The Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement against Israel took a big blow earlier this week when the American Anthropological Association (AAA) narrowly rejected a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions (2,423 against; 2,384 in favor). This BDS failure was remarkable in light of the overwhelming support that it had enjoyed just a few months before – at the AAA’s annual meeting last November, 88% of the membership in attendance approved the decision to bring the resolution.
The BDS movement attributes this dramatic defeat in part to LDB’s lawsuit against the American Studies Association (ASA) for passing the same type of resolution. Some AAA members apparently understood that their anti-Semitic resolution would likely be unlawful and could subject the association to costly litigation and humiliating defeat.
In April, the Brandeis Center, along with prominent litigators at Marcus & Auerbach and Barnes & Thornburg, filed suit on behalf of four distinguished American Studies professors, against the ASA, for its unlawful boycott of Israel.
The Brandeis Center’s clients, well-known academics in the field of American Studies, filed suit “to restore the ASA to its stated mission – the promotion of the study of American culture – so that the members of the ASA can once again faithfully exercise their membership.” Our clients wrote about how, over the past few years, the ASA “has been diverted from its scholarly mission —promoting the study of American culture—to a political one, by leaders seeking to turn the ASA into an organization that advocates for social change far beyond American borders, and with an unwavering focus on delegitimizing Israel.”
As LDB President Kenneth L. Marcus explained, when the boycott was initiated, the ASA’s Constitution stated that, “[t]he object of the association [is] the promotion of the study of American culture….” Similar to the ASA, the AAA’s stated purpose is to further its scholarly purpose, and would not authorize a boycott of Israel.
“‘This is not just about the American Studies Association,’” said LDB President Kenneth L. Marcus to Inside Higher Ed. “‘It’s about any association officer or director who is thinking about using their association as a tool to advance their own ideological agenda. This should send a signal that if association activists are not concerned that BDS resolutions are anti-Semitic and may be a violation of academic freedom they should certainly be concerned that they may violate corporations law.’” Additionally, in his op-ed in Newsweek, Marcus discussed the potential illegality of the AAA’s impending vote in the context of the Brandeis Center’s ASA litigation.
In addition to media coverage, at least two major anti-BDS reports were sent directly to the AAA. In one of these reports, posted on the LDB blog – Selective, Biased and Discriminatory: The American Anthropological Association Task Force Report on Israel Palestine – Elihu Richter, a founder of the Jerusalem Center for Genocide Prevention, addressed the selective, biased and discriminatory nature of the AAA’s Task Force Report (TFR) in respect to Public Health, the ethics of Operation Protective Edge and the effects of cradle-to-grave incitement in Palestinian society, and recommended retraction of the TFR. Further, a whole website was created – Against Anthro Boycott – for anthropologists to discuss, post news, and sign a statement against the boycott.
The failure of the AAA boycott resolution “was surely a great disappointment to its Middle East Section, which has long been obsessed with defaming Israel,” wrote anthropologist Philip Carl Salzman. “While the U.S.S.R. was invading Afghanistan and slaughtering its people in 1979, the Middle East Section discussed only Palestine, and condemned only Israel.”
Salzman explained that
the postmodern turn in anthropology ha[s] taken up a more critical approach to society and culture. . . But until now the AAA has not considered boycotting a particular people or country. It has not considered boycotting Turkey for its military invasion and occupation of Cyprus or its war against its Kurdish minority. It has not considered boycotting Lebanon for keeping Palestinians as stateless pawns. It has not considered boycotting Gaza, although Hamas shot 12,000 rockets at Israeli civilian targets. It has not considered boycotting Saudi Arabia for its suppression of human rights, or Iran for hanging homosexuals from cranes in public places, or Russia for invading Ukraine, or China for its military occupation of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang Uigur Turkestan, and Tibet.
Despite the resolution’s failure, the AAA has now adopted eight “Courses of AAA Action Concerning Israel-Palestine,” which include issuing a “statement of censure of the Israeli government,” and sending letters to both the Israeli and U.S. governments on changing their policies. The AAA is still planning on conducting anti-Israel activities in apparent defiance of their members’ wishes.
Nonetheless, the AAA’s rejection of their resolution to boycott Israel is a huge victory for the anti-BDS community, and demonstrates the effectiveness of legal advocacy.