Anthropologists Should Embrace BDS

| Isaiah Silver pour Savage Minds |

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Isaiah Silver, a pseudonym for two AAA members and Ph.D. candidates in anthropology.

In the 30 April edition of Anthropology News, the leadership of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) invited its members to “help the association decide on appropriate courses of action,” amid ongoing Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights. The call came after continuing requests that the AAA join the growing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement, that seeks to pressure Israel to end its discriminatory policies.

In that spirit, we would like to use this space in order to in kick off the conversation. Over the next month we will argue that BDS is a sensible response to ongoing Israeli violations of human rights ; that endorsing an academic boycott is a moral obligation for scholars in general and anthropologists in particular ; and that a BDS resolution would be consistent with past and current AAA statements and policies.

Before we begin, a word of caution and a plea for civility. Nothing seems to inspire more heated debate than the Palestine/Israel conflict. We welcome such debate and will take the time to respond to as many comments as possible. We will even dedicate our last post as guest bloggers to answering your questions. However, all too often these conversations quickly degrade into ad hominem and outright racist attacks. We therefore ask you to take a moment to review the Savage Minds comments policy.

With that in mind, let’s begin this discussion by reviewing what BDS is and why it has gained so much attention in recent years.

What Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Involves

In the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, four-million Palestinians live under an illegal military occupation. The Israeli system of occupation affects nearly all aspects of daily life in Palestine, from the ability to move between cities to the ability to get clean drinking water, and from the right to live securely in one’s home to the ability to earn a decent living. Israel maintains hundreds of military checkpoints and roadblocks around the West Bank which, along with the siege on Gaza, stifles the Palestinian economy.1 These measures also divide families, as the more than five million refugees who were expelled from their homes in 1948 and 1967 are denied a right to return. And since 2000, some 8,000 Palestinian children have been detained and prosecuted by the military courts, where they lack the basic rights of due process. Meanwhile, the 1.2 million Palestinians who are also citizens of Israel face not only widespread racism, but also have to contend with more than 50 different laws that discriminate against Palestinians in all areas of life.

The U.N. has repeatedly censured Israel’s belligerent military occupation and violation of international human rights. Despite this, Israeli policies continue unabated. Since the 1992 Oslo accords were signed, Israel has doubled its settler population, building oveDisappearing Palestiner 50,000 new homes in the West Bank. At the same time, the Israeli state destroyed some 15,000 Palestinian homes. Today, over 500,000 Israelis live on illegally occupied Palestinian lands while the Israeli government exerts direct control over 78% of historic Palestine.2 This situation is in no small part due to the continued unflinching support of the United States government, which provides more military aid to Israel than it does to any other country in the world.

Faced with the ongoing failure of the international community to bring about real change, in 2005, Palestinian civil society organizations called for a boycott of Israeli institutions, divestment from companies complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights, and sanctions against Israel until it ends discriminatory policies towards Palestinians. To date, the call has been endorsed by over 170 Palestinian trade unions, political parties, and NGOs from across the political spectrum. These organizations are united around three common goals :

  • Ending the military occupation of Palestinian lands captured in the 1967 war.
  • Recognizing the fundamental rights of Palestinian Citizens of Israel and providing them with full legal equality under the law.
  • Recognizing the rights of Palestinian refugees, as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

The Palestinian call for boycott is inspired by the non-violent struggle of millions of South Africans against apartheid. As in the South African case, a boycott allows individuals to express moral and political condemnation, especially in the absence of effective government censure. As such, it is an instrument that groups make recourse to when no other means of action are available.

The BDS movement has inspired a diverse-range of campaigns from international solidarity activists, including divestment from companies implicated in the occupation, cultural boycotts of Israeli artists on state-sponsored tours, and refusing to partner with those institutions that directly benefit from the occupation.

The question for us as an academic organization is : how will we respond to this call for solidarity ?

The Role of Academic Associations in BDS

While the broader call for BDS encompasses a diverse array of potential allies and targets, an academic boycott represents a more narrowly defined course of actions. Fortunately, in potentially formulating its own response to Palestinian civil society’s call, the AAA can build on the hard work already undertaken by other academic associations.3

The American Studies Association’s (ASA) pathbreaking 2013 boycott resolution – endorsed by a 2-1 margin in an unprecedented vote of the group’s full membership – provides a relevant example of how a similar AAA policy could be framed. It states that the ASA will no longer host representatives of the Israeli government, enter into partnership with Israeli academic institutions, or accept any funds from Israeli sources. (We will get more specific about the reasons for targeting Israeli academic institutions in our next post).

Importantly, the ASA resolution, like the broader BDS movement, does not target scholars on the basis of their nationality. Nor does it affect the behavior of individual members within the AAA. To give a parallel example : like the AAA, the ASA boycotts the Hyatt Hotel chain due to its poor labor practices. But neither organization can prevent you from staying at a Hyatt. Individuals and institutions who choose not to abide by the boycott are not punished in any way. A boycott is a simple and potent way to express our collective disapproval with the hotel chain’s violation of basic labor rights.

Coming from an association of academics, the ASA’s resolution has been especially effective at highlighting violations of Palestinians’ rights to education and academic freedom. Equally importantly, the resolution opens a space for discussing difficult but important topics such as ethnic cleansing, systematic racism, and U.S. support for Israel.

The Impact of BDS and Academic Boycotts

Academic boycotts have been a powerful tool in advocating for the fundamental human rights of Palestinians. We have some evidence that these boycotts, divestments, and sanctions are beginning to have a direct economic effect on Israeli businesses and international corporations that directly profit from the continued violence directed aganst Palestinians.

More importantly, the success of BDS tactics, including the endorsements by academic associations in the United States and Europe, have fundamentally altered the terms of debate in both Palestine/Israel and abroad. Israel has begun to consider the impact of BDS on its policies, recognizing that, increasingly, its violations of Palestinian human rights comes at a price. In the United States, BDS tactics have raised the profile of Israeli violations, bringing them to the attention of millions of Americans for the first time. Even Secretary of State John Kerry has noted the efficacy of BDS, warning the close U.S. ally that, because of the success of these campaigns, “Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable. It’s illusionary.” The movement is a clear instance of the power of ordinary citizens to affect positive change, even when our governments are resistant to it.

Over the next couple of posts, we will argue that we have a moral responsibility as academics to endorse the Palestinian call for boycotts of Israeli academic institutions and that it is especially important for us as anthropologists to do so. Until then, consider this : When the history of this period of the AAA is written, will we be proud of the way we championed human rights or worried that we stood idly by ?


  1. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs under the occupied Palestinian territory maintains an updated list of checkpoints, roadblocks, and barriers in the West Bank on their website
  2. Visualizing Palestine has synthesized the changes in the population of West Bank settlements and destroyed Palestinian homes in this helpful graphic
  3. The most relevant resolutions for the AAA include those passed by the  American Studies Association ,the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and the Association for Asian American Studies