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.

Uphill Battles – Anthropologists and Mennonites

It’s no secret that the most successful way to stop a community from being taken advantage of by the forces of BDS is for members of that community to organization against it.

As we have seen in places like food coops, where both members and leaders have been hesitant to hand the reputation of their institution over to a group of single-issue partisans, some solid organization by anti-boycott activists has quickly and effectively countered demands that boycotting Israel was the only possible moral choice.

And, even on those college campuses where BDS makes a lot of noise, keep in mind that struggling to get toothless student government resolutions passed is what BDS has been reduced to after nearly two decades of failing to get any actual divestment to take place.  So even if pro-Israel students aren’t as noisy as their anti-Israel counterparts, much of the success keeping BDS at bay goes to our side’s efforts over those same two decades.

But my heart goes out most to those dealing with the uphill struggle of trying to turn around an organization that seems hell-bent on joining the “BDS movement,” no matter what the cost.

One example of such fighters are the folks behind Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel/Palestine, a site that went up recently after the same Anthro-BDSers who tried and failed to get the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to join the long-discredited American Studies Association (ASA) academic boycott of Israeli scholars.

Given that such boycott efforts are driven by relentlessness, the return of the AAA boycott was inevitable.  And, like ASA, the boycott is being driven by people who are BDSers first, teachers and scholars second, who cannot be appealed to in the name of professionalism, scholarship or academic integrity.

This is why I feel for people like those within AAA who have begun to organize against such a boycott.

Being genuine scholars (vs. partisan poseurs), their instincts push them towards reasoned argument (like those found on the Anthropologists dialog site).  And since they have to organize other genuine scholars (many of whom are too busy with research and teaching to dedicate time and effort into preventing an academic association they may have little involvement with from doing stupid things), they will always lack the numbers of disciplined followers compared to the side willing to take over an organization just to hand it over to Omar Barghouti.

Another group of people I encountered recently trying to stop an institution from going over a cliff are the people who took on those within the Mennonite Church who have been pushing BDS for years.

It might seem strange that a church long associated with non-violent opposition to war of any kind might be flirting with participation in the propaganda component of the war against Israel.  But over the years it seems the seeds the religious wing of that propaganda war (such as Sabeel and Kairos) have planted have taken root within the Mennonite Church.  And, as we saw with the Presbyterians, the fact that church leaders are four-square in the BDS camp has made it very difficult for those fighting against a pro-BDS “consensus” driven from the top.

I recently discovered a thoughtful article published on a Mennonite news site in which a group of church members took on the unfair and lopsided approach Mennonites have taken to the Middle East conflict.  And, against my better judgement, I decided to make my once-a-year foray into online debate by joining the dialog triggered in the article’s comment section.

Actually, I had hoped that participating in this debate might trigger some high-quality interactions so lacking in most discussions of this subject.  After all, the Mennonites have a lot riding on their reputation, since the entirety of their moral authority rests on an unequivocal denunciation of war and violence.   Certainly, I thought, within such a group there would be someone who could eloquently square those principles with the fact that the church seemed to be throwing its weight behind one side in a political conflict (a side that has not only NOT renounced violence, but is in the midst of encouraging, executing and celebrating it).

To my great disappointment, however, all I encountered from BDS supporters were the same rhetorical tricks and psychological dodges one finds in most debate forums covering this subject.

First, there were claims that I was critiquing not a political position but a “consensus” within the church, implying that a controversial political decision driven by some must be treated as the received wisdom of all.

Then there were all the usual attempts to narrow debate, to the point where asking questions one would think would be central to a group like the Mennonites (such as the aforementioned one regarding how they square their dedication to non-violence with support for a violent political movement) were either ignored or dismissed as distractions from the only issue worth talking about (Israeli crimes against the Palestinians).

And then there is the power dynamic so central to Mennonite conceptions about themselves, specifically their claim to always support the weak over the strong.  Needless to say, for Mennonite supports of BDS the story of powerful Israelis vs. powerless Palestinians, is clear.  But when I mentioned that if what we see in the Middle East is actually the Arab-Israeli conflict (one which pits dozens of wealthy and powerful states and their allies against one small – albeit not helpless – Jewish state), I though at least one person would want to reflect on the possibility that the church might have thrown its lot in with Caesar.

Shockingly (but not surprisingly) the best BDS supporters could muster when trying to answer that question was denial, one interlocutor going so far as to claim there was “no evidence of an established coalition of Arab states intent on the destruction of Israel,” oblivious (or at least ready to turn a blind eye towards) a century of boycotts, invasions, military attacks, funding and execution of terror wars, and the turning of international bodies (such as the UN) into engines of propaganda (something the one Jewish nation is not capable reciprocating).

Other forms of denial were repeated elsewhere in the debate, in one case through an effort to narrow the Palestinian circle of guilt vis-à-vis the embrace of violence as much as possible (a generosity never afforded to the nation being attacked as an “Apartheid state”).  Thus, Palestinians stabbing elderly Israelis in Jerusalem were individual actors who in no way diminished the Palestinian movement (including its Sabeel and Kairos branches which have never lifted a finger to stop violence on their own side) receiving support for their “non-violent” struggle against oppression.

What seems so odd to me is that an organization truly committed to non-violence and a peaceful resolution to conflict has a perfectly simply and reasonable way to support the Palestinians (and even BDS) without corrupting their core principles: by embracing an anti-Israel position but insisting that no action (including BDS) would be taken until the party that could benefit from those actions ceases to engage in violence.

The hostile reaction to the mere mention of the Mennonites truly acting on their principles (rather than letting someone else leverage their reputation for propaganda purposes) reflects a sad state of affairs within the Mennonite church.

Even if church leaders get their fondest wish and see the Mennonites become official supporters of “BDS Global,” one of two results will occur.  The wider war against Israel (of which BDS is a part) will be successful and Israel will no longer be (with all the obvious results that entails), which will make the Mennonite Church party to genocide.  Alternatively, Israel will continue to thrive while the Mennonites Church will (like so many denominations) close its doors sometime this century with an asterisk next to their Wikipedia entry specifying that – at the end – non-violence was no longer their concern.