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Anthropologists’s Narrow Vote Against Israel Boycott Is Not the Last Word

Ancient Athens had its way of social shunning. Citizens would write on pieces of broken pottery the names of those they wanted to banish. Enough shards, and that person would be expelled from the city. The pottery fragments were known as “Ostraka,” and the rite itself came to be known as “ostracism.”

The modern counterpart to that process played out this week as the 10,000-member American Anthropological Association (AAA) announced the results of a closely-watched vote on whether to boycott all Israeli academic institutions. The vote failed by the wafer-thin margin of 2,423-2384. But while the outcome of the vote was announced on Tuesday, it may be some time before its true significance is known.

For the AAA, the matter is completed, but not resolved. The divisiveness of the issue, the depths of feeling on both sides, and the closeness of the vote — a split right down the center of the AAA — suggests that the matter may not go away. A former AAA board secretary has suggested that the organization squandered its chance to be on the right side of history. For some supporters of the boycott, the defeat represents an act of institutional cowardice. In their eyes, it was oppressed Palestinians that suffered the setback, as well as the integrity of the AAA. For some opponents of the measure, the defeat does not constitute a clear victory so much as the purchase of breathing room until the next challenge.

AAA executive director Edward Liebow praised members’ handling of the issue and said he was indebted to proponents of the boycott for raising the visibility of the issue, but that he also views the vote as a clear signal that some actions which fall outside the purview of academic organizations are better left as matters of personal conscience.

Still, the AAA did not quietly disappear into the library stacks. Its leadership announced — without a vote — that the organization would formally censure the Israeli government for its actions and policies, and petition the US government to put pressure on Israel.

The vote had been watched as a bellwether case as to whether the academic boycott movement could move from the fringes — organizations like the Critical Ethnic Studies Association and the American Studies Association (less than half the size of the AAA) — to the mainstream. A boycott by the AAA would have emboldened many other supporters to take up the cause and would, at least in the eyes of its supporters, have lent legitimacy to the strategy. In defeat, the existing boycotts remain as somewhat anemic expressions of support, testament to a tactic which offends many in the academy as an affront to free speech and the scholarly exchange of ideas.

The vote was seen by many as a referendum on the role and identity of academic organizations: whether and to what extent they should be politicized — or whether they should remain a neutral disciplinary and academic body. The shift towards politicization at the AAA and similar groups has alienated many, led some to resign and caused yet others to consider whether they wish to be represented by such organizations in the future.

Just why the AAA boycott failed is something of a mystery. It began with a full-throated campaign and a preliminary vote of support that enjoyed an 8:1 margin, though that represented only a small minority of the entire membership. From a distance it seemed to many observers, including this one, that passage of the boycott was a fait accompli. But on the way to declaring victory, the supporters stumbled or were tripped up.

As the AAA’s director rightly points out, throughout the debate that has stretched over the course of two years, there has always been a “silent majority” that wanted to first weigh the evidence, ponder the consequences, and assess the prospects for success. It was that contingent of undecideds that ultimately swayed the vote, not any significant conversions among the passionate on both sides of the debate.

The academic boycott had never enjoyed broad support outside of the AAA, not even from those whose political sentiments would have appeared to make them natural allies. And, in the course of deliberations, the opposition seemed to be gaining traction. Last week New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced that that state would divest from any organization that participated in a boycott of Israel. The newly elected mayor of London, Sadiq Kahn, a Muslim, reversed himself declaring that he no longer supported boycotts. In recent months, a host of American universities — MIT, the University of Chicago, the University of California, among them — have lined up in opposition to boycotts. The costs of embracing a boycott became increasingly tangible, including the very real possibility that the AAA itself might suffer a degree of isolation from its peer groups.

For those outside of the AAA there are other lingering questions, some of them disturbing, not least of which is whether anti-Semitism played a role in the campaign, given that, from a multitude of sinning nations, Israel alone was singled out for rebuke. There were many, even among those whose sympathies lie with the Palestinians, who believed that the AAA should not be seen as a tool for Palestinian aspirations and who were concerned about the perception that the organization was ruled by deep anti-Israeli hostilities. But AAA director Liebow steadfastly defends the group’s right to take up the issue and says that he sees no contradiction in defending Israel’s absolute right to exist alongside a condemnation of its government’s policies.

As for Israeli scholars and academics who have watched this all play out from afar, the vote could hardly have offered much comfort or security, knowing that their colleagues — at least half of them — were happy to cast them out from the academic fold. The very notion of a boycott resonates with many Israelis in a singularly painful way, dredging up memories of Jewish professors stripped of their positions under Germany’s Third Reich. In an act of wishful thinking or overstatement, the Jerusalem Post hailed the boycott’s defeat as a “massive blow” to the BDS movement.

Israel has been fighting the boycott for a long time. A decade ago, the University of Haifa, (where I taught in 2015 under a Fulbright granted by the American government,) created a special category of position called an “Affiliated Professor.” The idea was to recruit academics from all over the world who would accept this purely honorific title as an expression of their opposition to a boycott of Israeli universities. It was a way of seeding the world with its defenders, deputizing a cadre of foreign scholars whose affiliation and loyalties might help blunt the boycott movements.

Earlier this week I wrote a long opinion piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which I challenged the AAA’s proposed boycott on the grounds that it was illogical, misguided and doomed to create a backlash. In response, ,I received a fusillade of personal emails attacking me as, in turn, a self-loathing Jew, an apologist for the Netanyahu government and conversely, an unwitting dupe of the Palestinians. It would seem I had managed to offend extremists of all stripes. “We are in the same boat,” the AAA’s Liebow told me. “Full of baleful vitriol and worse.” In response to such attacks, the organization has had to apply additional screens to its social media platforms “to filter out the profane and hateful stuff that they [critics] have been sending our way.”

Finally, now that the vote has been taken, it has passed from a living issue to the status of artifact – not unlike the ostraka of old, one worthy of excavation and study by the very discipline that fashioned it. Like all good anthropologists, they may find that these fragments hold clues to who we are, how we think, and where we may be going on issues vital to the free exchange of ideas and scholarship, and to the evolution of debate on highly charged issues facing a democracy, both Israel’s and our own..

Ted Gup is a Boston-based author who has contributed to NPR, The New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, Slate, Huffington Post, The Nation and other publications. @ted_gup

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