Academic Vote on Israel Boycott Should Not Be Suppressed

Guest blogger Roberto J. González is an alumnus of UC Berkeley. He is chair of San José State University’s anthropology department and author of several books including Militarizing Culture: Essays on the Warfare State (2010) and Zapotec Science: Farming and Food in the Northern Sierra of Oaxaca (2001). His position on academic boycotts differs from that of the AAUP, which can be found here.

Last month, University of California President Janet Napolitano sent a bewildering letter to the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the world’s largest professional association of anthropologists.

The
document, co-signed by the chancellors of all 10 UC campuses, expresses concern about a proposed AAA resolution supporting an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It urges “Association members to consider the boycott’s potentially harmful impacts and oppose this resolution.”

Napolitano’s letter betrays an Orwellian disregard for what it claims to protect: academic freedom.


The timing of Napolitano’s letter is deliberate. The AAA’s 10,000 members began voting on the boycott resolution in mid-April, and will continue casting ballots until May 31. Napolitano seeks to influence the election outcome by discouraging scholars from voting their conscience.


If its rank-and-file members ratify the resolution, the AAA will become the largest and oldest academic association to do so.


Napolitano’s statement was clearly designed to intimidate UC faculty and students voting on resolution. It is astonishing that senior University administrators would interfere with the Association’s democratic processes.


The AAA did not create the boycott resolution on a whim. In 2014, The Association’s leaders recognized the need to examine the situation in the occupied territories, and convened a Task Force on Israel-Palestine made up of scholars from diverse backgrounds representing broad political views.


The Task Force released its
report last October. It “catalogues the lengthy history of displacement, land loss, discrimination, restrictions on movement and free speech, and adverse health and welfare effects that Palestinians have experienced as a result of Israeli state policies and practices.”

In the meantime, more than 20 scholars of different ethnic and religious backgrounds had quietly prepared and submitted a boycott resolution before the AAA’s November 2015 annual conference in Denver.


At that meeting, AAA members made history. More than 1000 people packed the main ballroom of the Colorado Convention Center and engaged in thoughtful, civil, and sometimes emotional debate about the pros and cons of the proposed resolution–and the Israeli occupation.


After three hours of impassioned debate, attendees voted overwhelmingly to support the pro-boycott measure by an 8-to-1 margin.


Now that the resolution has been submitted to the AAA’s entire membership, Napolitano and the UC chancellors have decided to meddle in the election process.


Their obsession with the internal business of a professional association is an irresponsible use of taxpayer money. Don’t UC’s top administrators have more important problems to resolve?


The anti-boycott letter is a sign of the desperate efforts being made to suppress the growing boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, which is modeled after the international campaign that helped end South Africa’s apartheid regime in the early 1990s.


If the UC administrators had taken the time to read the anthropologists’ proposed resolution or the AAA Task Force report, they might have avoided making outlandish claims–such as the notion that the boycott would restrict “our scholars’ ability to choose their research and colleagues.”
Napolitano apparently didn’t even take the time to proofread her letter: she incorrectly refers to the American Anthropological Association as the “American Association of Anthropologists.” One wonders why signatory and UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks–an anthropologist–didn’t correct the error.

UC Irvine professor
Mark Levine recently noted that the academic boycott does not focus on individual scholars. Instead, it “suspends institutional cooperation and collaboration with Israeli institutions that are in any manner complicit in the occupation, which sadly most Israeli universities clearly are.”

Among the concerns identified by
those supporting the AAA resolution is the destruction of academic freedom for Palestinian colleagues living under Israeli occupation. Faculty who protest Israeli policies are subjected to surveillance or retaliation, while Palestinian students routinely face discrimination.

Evidence of widespread human rights violations and adverse health effects experienced by Palestinians living under occupation has driven thousands of American scholars to support the boycott.


Many supporters have been blacklisted, harassed, or intimidated. But such treatment has a way of strengthening the resolve of those at the receiving end.


One thing is clear: Faculty, students, and alumni of one of the world’s greatest public university systems will not be cowed by the words or actions of a few administrators, no matter how highly situated they might be within its hierarchy.

7 thoughts on “Academic Vote on Israel Boycott Should Not Be Suppressed

  1. I disagree with both academic boycotts and with the idea that administrators should never speak out on issues of public concern because it might intimidate faculty, staff, and students. Of course, I think it’s disturbing that the only issue of academic freedom that these administrators ever speak out about is the very minor threat to academic freedom posed by support for an academic boycott of Israel. But administrators (like everyone on a college campus) have the academic freedom to speak selectively on public policy. If a group of college administrators oppose the election of Donald Trump for president, would you condemn them for intimidating the Trump supporters on campus?

