When It’s Time to Vote, Don’t Boycott Academics – Cut the Purse-strings

Editor’s note: We received this letter, signed by the authors listed above and by nine anonymous authors, as a reply to our earlier Debate Forum.

After far too long a moratorium on reasoned debate, a terrible dam first cracked, then crumbled. Certainly the current sturm und drang about American academics’ relationship to the ever more disastrous situation in Israel/Palestine is urgent, and long overdue. But just what kind of conversation is taking place – and where will it lead? Where should it lead?

These are urgent questions for us anthropologists. Beginning last Friday, April 15, and until May 31, members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) face a momentous decision: to vote either for or against an academic boycott of Israel, a state whose policies, actions, and inaction have wrought untold harm on Palestinians’ health, well-being, and dignity. As committed anthropologists – most of us junior and untenured – we approach this vote with trepidation, and rage.

We are enraged by the occupation of Palestinian people and lands, an occupation that is immoral, illegal, and unjust. We know that the devastating impact of decades of Israeli policy, especially on the physical and mental health of Palestinian children, will persist long into the future, whatever the political tides may bring. And we agree that now is the time for strong statements.

Yet strong statements are not enough. It is also time for targeted, collective action.

Some of our colleagues have appealed for “dialogue” in lieu of boycott, but “dialogue,” too, is insufficient. Dialogue is far too little, and far too late.

At the same time, we know full well that academic boycott is the wrong tool for the job, and we trust that the majority of our colleagues will agree. As Noam Chomsky and others have insisted, we need better tools than this – tools that are more powerful, more precise, and better suited to the task at hand.

For reasons we cannot quite comprehend, the strongest tool in the toolkit has hardly figured in recent anthropological debates about Israel/Palestine. What American anthropologists should be doing is actually quite clear and straightforward. Those who oppose Israel’s violations of Palestinians’ dignity and human rights should begin leveraging our field’s methods and insights to advance a new movement: a movement to educate our elected representatives about the devastating effects of the occupation we are underwriting, and to exert pressure on our government to stop footing the bill. After all, it is we – those of us who are American citizens, and American taxpayers – who are bankrolling Israel’s violent regime of domination and control. Indeed, we have continued to do so even as Israel’s elected leaders have spurned the office of our president, and even as Israeli public discourse has spiraled further and further downward into the kind of ethnocentrism, racism, and xenophobia that now find parallel among our most vulgar compatriots here in the U.S.


At this pivotal moment, we appeal to all who are eager to employ peaceful protest tactics – perhaps, under certain circumstances, even tactics like boycott, divestment, or sanctions – but recognize that an academic boycott is not the right way to go. We appeal to all who are outraged and infuriated by Israel’s policies toward Palestinian people and lands, the Palestinian economy, Palestinian civil society – and who are sickened by the fact that we, as citizens and taxpayers, are partially complicit.

We call upon our fellow anthropologists to join us on a two-fold path: first, to oppose the misdirected notion of academic boycott, and second, to act immediately, purposefully, and in solidarity with Palestinians to pressure the U.S. government to stop allowing Israel to occupy, humiliate, and traumatize in our name. Below, we offer five reasons to pursue this path.

  1. U.S. taxpayers hold a good measure of direct responsibility for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian people and lands. The most direct and expedient way for American anthropologists to help end the occupation is straightforward: we must press our government to cut the purse-strings. We must insist that our elected leaders stop pandering to groups like AIPAC, which revealed at its last conference (keynote speaker: Donald Trump) that the group represents neither Israel’s best interests, nor those of the United States. (Nor, for that matter, does it speak for the vast majority of American Jews.) American anthropologists must work concertedly toward these goals, and we must do so in solidarity and collaboration with likeminded Palestinians and Israelis, among others. In working toward these goals, we must take pains to avoid being tainted by the scourges of racism or anti-Semitism.


  1. American academics are just as complicit in the crimes of our own government as Israeli academics are in crimes of theirs. Most top-tier universities in the United States benefit from Department of Defense funding – American tax dollars at work. Many universities permit military recruitment on their campuses. And as taxpayers, American academics are just as complicit in the actions of the U.S. government and U.S. military – including the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, torture at Guantanamo, drone strikes that kill civilians in Pakistan, and possibly recent war crimes in Yemen – as Israeli academics are in theirs. If this measure of complicity warrants academic boycott, shouldn’t a global boycott of American academic institutions be a top priority as well?


