Anthropology Saves Itself

Sanity has broken out yet again, this time at the American Anthropology Association (AAA) where a member ballot rejected BDS by a narrow margin of 2,423 to 2,384 (out of a 9,359 total membership).

Given the child’s-play level of effort needed to figure out the boycotter’s talking points (“Narrowest of defeats!” “Pressure put on the organization!!” “We’ll be back!!!!!,” blah, blah, blah), I prefer to spend time looking at what this highly surprising result might mean for the trajectory of BDS within academic associations.

Numbers are usually the best place to start when trying to determine what’s real vs. blather.  As noted above, 2,423 members (out of 9,359 or 25.9% of the membership) voted “No” to a boycott of Israeli academics (although probably just the Jewish ones) while 2,384 (or 25.5%) voted “Yes.”  But another set of numbers worth keeping in mind includes the 1,040 attendees at last year’s AAA national conference who voted to put an academic boycott to a member vote in the first place vs. the 136 who opposed the move.

Within other membership organizations (notably food coops), I’ve encountered people who thought that free speech requires a boycott vote go forward, even if they plan to vote against it.  But assuming such eccentric voters are rare, I would guess that the 1000 or so members who put the boycott on the ballot are hard-core BDSers indifferent to the impact an academic boycott might have on the organization or the field, while the rest of those who voted “Yes” were responding to the fake human-rights vocabulary in which the boycott was pitched, without giving much thought to consequence.

Given the 10:1 pro-BDS blowout at the AAA conference, I’m also guessing that most of the 25% of the membership who voted to give an academic boycott the heave ho do not have Zionist hearts beating in their chests.  This would mean that, for the bulk of them, concerns over what voting in an academic boycott could do to the field of anthropology (and academic freedom itself) were top of mind.

Let’s also not forget that nearly half the membership decided to not vote at all, reflecting either indifference, inflated (or at least inaccurate) membership statistics, or the fact that some people might not even know they are members of the association.

If this recitation of stats hasn’t driven you to your favorite porn site yet, these numbers are important since the boycott votes within academic organizations are predicated on a “majority of a minority” strategy that tries to portray a sliver of a vote as a “landslide victory” (a la the American Studies Association whose boycott was passed by a measly 16% of the membership).  So what might a failure of this strategy at AAA mean, given that it took place in decidedly BDS-friendly territory?

To begin with, it means a majority of a minority can reject a boycott as easily as it can pass one.  As the numbers listed above attest, every vote does make a difference, and if enough people can be rallied who understand that one set of academics singling out another for exclusion from the community of scholarship is poison (even if they feel no love for the Jewish state), that’s good enough to ensure defeat for the forces of BDS.

This analysis also demonstrates the value of organizing opposition, even in the face of likely defeat.  Opponents of the AAA motion were never given much of a chance, given the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to the original boycott call, coupled with their meager numbers within the organization.  But by rallying help from other academic groups (notably Scholars for Peace in the Middle East), the “No” side was able to get its message out, despite the usual blockade of balanced information coming from the top of the AAA hierarchy.

Speaking of which, the association’s leadership decided it had a mandate to go ahead with several condemnations of the Jewish state that were ready to go, regardless of how the vote went.  And if you needed any further proof of the corruption that is at the heart of any BDS project, read up on how little these leaders have had to say during a week when they condemned Israel for its security measures while a member of their profession was gunned down by someone who managed to evade the security measures that were in place.

It’s too early to say if this defeat spells an end to academic boycott fad that has gripped the BDS “movement” since the ASA went into the boycott business several years ago.  Since then, other tiny associations have also let the BDS virus enter their bloodstream, even as ASA refuses to acknowledge that the boycott they so proudly trumpet – one which they are too scared to actually implement – has been rejected by the field (not to mention the academic community as a whole).

As I’ve said too many times to mention, Israel – and Israeli academics – will easily survive the slings and arrows of dying churches or increasingly irrelevant academic groups sacrificing everything they stand for to become a bullet point on Omar Barghouti’s next slide presentation.  For unlike these decrepit husks of once-proud institutions, the Jewish state still stands for and believes in something.

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