Between June 15 and July 24, 2023, the membership of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) voted on a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The resolution was part of a nearly decade-long campaign organized by members of the AAA as part of the larger Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli apartheid. On July 24, the results of the vote were announced with 71 percent voting in favor of the referendum. To speak about this historic resolution, MERIP editor and boycott organizer Lori Allen interviewed Daniel Segal, a member of the organizing committee of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and an activist with Jewish Voice for Peace, and Jessica Winegar, a former MERIP editor and founding member of the AnthroBoycott Collective. Lori Allen is also a member of the collective and the author of A History of False Hope: Investigative Commissions in Palestine (2020). Their exchange has been edited for length and clarity.
Lori Allen: This is the second time that AnthroBoycott, the collective of anthropologists that you and I are members of, has brought a resolution to boycott Israeli institutions to the membership of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). After that first campaign in 2015–2016 was unsuccessful—by just 39 votes (less than 1 percent of ballots cast)—what prompted this second campaign at this juncture? Why do you think that the vote was successful this time?
Daniel Segal: A loss by less than 1 percent is an electoral loss but also, and importantly, a statistical tie. In the broader society and on our campuses, there is more honest information circulating about the Israeli apartheid state and its abuses of the human rights of Palestinians. So, a second campaign, with an expectation of victory, was always on the horizon.
Many things contribute to the increasing recognition of the truth about the Israeli state. On our campuses, one crucial factor nationally has been the activist work done by Students for Justice in Palestine. A second factor has been the increase in the number of faculty who teach honestly about Palestine and Israel, many of them anthropologists. In the broader society, another crucial element has been the impact of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). JVP’s solidarity with the Palestinian cause has exposed the lie that it is antisemitic to criticize Israel and support the Palestinian struggle for freedom and equality.
These and other factors have led to a steady increase in support for the Palestinian struggle outside and inside of academia. The AnthroBoycott Collective understood this context and the opportunity it provided but also understood that opportunities do not harvest themselves. The Collective organized, organized and organized. It also took stock of its previous campaign and assessed where it could do better. One area was in canvassing as many AAA members as possible.
Jessica Winegar: A major shift in the demographics of the discipline, along with a renewed emphasis on decolonizing anthropology, also played a significant role in the success of the vote in this round. Younger generations of US anthropologists are significantly more ethnically and racially diverse than their predecessors. This demographic shift precipitated a rejection of the white liberal “dialogue” politics and a rejection of the colonial presumption to know better what the path to liberation should be—two frameworks that had prevented a full appreciation of the Palestinian struggle in anthropology over the decades. Younger generations of anthropologists are also much more committed to intersectional analyses and activist alliances, which enabled us to build solidarities across constituencies in the AAA. The youngest anthropologists also entered the profession at a time when criticisms of the Israeli state and Zionism were not verboten, in part due to the work of the organizations Dan mentioned. Also, public opinion on Israel in the Unites States is shifting, making it less risky for white anthropologists to adopt the boycott.
Lori: What were the stumbling blocks and kinds of pushback that the campaign faced this time and last? The AAA leadership promoted a narrative about the “divisiveness” of this campaign to scare the membership, for example. How did you work to overcome these challenges?
Jessica: We built upon our years of work educating the AAA membership on the issues and on the boycott. And we had a carefully crafted campaign that involved webinars, media appearances, social media outreach and targeted outreach to the AAA membership through emails and the Association’s community board. In each of these channels, we had a persistent, clear message that really counteracted the specious “divisiveness” claim.
Daniel: Last time we faced three primary obstacles. One was a number of Zionist members of the AAA, whose attachment to Israel was typically rooted in early childhood socialization. Their deeply emotional attachments to Israel—a toxic love, in my judgment—often made them refractory to reason and evidence. A second obstacle was a widespread discomfort among academics with boycotting academic institutions and, related to this, a concern for academic freedom that was not assuaged by the distinction between an institutional boycott and a boycott of individuals. Some of this resistance was legitimate but, at some point, its intensity reflected an uncritical faith in academia, often of the privileged, mistakenly extended to Israeli academic institutions. A final obstacle was the large number of anthropologists, generally those with no connection to the region, whose response was to do whatever they could to avoid the issue completely, whether because they feared being called antisemitic if they supported the boycott or because they wanted to avoid conflict.
In 2023, by contrast, the greater visibility and recognition of the cruel inhumanity of the Israeli state did a lot to diminish these obstacles. And the changes internal to the discipline that Jessica discussed contributed to and reinforced this. Finally, the AnthroBoycott Collective was persistent and disciplined in responding to criticisms and deflections from anti-boycott voices, especially in countering the claim that the boycott targets individuals and violates academic freedom.
An important strength of this year’s campaign was the even more effective centering of Palestinian voices. This included the great contributions to the campaign of Palestinian anthropologists Rami Salameh and Ala Alazzeh and also, Omar Barghouti’s essay in The Nation. These voices were crucial for establishing that the question before AAA members was not what they, as first-world scholars, thought was best for Palestinians but whether they would or would not respect what Palestinians were asking of us, in terms of supporting their struggle for freedom and equality.
And finally, but certainly not least, as the campaign unfolded, the endorsement from the Association of Black Anthropologists proved a key and powerful moment. Speaking from a Critical Israeli Studies perspective, I would say that what the Israeli state most fears from US society is support for the Palestinian cause from African Americans and anti-Zionist Jews. A racial supremacist state based on hyper-essentialism simply cannot bear solidarity.
Lori: Although the AAA, with its membership of nearly 12,000 people, is the largest US academic association to pass a boycott, this is not a very big proportion of the US public. Why do you think that this vote was significant? Does the AAA represent something larger than itself?