  1. The proposal for academic boycott indicates no clear endpoint, and that’s a huge problem. For some of us, this is the deepest and most serious flaw of the boycott proposal. The boycott resolution offers no clarity, and no specifics, regarding when – if ever – an academic boycott of Israeli institutions would end. Meaningful boycotts have clear targets, and clear endpoints. Those considering boycott should step back and ask: Am I really ready to join a campaign so open-ended it may never achieve its goals – and so vaguely defined it can serve as a fig leaf for unspecified political agendas I may find objectionable?


  1. Advocates of academic boycott claim that only institutions are targeted, not individuals but that’s not what’s happening in practice. Whatever the outcome of the AAA vote, a powerful chilling effect is already palpable. In anthropology, as in other fields, advocates of boycott have already begun refusing to review manuscripts and grant proposals, host (or attend) talks, write letters of recommendation, or advise students. Scholars, junior and senior, have found themselves admonished for publicly taking a stand. This holds true even for scholars with no ties to the region. For instance, one of us with no regional ties was told they could not conduct a research project on infectious disease in the West Bank without violating the terms of the boycott. Another, who happens to be Jewish but has no ties to the region, lamented that in their academic home, any effort to reflect critically on the proposal for an academic boycott was immediately – and wrongly – interpreted as blanket support for occupation and the systematic violation of Palestinians’ human rights. In short, to claim that an academic boycott would solely target institutions, not individuals, is disingenuous at best. (See why the junior anthropologists among us are advancing this statement anonymously?)


  1. The very idea of academic boycott is tearing our field apart. Revolutionary movements typically aim to build solidarity for a liberatory agenda by recruiting from the broadest potential base of supporters. In some respects, the BDS movement has done just this. It has broken the silence and catalyzed a crucial conversation about catastrophe and complicity. Yet the call for academic boycott has injected poison into the field and engendered cacophony, acrimony, and deep, often paralyzing anxiety. Many a friendship has been strained, or lost, or sacrificed these past few years. Once cordial professional relationships have soured or been severed. Many anthropologists have chosen, or felt pressured, to sign one petition, or another. As the call for academic boycott has reverberated through our community, possibilities for the kind of targeted political action that could actually make a difference have been sidelined by boycott proponents’ single-minded focus on one blunt, and ultimately ineffectual, tool.


This, then, is the second reason we are enraged. We are committed to advancing this extraordinarily important conversation, but we are enraged by the impact this narrow-minded proposal is having on our discipline and our intellectual community. The proposal has flattened history and complexity into a false binary: support an academic boycott and stand on what some are speciously calling “the right side of history,” or oppose boycott and reveal yourself to be morally bankrupt. What kind of reasoning is this? What kind of anthropology is this?

In the spirit of solidarity with Palestinians, in the spirit of robust citizenship in our own countries, and in the spirit of anthropology, we invite you to join us on the two-fold path outlined here. Don’t just boycott colleagues for show, or as a band-aid for your conscience, especially when the very colleagues we would boycott are eager to join us and stand together in common cause. Instead, let’s get up and do something we can all agree on: Let’s join together in demanding that the U.S. government cut the purse-strings. Rather than attacking the sacred value of academic freedom, let’s exert the sort of political and financial pressure that will leave Israel’s increasingly paranoid, obstinate, and short-sighted leaders no choice but to take the step we all agree is vital: end the occupation.


      1. Anonymous, Assistant Professor, public university
      2. Anonymous, Assistant Professor, public university
      3. Anonymous, Assistant Professor, public university
      4. Anonymous, Assistant Professor, public university
      5. Anonymous, Doctoral Student, public university
      6. Anonymous, Assistant Professor, private university
      7. Anonymous, Assistant Professor, private university
      8. Anonymous, Assistant Professor, private university
      9. Anonymous, Associate Professor, private liberal arts college
      10. Jennifer S. Hirsch, Professor and Deputy Chair for Doctoral Studies, Department of Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia University
      11. Erin Finley
      12. Sue E. Estroff, Professor, Department of Social Medicine, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
      13. Peter J. Brown, Professor of Anthropology and Global Health, Emory University
      14. Gillian Feeley-Harnik, Professor Emerita of Anthropology, University of Michigan
      15. Mark Nichter, Regents Professor, School of Anthropology, University of Arizona


If you would like to add your name to a public list of signatories, send an email to

10 replies on “When It’s Time to Vote, Don’t Boycott Academics – Cut the Purse-strings”

Thank you for this powerful and well-reasoned statement and plea. Let us hope it is In time and has a wide reach.

