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Volokh Conspiracy

Anthropologists take money from repressive regime, while donors distance themselves


I wrote a few days ago about an irony of the American Anthropological Association seeking to boycott Israeli academic institutions while taking donations from Intel and Yahoo!, companies with high-profile operations in Israel and extensive academic ties there. Some of those donors have responded - and further financial ironies have emerged

A Yahoo spokesman contacted me today to clarify that the company made a single, one-time donation to the AAA, at time when they did not know about any boycott plans. "Yahoo has at present no intention of further sponsoring" any AAA projects, he said.

The spokesman clarified that while the AAA's annual reports also credit Yahoo as a donor in 2013 and 2014, there was only one donation, in 2014 (though it was pledged in 2013). Furthermore, the AAA annual report lists the donation as coming from "Yahoo Research," the former name for Yahoo Labs. The Yahoo spokesman clarified that Yahoo Labs did not make the donation, but rather a different unit, Yahoo User Experience Research.

Indeed, most of the AAA's smaller donors also most likely have no idea about the group's boycott turn. Yet most of the group's revenue comes from memberships and annual conference fees. What could significantly hurt the AAA's bottom line is if universities, which strongly oppose boycotts, restrict their support for a group that discriminates against institutions on the basis of their national origin.

In particular, it seems problematic for AAA institutional members that are public universities to channel them to an institution at whose annual meetings participation will be restricted on nationality grounds. Yes, it is true, the boycott formally applies to Israeli institutions, but since such institutions typically employ Israelis, this rule creates a national origin bar against people, since it is people who represent the institution at conferences.

The AAA does have some foreign institutional members (though currently no Israeli ones). Among them is the state-run Zayed University, in the United Arab Emirates, where "political dissent is not tolerated and there are severe restrictions on freedom of expression." As for academic freedom:

The government restrict[s] academic freedom, including speech both inside and outside the classroom by educators, and censored academic materials for schools. The government required official permission for conferences that discussed political issues.

One of the famous quips from the American Studies Association's boycott was the explanation by its president of why Israel was singled out for boycott: "you have to start somewhere." For the AAA starting by excluding institutions from a country with no member institution would not seem like a reasonable or non-capricious place to start.

At this point unclear how the AAA's finances will be damaged if its members ultimately vote to adopt the Israel-only boycott. There is a market for the kind of thing. However, its future supporters will tend to be less the Yahoos of the world, and more the UAEs.

Intel has also sent a statement about its relationship with the AAA:

Intel made two small donations to the American Anthropological Association (AAA) during the past six years, but is not and has never been a member of AAA or a significant donor, and has no ongoing relationship with the AAA.

The description of Intel's donation as "significant," which I had quoted, was the AAA's. According to the AAA, Intel was a sponsor of the Annual Meeting in 2013. They were also listed by the AAA in their highest donor category ("Benefactors"). By the tone of Intel's statement, I do not think that will be the case in coming years.