A resolution alleging that Israel threatened academic freedom in, and interfered with freedom of travel to and from Palestinian universities on the West Bank and Gaza was placed on the agenda of the Business Meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA). In advance of the meeting that was held on January 9, 2016 in Atlanta, I requested that the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC offer a response. As there was an accusation, I thought it important that AHA members hear the case for the defense. On December 18, 2015, diplomats in Washington Embassy sent the following reply. With their permission, I am pleased to make it available to readers of The Times of Israel.
Member Writings and Interviews
Four anthropology professors stood at the entrance of the ballroom at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver last November, where members of the American Anthropological Association would soon vote to boycott Israeli academic institutions, organized by the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement (BDS).
Each professor held up one of a series of enlarged maps that purported to show a visual history of the shrinking Palestinian lands since the beginning of the British Mandate in 1918. The maps, however, had erased a key historical fact, namely that in 1922 the British administratively severed 75 percent of Mandatory Palestine and ultimately transformed it into the country of Jordan, whose population, by the most conservative estimates, is at least fifty percent Palestinian. Indeed, Jordan is the only country in the world that has a Palestinian queen. That part of “shrinking Palestine” was missing from the maps.
Last week I drove out to Rochester, NY to give a talk titled ‘Fighting the Hate: When Does Anti-Israel Become Anti-Semitic?’.
Sponsored by ROC4Israel, a new pro-Israel organization that we featured in a post back in October, my lecture centered on how legitimate criticism of Israel can be distinguished from criticism that crosses the line into anti-Semitic hate speech.
The international campaign to delegitimate the state of Israel to spread distortions about its policies and to support boycotts, divestment and sanctions against it is going to fail. A campaign that appeared to be part of an unstoppable wave possessed of global momentum and the conviction that history, morality and, yes, sheer numbers, were on its side suffered its second and decisive defeat in two years at the hands of historians assembled at the Business Meetings of the American Historical Association in New York in 2015 and this past weekend in Atlanta. These victories against the BDS and BDS like resolutions are themselves important events. It was in New York and even more so in Atlanta that the distortions that have accompanied this propaganda blitz ran up against a wall of careful attention to fact and evidence on the part of professional historians. The flaming rhetoric about Zionism as colonialism and racism, and assertions about seeming routine violations of human rights that had proven so successful since the 1970s in producing lopsided United Nations General Assembly resolutions denouncing Israel or that made their way through the lower standards of evidence in other academic professional organizations met with failure when confronted with the skeptical gaze of historians trained to weigh evidence with care.
In this comprehensive essay, Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and co-editor of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, responds to a report by members of the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) visit to Palestine in June 2016, which details an assault on Israel’s legitimacy, policies, and right to exist, without accepting any responsibility to distribute contrary views or evidence. Nelson suggests that rather than indulging the BDS movement in its relentless hostility toward and effort to isolate Israel and Israelis, MLA members should be encouraged to promote initiatives to improve the situation for Israelis and Palestinians .
INTRODUCTION AND EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
In December 2016, as part of the lead up to the following month’s expected MLA Delegate Assembly vote on a resolution to endorse the boycott of Israeli universities, six MLA members issued ‘A Report on MLA Members’ Visit to Palestine, June 2016’, a document that merits a detailed response since its broad implications will be of concern to those both within and outside the academic community. Their report addresses numerous subjects of general interest, among them the status of academic freedom in the West Bank, a subject covered in my December 2016 report in the academic journal Telos, as well as the experience of Arab Israeli citizens who study in Israel itself. The Telos essay, ‘Academic Freedom in Palestinian Universities,’ which could be consulted in tandem with the present paper, demonstrates that the major threat to academic freedom in the West Bank is not Israel but rather actions by Palestinian political and paramilitary groups, including Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, along with the Palestinian Authority (PA) itself. These two documents, which respond to the boycott initiative in the MLA, correspond roughly to the appropriate geographical and political divisions; the Telos essay concentrates on the West Bank and Gaza, whereas this essay concentrates on Israel ‘proper’. 
In an October 2015 essay on BDS in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, distinguished historian and UCLA chair of Jewish Studies David N. Myers offered that not all Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) supporters are anti-Semitic, but some indeed are.
He found the single-minded focus by BDS on Israel in a world filled with numerous radical aggressions against human rights deeply troubling. ISIS? Syria? Russia? He also argued it’s not enough to fight BDS but opponents of BDS must also fight the ongoing Israeli occupation. “We need a new campaign,” he wrote, “ that makes clear that we stand with Israel and its right to exist, but can no longer tolerate the occupation and settlement-building.”
What is being described as an overwhelming vote for the boycott of Israel in the American Anthropological Association (AAA) mischaracterizes the scope of support for boycotts in the field and downplays the serious anthropology-based alternative presented at the conference to promote justice for Palestinians and Israelis, as well as academic freedom for Palestinian academics.
The passage of a resolution to boycott Israeli academia at the AAA’s business meeting two weeks ago represented the views of a well-organized and loud minority of anthropologists — less than 20 percent of the AAA’s membership was present. This group was focused on creating a spectacle rather than a scholarly forum one would expect at an academic conference, with BDS movement activists wearing black t-shirts declaring themselves “Another Jew Against Apartheid” and similar slogans.
There is a clear line between non-violent protest and planned disruption of university academic events.
At a recent Israel Institute seminar at the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC) members purposefully crossed that line. They invaded the event, refusing either to sit and listen or to leave, confronted audience members, and shouted slogans, “Free Palestine,” and “Long Live the Intifada.” They blocked the lecturer to deliver their own view of the talk before it began and also demeaned the speaker. They justified their action as an “intervention.” Now, on the basis of a doctored video of the event, these same students are cynically pressing charges against the faculty member, Ami Pedahzur, head of the Israel Institute, for responding to their provocation.
Ahmed Kanna claims that one of the reasons for boycotting Israeli universities is that these universities have strongly tended to support the occupation, and that this fact has been amply demonstrated by boycott supporters. Interestingly enough, the Task Force itself did not find this to be the case, and I hope that most of my anthropological colleagues will agree that the mere repetition by boycott supporters of the same narrative slogans hardly constitutes a demonstration of anything other than a commitment to that narrative.
BDS supporters continually use the term “complicity” to describe Israeli support of the occupation. The term complicity appears eight times in the academic boycott guidelines created by the Palestinian BDS National Committee, which serve as the foundational charter of the BDS movement. In thinking about the upcoming vote, it may be helpful to examine the “emics” of complicity and how charges of complicity function as a component of BDS rhetorical strategies. The BDS boycott guidelines identify three distinct human and organization levels and five separate modes of action and thought, which combined together, create the 15 forms of culpable thought and action. These levels are 1) individual complicity, 2) Israeli institutional complicity, and 3) Non-Israeli institutional complicity. The modes of action are 1) Silence 2) Justification, 3) Whitewashing 4) Diversion, and 5) Direct Collaboration. These fifteen BDS-defined forms of complicity make up the universe of transgressive thought and action with regard to conflict in Israel and Palestine. Individual complicity falls under BDS’s so-called “common sense” boycott standards, which target persons, while institutional complicity falls under the institutional guidelines.
The National Women’s Studies Association, at their annual conference beginning Nov. 14, will hear arguments for and against their proposed resolution, to support an economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel, in support of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement.
Dr. Janet Freedman, a longtime member of the NWSA as well as a member of the HBI’s Academic Advisory Board and a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, prepared these remarks in opposition.