Great statement that encapsulates so much of my internal dialogue. Thanks!

It’s a disgrace to the academic profession that faculty members so ignorant of the reality of the genocidal Palestinian Arab war on the only democratic state in the Middle East, which also happens to be the only Jewish state in the world, are so vocal in spreading their ignorant and hateful message.

If you are, as you say, “enraged” by the occupation of the West Bank, please, please persuade the Palestinians to accept the two state offer made by Israel in 2000 and 2008 and that they could have anytime. In the meantime, try to console yourselves by considering that most of the Arab population of the West Bank, in “Area A,” has lived under its own Palestinian government (corrupt and oppressive as it is) for a long time now. But you are right to want to argue the case on its merits and to give up the blackmail/boycott tactic.

[…] “When It’s Time to Vote, Don’t Boycott Academics – Cut the Purse-strings” raises important questions about the power of economic divestment in the struggle for Palestinian rights. In so doing, however, it presents us with not one, but two false choices. First, it tells us to pursue economic divestment instead of academic boycott. Why is this an either/or, when the two are mutually reinforcing parts of a common struggle? And why assume we are not also advocating economic divestment in other arenas in which we work? Second, it presents the AAA with a meaningless choice between an action that is within its power as an academic association (academic boycott) and one that isn’t (ending US aid to Israel). […]

Like many of the writers of this letter, I am also a junior, untenured anthropologist, and I also feel that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is immoral, illegal, and unjust. But I cannot understand how the authors of the letter can argue that because anthropologists should be advocating for a U.S. government economic divestment, then they should not support a AAA academic boycott. The fact is that many anthropologists have long advocated for economic divestment from Israel, so this call to do so now as if it is a new strategy reads to me as intellectually dishonest. Equally so is the presentation of the academic boycott vote as divisive to the discipline and damaging to individuals. The fact is that the AAA’s boycott resolution explicitly allows for individual members of the AAA to make their own personal decisions about what actions to take. Those who may have taken the actions cited in this letter (refusing to review manuscripts or write letters of recommendation for anthropologists at Israeli universities) do so based not on the content of the AAA boycott resolution but based on their own interpretations and commitments to broader BDS movements. The AAA boycott resolution did not cause these actions, and the outcome of the AAA boycott vote will not change the future boycott-motivated actions of those who have already personally committed to BDS. I write today anonymously not because I fear the judgment of my fellow anthropologists and interdisciplinary colleagues who may disagree with me. On the contrary, I have had many of these difficult but respectful conversations. Rather, I write anonymously because adding one’s name to the public record of those who support BDS opens one to targeting by non-academic groups and individuals, and to potential discrimination by university administrators who appear increasingly hostile to the principles of faculty governance.

I’m curious about what all those people who are critical of Israel think that tiny, embattled democracy can do, given that it already has several times offered to give the Palestinian Arabs virtually all the disputed territory (and in 2008 the equivalent of all the territory, even though Israel’s legal, moral and historical right to that territory surpasses that of the Palestinian Arabs) in which they could set up their own state, that it has agreed to every reasonable peace proposal ever made and t’s been attacked every time it has withdrawn from territory without a peace agreement.

The other side of the coin is do those people have any expectations of the Palestinian Arabs, who have rejected every proposal and have now said they will never again negotiate directly with Israel? (Aside: how is it possible to reach a peace agreement with them if they refuse to negotiate?) Do those people believe the Palestinians have no responsibility and need to be treated as spoiled children?

I sometimes wonder how those people who feel so compelled to criticize Israel don’t seem to have noticed that not only have the Palestinian Arabs happily murdered as many Israeli civilians as they can over many years, but have also repeatedly rejected Israeli offers giving them their own state in virtually all the disputed territories. A tad of criticism of the party responsible for the conflict and for its continuation would be appropriate, rather than only criticizing the victim.

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