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On boycotts of Israeli academic institutions: a reply

UC Anthropology Collective, for the Berkeley Blog | December 16, 2015

As anthropologists based in the University of California system, we object to Professor Robert Birgeneau’s and Professor George Breslauer’s attempt to interfere in the American Anthropological Association’s ongoing deliberation over the boycott of Israeli academic institutions (see their Berkeley Blog post).

We find it unacceptable that a former chancellor (Birgeneau) and former executive vice chancellor and provost (Breslauer) would lend their voices to the organized intimidation of critics of Israeli state policy, and we particularly worry about the effect of such intimidation on our junior and more vulnerable colleagues.

Names of 18 anthropologists from Berkeley and other UC campuses who signed this letterFollowing three years of scholarly and reasoned deliberation within the American Anthropological Association (AAA), including the ground-breaking report by the AAA’s Task Force on Engagement with Israel/Palestine, a group of AAA members submitted a resolution calling on the Association to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, for consideration at the 2015 business meeting.

At that meeting, where member attendance exceeded all previous records, an 88% majority approved the resolution, which means that it will be placed on a ballot for a full membership vote this Spring. The process has been carefully deliberative and resolutely democratic, notwithstanding attempts to smear and discredit the process by boycott opponents who treat any attempt to pressure Israel into ending its systematic human rights abuses as anti-Semitism.

Institutionalized boycotts are a legitimate means of pressuring powerful economic and political entities to change their policies. The AAA has a long tradition of standing against unethical and politically reprehensible practices of our government, its strategic allies, and U.S. corporations. This includes the AAA’s stance against the violence perpetrated on the indigenous and minority populations in Chile, Brazil, and Bulgaria, against the Pinochet coup in Chile in 1973 and against the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The AAA has participated in several boycotts in the past, including against the Fulbright-Chile program in 1975, the State of Illinois in 1999, the Hilton hotel chain in 2004, the Coca-Cola corporation in 2006, and the State of Arizona in 2010.

The proposed AAA boycott is a response to our government’s unlimited and unconditional military and economic aid to Israel, and hence, a recognition of our own responsibility for that government’s abuses against Palestinians. Furthermore, it is a response to an international call from Palestinian civil society to stand in solidarity with Palestinians by endorsing the boycott. This resolution does not automatically entail accepting or rejecting any other boycott or political action.

The proposed boycott obliges the AAA as an association to refrain from collaborating with Israeli academic institutions. It is not a boycott of persons. Israeli scholars and scholars working in Israeli institutions can still attend AAA events and publish in its journals, and AAA members are free to decide whether and how to implement the boycott in their own professional practice. Yet professors Birgeneau and Breslauer claim that scholars and their institutions are somehow indistinguishable, a strange position for erstwhile proponents of academic freedom.

Professor Birgeneau’s and Professor Breslauer’s call for UC Berkeley anthropologists to reject the AAA resolution, reached through a democratic majority vote, is an instance of the kind of policing to which critics of Israeli policy have been subject on U.S. campuses. The boycott resolution is in part a response to such tactics, so that a legitimate space may be opened up for U.S. academics to critically rethink their own government’s support of Israel.

Far from shutting off academic debate, the AAA resolution has ignited a long-overdue discussion among Israeli and American anthropologists about the effects of the 60-year old occupation on the lives of Palestinians, including the severe constraints on Palestinian scholars.

Faced with the impending AAA vote, the Israeli Anthropological Association for the first time issued a statement in August 2014 condemning the Israeli occupation of Palestine even as it opposed the AAA boycott resolution. This in turn was met with a counter statement by a group of Israeli anthropologists in support of the AAA boycott.

Finally, professors Birgeneau and Breslauer cite baseless legal arguments to cower AAA members with the prospect of expensive litigation. Similarly menacing legal challenges were floated when the American Studies Association and other scholarly bodies endorsed the boycott; all of them turned out to be without ground.

In sum, we request that professors Birgeneau and Breslauer respect the academic freedoms and democratic institutional deliberations generating the proposal now before American Anthropological Association members, and refrain from using their status as former Berkeley campus leaders to intimidate faculty or manipulate this process in line with their personal political views.

Comments to “On boycotts of Israeli academic institutions: a reply

  1. Due to the boycott of Israeli institutions, all the Palestinian students are heading towards different institutions in the Europe. we are all brothers and sisters…

  2. However, I am very discouraged by the UC Anthropologists statement that Birgeneau and Breslauer’s column was an “attempt to interfere” and “unacceptable.” The University is a place of debate

  3. Due to the boycott of Israeli institutions, all the Palestinian students are heading towards different institutions in the Europe — the major one being Near East University.

