A personal note on the American Anthropological Association's boycott of Israeli academics

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Co-blogger Eugene Kontorovich has already blogged about ("Anthropology group votes to boycott Israel …") the shameful (or do I mean shame-less?) resolution passed at the recent annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to boycott Israeli academic institutions, making it the largest scholarly organization to do so (others include the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association of Asian American Studies, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, the Peace and Justice Studies Association and the Association for Humanist Sociology). [The text of the resolution is available here, and a story in the Jerusalem Post about the Anti-Defamation League's response to the vote is here.]

This rings a particularly painful bell for me. As many VC readers know, I began my professional career as an anthropologist— though, as a "biological/physical anthropologist, I was off to the side of the mainstream of the field, which is dominated by "cultural" anthropology. After getting my Ph.D. and teaching for several years, I left my academic job, and from 1981 to 1983 I worked at the AAA in Washington, as its director of programs.

At the 1982 annual meeting, the members passed a resolution condemning Israel's invasion of Lebanon (as, if memory serves me, a form of "genocide"). It struck me, at the time, as idiotic and deeply misguided and driven by, let's just say, suspicious motives. Self-righteous, self-absorbed, politically correct claptrap.

Not that criticism of the invasion wasn't perfectly appropriate—it was, and there was certainly a vigorous and contentious debate, in the United States and in Israel, about the wisdom of the Israeli strategy.

But why was the AAA taking a position as an organization on the question? What made anthropologists think that (a) anyone cared what they thought as anthropologists or (b) they had some expertise that would give their voice, as anthropologists, some special weight? And more to the point: Where was their condemnation of the Soviet Union's treatment of the Hungarians or the Czechs or the Afghans? China's brutal suppression of Tibetans or other ethnic minorities? The Rwandan genocide? The treatment of Jews in Iraq and Syria? Romania's treatment of the gypsies?

Not a word about those—only about Israel. Why single out Israel for special attention? There's probably an answer to that, and it's not a particularly attractive one.

As an employee of the AAA at the time, I was not supposed to express any particular opinion about anything the organization's members chose to do—but I did in this case, and pretty loudly.

And one of tasks I was responsible for in my job was implementing the various resolutions passed at the annual meeting—which in this case meant writing a letter to the Israeli ambassador to the United States, to be signed by the board, expressing the condemnation.

I refused to do it—just my little way of expressing my disgust. I could've been fired, I guess, but I wasn't.

But looking back, I think the episode marks the moment that I decided that I was no longer interested in being an anthropologist. There's just so much mean-spirited bull- one can take in this life, and the association had used up my quota.

The current action is much, much worse than the 1982 resolution. There is something particularly repellent about calling—in the name of "the promotion and protection of the right of people and peoples everywhere to the full realization of their humanity"—for a boycott of institutions of higher education, which has as its goal the stifling of academic discussion (and, I suppose, the ultimate destruction of those institutions—as if that will really help the Palestinians).

And, for the "inadvertently hilarious" file: Lest you be concerned that this is yet another attempt by academics to stifle free speech and free expression, you will be comforted to learn that, in the words of the resolution, "in implementing this boycott, the AAA will support the rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel/Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement." Good to know that those who support the boycott will be treated so respectfully.