On 11 June 2015, the Israeli Anthropological Association passed a resolution, for the first time in its 42 year history calling for an end to the occupation, while simultaneously opposing the call for academic boycotts of Israeli academic institutions. Although the recognition of Palestinian rights is a necessary first step, both the timing and content of the statement raise serious questions about the sincerity of the organization’s newfound commitment to ending human rights abuses.
The fact that the IAA’s long-overdue recognition of Palestinians’ basic human rights is sutured to a condemnation of academic boycotts immediately raises red flags. The IAA – like all Israeli and international institutions – should be able to recognize the basic human rights of Palestinians. Full stop. This recognition should not be coupled, conditioned, or predicated on what Israelis view as acceptable actions in pursuit of recognition. The IAA is apparently unable to recognize that Palestinians deserve human rights without at the same time criticizing the most effective Palestinian-led movement seeking to achieve those rights. That these two issues are joined in the IAA resolution points clearly to its intended function: to derail the current discussions within the American Anthropological Association, which will likely consider endorsing the academic boycott at its upcoming annual meeting.
The timing of the resolution supports the validity of these concerns. It has been 67 years since the Nakba and 48 years since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In all this time, the IAA has never once criticized the Israeli state. Yet mere months before the American Anthropological Association will likely debate the merits of an academic boycott at its annual meeting and just weeks before its Task Force on Israel/Palestine is due to deliver its final report, they at long last take a public stance.
To be clear, we welcome that the IAA has finally saw fit to call for an end to the occupation. Yet it is equally clear that the IAA’s belated and tepid recognition of Palestinian human rights is the direct result of pressure from Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, the leading voice advocating for a AAA endorsement of the academic boycott. As the old sayings go: talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words. So far, the IAA has taken no concrete action in support of Palestinian rights.
These concerns are amplified by the ongoing refusal of the IAA to redress their own academic institutions’ active roles in violating Palestinians’ human rights. As numerous reports have demonstrated, Israeli universities are directly complicit in state crimes, from sitting on occupied lands, to close collaborations with the Israeli army and intelligence, and includes their own discriminatory policies against Palestinians and dissidents. At best, the ongoing failure of the IAA to recognize the collusion of Israeli academia in the occupation is a grave oversight that compromises its call to recognize basic Palestinian human rights. At worst, its continued refusal to take concrete steps against Israeli violations of basic educational and academic rights is a cynical political ploy that aims to delay effective action in the form of an academic boycott.
Blatantly ignoring this reality of complicity, the IAA beseeches us to recognize “the important role that moderate segments in Israeli society, including academics have played over the years in the difficult struggle for peace ” Reading this sentence, we cannot help but be reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s writings from a different struggle for basic human rights, criticizing:
the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
BDS has been endorsed by a united Palestinian civil society, including all Palestinian universities. Over the past 10 years, it has proven uniquely capable of pressuring institutions to end their complicity with Israeli human rights violations. Even Israeli politicians now recognize BDS as a threat to the systems of apartheid, racism, and discrimination that they uphold. For the IAA to criticize this strategy in the same breath as it claims to recognize Palestinian human rights smacks of the worst kind of paternalism.
The IAA’s statement concludes by beseeching anthropologists to mobilize our knowledge “to help terminate the occupation and to nudge reluctant leaders towards peace.” Yet, they offer no vision of how anthropological knowledge might to be mobilized to that end. The reason for this shortcoming is obvious: they have no such vision. The reason for this lack of vision is clear to anyone paying attention: You cannot criticize the Occupation while maintaining links with universities that sit on illegally occupied lands. You cannot claim to uphold the rights of Palestinians while denying them the right to boycott. And you cannot claim to stand in solidarity with Palestinians while at the same time condemning the most effective, non-violent tactic available for those seeking justice.
Despite its many shortcomings, those of us who stand in solidarity with Palestinians should be heartened by the IAA’s statement. Boycotts are designed to pressure institutions to uphold the basic moral principles that they have failed to respect on their own. The fact that the IAA has at long last produced a statement condemning the occupation is further evidence that this strategy is working. Like other Israeli institutions, the IAA is feeling the heat. As the statement in response to the IAA from Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions makes clear, we all look forward to the day that the Israeli Anthropological Association “will join us in the work of upholding basic human rights.” As their own actions demonstrate, the most effective means of pressuring the IAA and other Israeli academic institutions to join with us in true advocacy of human rights is to endorse Palestinians’ call for an academic boycott.