  2. There are people who view BDS activities like this as anti-Semitic. They are decent and intelligent. What is anti-Semitic is hotly contested. There are no agreed on answers. So everyone is doing what they feel they should do. And who is to say who is morally superior?

  3. Academic Boycott of Israel may be compared to presuming a direct line to God: (Harmless and ineffectual)

    Academic boycotts only serve to fracture communications with Israeli universities.
    Groups who boycott resemble like minded people everywhere who gather round their own particular camp fires for the reassuring glow of speaking to the converted who all think alike. Changing absolutely nothing, having no influence on Israeli Government policy ( in this case).
    “Speaking truth to power” or making reasoned academic representation may achieve more when strong delegations and direct communications arrive on USA,Washington decision makers’ desks.
    The inclusion of elected representatives to carry the message from organised academics to the center of power is what democracy demands.
    Ensuring that Academic freedoms are not politicized or restricted and diverse opinions take flight and have a destination.
    Would Israeli political leaders ignore similar direct representations from organised USA Academics?

    Satire

    JEM

  4. Prof. Gonzalez is well-known in anthropology for his style. In this case:

    “Napolitano’s letter betrays an Orwellian disregard for what it claims to protect: academic freedom.”
    A vote for the boycott is an attack on the academic freedom of Israeli colleagues.
    A vote against the boycott is an attack on the academic freedom of Palestinian colleagues.
    Which claim is the more “Orwellian”?

    “The timing of Napolitano’s letter is deliberate.”
    Well, yeah. You would prefer that she sent her memo out after the voting is over?

    “Napolitano seeks to influence the election outcome by discouraging scholars from voting their conscience.”
    I’ve been receiving email messages from numerous scholars urging me to vote one way or the other — an email just today went out from Catherine Lutz, a prominent anthropologist at Brown — and I assume all of these people are also discouraging me from voting my conscience. As is Prof. Gonzalez?

    “After three hours of impassioned debate, attendees voted overwhelmingly to support the pro-boycott measure by an 8-to-1 margin.”
    They voted to submit the resolution to the full membership. That’s perhaps a little different. I was there and felt that the group of self-selected participants in that business meeting — about 10% of the AAA membership — should not determine the policies of the association, and so voted to have the resolution considered by the full AAA membership. In my case, and I know in the case of many colleagues with whom I spoke, my vote was unrelated to issue of support for the BDS proposal or larger movement, and was a matter of ethical procedure.

    “Faculty, students, and alumni of one of the world’s greatest public university systems will not be cowed by the words or actions of a few administrators, no matter how highly situated they might be within its hierarchy.”
    A brave statement when the vote in anonymous.

  5. Whatever one’s viewpoint about Israeli/Palestinian politics, Professor González’s essay seriously misunderstands both the democratic process and academic freedom

    To quote González: “Napolitano’s statement was clearly designed to intimidate UC faculty and students voting on resolution. It is astonishing that senior University administrators would interfere with the Association’s democratic processes.” But the three-paragraph statement contains no implicit or explicit intimidation. It does not oppose the mere fact of the BDS position being put to a vote. It does not frighten, bully or compel by threat any the UC faculty or students. Napolitano et alia urge AAA members to oppose the BDS resolution, but they do not list any real or imagined consequences if they, in fact, support it. Moreover, the balloting is entirely secret, so UC administrators will never know who voted in favor of it, who opposed it, and who abstained.

    The democratic process obviously allows for statements of opposition and support from any interested citizen. University chancellors are not interfering with this process simply by issuing a joint declaration. They certainly enjoy reputational and financial advantages over many ordinary faculty members, but they do not thereby forfeit their right to participate vigorously in important social debates.

    González protests the statement’s “Orwellian disregard for what it claims to protect: academic freedom.” The statement in question strongly supports academic freedom, which it defines as free speech, free exchange of ideas, and scholars’ ability to choose their research and colleagues. Professor González give no evidence of “Orwellian disregard”. If anything, the BDS resolution would result in de facto thought control. If AAA members pass this resolution, the AAA would be obliged to ban institutional exchanges with Israeli universities, to ban US academic libraries from purchasing books supported by subventions from Israeli universities, and from reimbursing American academics who travel to give talks at Israeli universities. Arguably, the BDS movement would resemble an Orwellian to control what American anthropologists say, think, and advocate.

  6. Pingback: #Anthroboycott Vote Should Not Be Suppressed | Cognitive Liberty

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