  4. My guess is that Professors Birgeneau and Breslauer, as former chancellor and former executive vice chancellor and provost, wrote to protect their own standing among their own crowd (an executive crowd) which is institutionally (and in my opinion wrongly) committed to defending Israel without regard to the broad history, until today, of the Zionist enterprise. As such, their writing takes on an aspect of executive threat rather than of mere exchange of views.

    It was appropriate for the present signatories to respond to them precisely because they are not so much colleagues as emblems of the UC university establishment. As we all saw in the UIUC/Salaita scandal, university executives even at public universities often feel themselves responsible for fund-raising and “making nice” with political big-wigs even, in some cases, to the extent of acting unconstitutionally.

  5. Professors Birgeneau and Breslauer are indeed fully entitled to their opinions, just as the authors of this statement are fully entitled to theirs.

    The only people who are “hysterical” and “paranoid,” regarding the exercise of free speech are those who cannot stomach the fact that Israel’s cover has been blown — not by the AAA but by Israel’s own regimes, who every few years decide to kill Palestinian civilians in Gaza in a massacre.

    The address for anyone who does not care for BDS is not the AAA; it is the Prime Minister of Israel. That office, along with the White House, have far more speech with tanks, F-16s, phosphorus, bombs, to back it up, than any anthropologist.

  6. “We are citizens of Israel, from all walks of life, including academics, who support the Palestinian call for BDS [1]. We write to congratulate you on your recent vote to adopt a boycott of Israeli academic institutions in accordance with the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) of complicit Israeli institutions [2]. You have taken a moral position that will impact the lives of millions of people for the better!” (See the full text here.)

  7. The context of Academic conversation on the Israeli occupation of Palestine on UC Berkeley campus and other universities in this country is one of institutional intimidation. Although pro-Palestinian activists are often loud and persistent, critics of Israeli face negative professional consequences.

    In this context, I think the anthropologists are right that the former chancellor and vice chancellor’s effort constitute intimidation. Dialogue is two sided; it becomes a monologue (lecture, or worse, domination) when one part is preempted by the negative consequences of its actions. By refusing to acknowledge the context of the debate, professors Birgeneau and Breslauer’s letter subverts the possibility of a dialogue.

    What matters here is not the intention of Birgeneau and Breslauer but the context that underlie their intentions and that of others.

  8. I applaud both Birgeneau and Breslauer and the UC Anthropology Collective for debating the proposed AAA boycott. This is an important debate, no matter whether one agrees or disagrees with the boycott.

    However, I am very discouraged by the UC Anthropologists statement that B&B’s column was an “attempt to interfere” and “unacceptable.” The University is a place of debate. If it is “unacceptable” to have to have an exchange of ideas by Berkeley professors on the Berkeley Blog, then where are we to turn?

  9. The position of the AAA in attempting to use an academic institution and a professional association to insert itself into a conflict, such as that which exists between the Israelis and the Palestinians, is unfortunate and deplorable and reflects badly upon their scholarship. I wonder: How many of these AAA members have been to Israel and seen the mayhem that the Palestinians have visited upon innocent citizens, or in their protest are they simply following a well-established Berkeley tradition? A little bit of common sense is called for.

  10. Thank you for this timely response to the letter by professors Breslauer and Birgeneau who had reasoned that the boycott singles out Israel and constitutes a double standard: “First, the double standard: We find such an institutional initiative against Israel disturbing, when extensive slaughters are taking place elsewhere in the Middle East, causing deaths and casualties literally thousands of times greater than the casualties among Palestinians at the hands of Israelis. Surely, all Muslim lives matter.”

    What the authors and former leaders of the UC forget, however, is the relation between Israeli violence and violence in the Middle East today. According to President Obama’s czar on fighting Islamic terrorism, Israeli violence against the Palestinians is the catalyst of violence in the Middle East:

    “… I think it stands to reason that resolving this conflict would at least help, it wouldn’t resolve– but it would be a major contribution to stemming the rise of extremism, and to allow the kind of cooperation that is needed [to take on] what should be a common challenge, which is the challenge of ISIS, and of other extremist organizations.” – See more here.

    In this context, it is the authors of the above letter and NOT professors Breslauer and Birgeneau who stands for peace and the lives of Palestinians AND Israelis and not the other way around. Thank you for standing for peace in the conditions where deciphering violence and peace is difficult.

  11. Professors Birgeneau and Breslauer are fully entitled via the first amendment and all its manifestations (e.g. FSM free speech movement) to voice whatever opinions they want.

    Hysteria and paranoia enter the house when their exercise of their rights of free speech are twisted into a inference that they are attempting to interfere with the AAA and intimidate faculty or manipulate the process.

    Many voices outside the AAA should be encouraged to speak out on this important topic.

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