Daniel: Scholars have real impact on the broader US public first and foremost by teaching undergraduates. So yes, the AAA and other learned societies matter when they adopt a boycott of Israeli institutions. These boycotts of Israeli universities erode the legitimacy of the Israeli state for our undergraduates and in the broader US society. And for Israeli society—again bringing in a Critical Israeli Studies perspective—higher education and scholarship retain considerable stature and authority. So, in the Israeli context also, the AAA boycott matters.
Jessica: I think the AAA membership is on the spectrum from liberal to leftist. This victory suggests that even the liberal US public is in the process of shifting its perspective on Israel and hopefully recognizing that two-sides-ism and calls for more dialogue have gotten nowhere. The significance of this win is clear. The hyperbolic negative coverage in the Zionist media shows the symbolic power of the vote on the Israeli state. The Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE) and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel expressed tremendous support of this boycott resolution. The PFUUPE confirmed that this “decisive vote conveys to Palestinians that our concerns, our rights, and our dignity matter.”
Lori: For individual citizens who oppose Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, who oppose the Jewish supremacist premise of the settler-colonial regime, it can be frustrating that their political representatives seem so out of touch with the shift in public opinion, including among Jews. It’s frustrating that they continue to support Israel, right or wrong. One recent example is the tepid response of the US government to Israel’s passage of a judicial overhaul bill that will curb the Supreme Court’s powers and the Biden government’s unwillingness to reconsider the nearly $4 billion in funding that the US hands over to Israel annually. Do you think that boycott actions like this can make a dent in politicians’ knee-jerk support of Israel? What else is needed?
Daniel: The movement needs a great many complementary elements. Both Jewish Voice for Peace and American Muslims for Palestine now have sibling organizations— 501C.4s—that do meaningful congressional advocacy and electoral work. Academic boycotts bolster that work, and I think our broader movement must now build this electoral dimension in order to push our elected officials to catch up with public opinion, especially among Democratic voters and young Jewish voters. We need social movement work to lead, but we also need elected officials, pushed and led by movement work, in order to change US policy. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa supports this view. And given how far behind mainstream elected officials are on Palestine—including mainstream Democratic leaders—it’s important to support the few electeds who are with us, notably Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar, Betty McCollum and Rashida Tlaib. We also should recognize those who are, to various degrees, joining them, including Jamaal Bowman, Andre Carson, Summer Lee and Ayanna Pressley. But at the same time, we must be vigilant and be prepared to criticize these electeds if they do not increase their support for Palestine and, especially, if they backtrack. Ultimately, electoral and congressional victories for liberatory causes—such as Palestinian freedom—are always dependent on movement work to change public knowledge and understanding and to create a different calculus for political candidates.
To further the Palestinian cause in US electoral politics, it is crucial that activists make accepting AIPAC donations politically toxic for Democratic candidates. Only this can end AIPAC’s massive funding for pro-apartheid Democrats. Here it is important to publicize that AIPAC backs and funds the Trump Republican party, including House members who voted against certifying the 2020 election. No Democrat should take AIPAC dollars, and as long as it is acceptable for them to do so, the Democratic party will remain the pro-Israeli apartheid and settler colonialism party it is today.
Lori: The resolution that AAA members passed is similar to resolutions that other academic associations—including The Middle East Studies Association—have passed. What are the most salient points of this resolution? How will its passage affect the actions of the AAA and its membership?
Lori: Tell us about the AnthroBoycott Collective. How did this group of about 20 people come together? What lessons have you learned about organizing in general and organizing academics in particular from this experience? What advice can you offer to other groups who want to support the BDS movement?
Jessica: The core group that began organizing for the 2015–2016 campaign stayed in touch. We came together again for this campaign and brought in new people rather organically. We are a very diverse group across academic rank, race/ethnicity, gender, generation and national heritages. This diversity was incredibly useful for generating different ideas and perspectives and allowed us to take advantage of everyone’s different skill sets and connections. It helped us conduct a truly intersectional campaign, which was critical for its success. It also helped that everyone in the collective is a hard worker and humble. We had none of the ego problems that often plague organizing as well as academia. Other groups wanting to support the BDS movement would benefit from ensuring that their core organizing group has these features and also to seek advice from those who have successfully organized in other organizations.
Lori: After this resounding victory in the AAA, what’s next for academic boycotts? I mean boycotts for Palestinian liberation and—given what’s happening in US higher education in places like Florida—boycotts for other people’s rights, too.
Jessica: I would encourage anyone who wants to support the BDS movement for Palestinian rights to educate members of their academic association through panels, workshops and other means. Achieving a boycott victory, even in a discipline that perceives itself to be left of center and on the side of the oppressed like anthropology, took many years of education and organizing. The blowback can scare people, and a failure to adopt the boycott can send the movement back. Education is key, and this fact holds for boycotts more generally. The word “boycott” can elicit knee jerk negative reactions, but with careful education those can be overcome.
Daniel: We need to build on the recent victories in both MESA and the AAA with campaigns for boycott resolutions in other strategically selected learned societies. We won’t always win the first time, and we do not need to. The education work of each campaign can itself undermine the normalization of Israeli oppression of Palestinians, and if we have an initial loss, as we did in the AAA, the movement will come back stronger. It’s time also to contest and overturn the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) robotically absolutist stance against academic boycotts, which was rooted in a rear-guard Zionist effort, earlier in this century, to support the Israeli state. And finally, on our campuses, we need campaigns targeting study abroad programs at Israeli universities. Very importantly, such campaigns require and enable pro-Palestinian organizing by students as well as faculty.
 Omar Barghouti, “We Shouldn’t Fear Being ‘Divisive’ in Pursuit of Justice,” The Nation, June 16, 2023.