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Anti-Israel anthropologists defy logic

On the American Anthropological Association's upcoming vote on an academic boycott of Israel,

Nancy Banks Smith of The Guardian once described anthropology as “the science which tells us that people are the same the world over – except when they are different.”

The American Anthropological Association (AAA), meeting in Denver, will debate whether all academic institutions around the world are the same, except when they are Israeli. If a proposed resolution passes, Israeli universities will be the only academic institutions in the world boycotted by the 10,000-member association.

The AAA’s mission is “advancing knowledge and solving human problems.” Instead, it is deciding whether to boycott the colleges and universities of the Middle East’s only democracy.

There will be no statement about the destruction of schools, museums, and cultural artifacts in Syria, or the Turkish educational system’s discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. The association will maintain its silence on the continued expulsion of Baha’i students from Iranian schools. Only Israel’s schools of higher education, where Jews and Arabs study together, stand to merit AAA condemnation.

Anti-Israel resolutions in academia are part and parcel of the BDS (boycott, divestment sanctions) movement; the proposed AAA resolution breaks no new ground in its anti-Israel trope. Yet three omissions bear noting.

First, allegations of Israeli military strikes against Palestinian universities or restrictions on Palestinian movement appear in a vacuum, with not a word of explanation other than the alleged Israeli desire to implement occupation and ethnic cleansing. There is not a single mention of Hamas, the terrorist Palestinian group sworn to kill Israelis and destroy Israel.

The anthropologists voting on the resolution might find it at least slightly relevant that Hamas and other terrorists have fired more than 11,000 rockets into Israel since these same “occupying” Israelis withdrew completely from the Gaza Strip in 2005, and transferred authority for the territory to the Palestinian Authority. As the AAA debates this resolution in Denver, over 5 million Israelis will be under threat of rocket attacks, over a million of them having less than a minute to take themselves or a child to shelter.

The failure of the resolution to mention these facts is of course intended to prejudice Israel’s case, but it hurts the Palestinians far more. If they believe that one-sided resolutions from academics associations are more likely to bring about a Palestinian state than face to face negotiations with Israel, there is little hope for a two-state solution.

A second omission in the statement is any reference to Arab students at Israeli academic institutions. The reason, perhaps, is the good news there is to report. Despite considerable challenges, Israeli universities have seen significant gains in Arab enrollment. In 2015, 14.4 percent of bachelor’s degree students in Israel will be Arabs, up from 9.8 percent in 1999-2000. During that same period the percentage of Arab master’s degree students increased from 3.6 percent to 10.5 percent, and the percentage of Arab students who are women increased from 61.7 percent to 67.2 percent.

At the Technion, Israel’s version of MIT, the news is even more positive: 21 percent of students are Arab, up from 10 percent in 2000.

Israel, like every other nation, is not free of prejudice or discrimination, and Arab and Muslim university students have their share of valid complaints. Obviously, we in America have our share of such problems as well. Yet to boycott a sector of Israeli life that is showing quantifiable progress in the integration of minority groups defies coherent logic.

Finally, the resolution makes no distinction between Palestinians living in the territories and those who are Israeli citizens. This is not accidental. The proponents do not distinguish between Tel Aviv and a remote West Bank settlement because they are not interested in a two-state solution. They consider Israel itself an illegitimate entity that has no place in the community of nations.

Does the organization representing American anthropologists really want to boycott the only democracy in the Middle East, one that champions free expression, and the rights of women and gays? If that happens, it will be a sad day indeed for the AAA and the profession for which it speaks.

About the Author
Daniel Elbaum is the American Jewish Committee’s Chief Advocacy Officer.