a target from pro-Israel groups who claim Middle East studies departments are anti-Israel.
In addition, scholars who are critical of the occupation but staunchly opposed to BDS would weigh in. One of the leading liberal Zionist groups active in the BDS debate is The Third Narrative, an Ameinu-affiliated organization. The group has organized and issued public statements against efforts within the American Historical Association and the City University of New York to criticize Israel. Both efforts were ultimately defeated–at least for now.