Why Anthropologists Should Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions

[This is an updated version of an essay originally written for the 2014-2016 boycott campaign]

by Ilana Feldman and Lisa Rofel


In its best moments, Anthropology is a discipline dedicated to social justice. It is a discipline that has historically stood up for marginalized peoples around the world. Anthropologists have not always lived up to these best ideals, of course, and the history of our discipline includes cooperation with colonial and imperial regimes and with war machines. Yet there have always been anthropologists who have criticized these relationships. And as a collectivity, we have generally looked back upon these moments with regret. The AAA has passed resolutions condemning academic research that lends support to the oppression of indigenous and subaltern cultural groups, as well as numerous motions that support human rights in a variety of communities and contexts.

Anthropologists are once again being asked to take a stance in support of the international, national and human rights of an indigenous group, in this case Palestinians. Palestinians have asked for our solidarity in support of their efforts to end the 56-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to gain equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and to resolve the 75-year Palestinian refugee condition, ongoing since the displacement and dispossession of the majority of the Palestinian population in 1948. Palestinians have asked the international community to join in non-violent struggle against these violations, and to engage in campaigns of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel [bdsmovement.net].

There are a number of things the AAA, and individual anthropologists, can do to participate in this effort. We can, and should, condemn widespread Israeli violations of Palestinian academic freedom, the ongoing seizure of Palestinian land, destruction of archeological sites, and systematic and pervasive threats to Palestinian community and culture. We can, and should, condemn Israeli practices that deny international scholars and students access to research and teaching opportunities in Palestine, both isolating Palestinians and undermining scholarship. And we can, and should, support a boycott of complicit Israeli institutions as part of the international effort to apply pressure on Israel to end the occupation.

Israel’s academic institutions are directly and materially involved in the occupation. Virtually all Israeli universities are involved in defense-related research with the Ministry of Defense. Ben Gurion University, Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, and Haifa University have all made explicit statements of support for Israeli assaults on Gaza, including providing financial benefits to soldiers. Universities have been part of the colonization of Palestinian territory: part of Hebrew University’s campus is built on confiscated Palestinian land; Ariel University, the most recently accredited Israeli university, is located in a West Bank settlement.

The Israeli government also makes it extremely difficult for Palestinian scholars to travel abroad (since it holds the power to issue travel permits), for foreign scholars to teach in Palestinian universities, and for international students to study in Palestinian universities. Racheting up these restrictions, Israel recently issued new regulations which impose draconian limits on the ability of Palestinian universities to bring international faculty, academic researchers, and students to their campuses. This is a blatant violation of academic freedom principles. (See the call to action by Insaniyyat, the Society of Palestinian Anthropologists, and objections to the restrictions by the Israeli human rights organization, HaMoked.)  

Palestinian citizens of Israel face widespread discrimination. Their second-class status was further codified in Israeli law with the 2018 enactment of the Jewish Nation-State Basic Law which constitutionally enshrined Jewish supremacy. Israeli academic institutions do not provide protections for academic freedom, campus speech in support of Palestinian human and political rights, nor for the freedom of association of Palestinian students on their campuses. Some 20% of Israeli citizens are Palestinian, yet they make up only a tiny percentage of university faculty; these scholars face barriers to promotion, especially if they are known as critics of the government. Palestinian students in Israeli universities have less access than their Jewish counterparts to scholarships and campus housing, as a result of privileges offered to those who serve in the military. Their freedom of political and cultural expression is regularly curtailed. Israeli Jewish faculty members openly critical of state policies are also marginalized and threatened.

As an occupying power, Israel has responsibility to protect the lives and rights of Palestinians under occupation. Instead, it has pursued a vigorous policy of settlement building in Palestinian territory, expanded significantly after the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords that many hoped would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It has appropriated Palestinian water resources and destroyed agricultural land. It has progressively limited Palestinian movement and denied Palestinians access to each other. In Gaza it has imposed a blockade that is designed to keep the population suspended on the edge of a humanitarian crisis, and has launched repeated assaults on Gaza, killing thousands of people, largely civilians.


In the face of this continued and intransigent occupation, an overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society organizations and unions, including the Palestinian Council for Higher Education (CHE) and the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE), have called for BDS, including an academic and cultural boycott. This boycott is of institutions, not individuals. It asks scholars not to accept invitations to give lectures, be visiting faculty, or attend conferences convened or co-sponsored by Israeli universities. For anthropologists, this would mean they can do field research in Israel, but not formally under the aegis of an Israeli institution. Anthropologists can continue collaborative relationships with Israeli scholars, but again, not under the aegis of an Israeli institution. The boycott also asks scholars not to arrange institutional agreements between their home institution and Israeli academic institutions or research institutes or to publish in Israeli academic journals sponsored by an Israeli university.

The academic boycott targets institutions, not individuals and not ideas. As scholars and teachers, members of the AAA are naturally concerned with academic freedom and may worry that their participation in a boycott would contravene those commitments. It would not. Not only is the boycott a statement in support of Palestinian academic freedom – which is consistently violated by Israel – it does not undermine the academic freedom of Israeli scholars. Any Israeli scholar, whether Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, has the right to freely express their views and conduct their scholarship. The boycott does not deny Israeli scholars the right to attend conferences such as the annual AAA meetings, come to U.S. universities, or publish their work; it only requires that they not do so as representatives or ambassadors of their institutions. The academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions is not based on race, ethnicity, or citizenship. It is not a boycott of individuals.

If the AAA adopted a boycott resolution, it would impose requirements on the association, but not on individuals. In their professional engagements members of the AAA would be free, as in all matters, to follow their conscience. The AAA recommends ethical practices, but does not adjudicate these matters. Boycott would be no different. For the association, its commitment would likely be to refuse in its official capacity to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives of those institutions or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law. By supporting a boycott, members of the AAA would put the power of our collective voice behind our commitment to justice.

Members of the AAA might expect Israeli universities to be vocal in their condemnation of violations of Palestinian rights, including to academic freedom. They are not. In fact, not a single Israeli university has ever spoken out against or condemned the occupation. Nor has the Israeli Anthropological Association. No Israeli university has spoken out in support of Palestinians’ right to education and academic freedom. Neither has the Israeli Anthropological Association. Israeli scholars will certainly be inconvenienced by this boycott, but it is Palestinians who experience ongoing and dramatic deprivation of academic freedom at the hands of the Israeli government.

The US government provides enormous sums of money to Israel every year. US citizens are, therefore, not just witnesses to Israeli crimes, but complicit in them. For that reason an association such as the AAA – with American in its name, located in the US, and with a majority of its members US citizens – has particular responsibility to support the boycott. This support is an effective way to speak not only to the Israeli government, but to the U.S. government. It is a crucial way to open up public discourse and to indicate that the U.S. government needs to change its stance. It is about ending the silencing atmosphere in the U.S. academy about the Palestine/Israel conflict as well.

As employees in institutes of higher learning we have a particular interest in and responsibility to respond to the obstacles to the right to higher education that the Israeli state has created for Palestinians both inside Israel and in the occupied territories. As educators we have a responsibility to model forms of horizontal solidarity for our students, showing them that charity is not the only form of engagement they can have with the world. The AAA has committed itself to a vision of anthropology as a profession “committed to the promotion and protection of the right of people and peoples everywhere to the full realization of their humanity . . . .  When any culture or society denies or permits the denial of such opportunity to any of its own members or others, the American Anthropological Association has an ethical responsibility to protest and oppose such deprivation.” It is long past time for anthropologists to stand up for the Palestinian right to education, social justice, and freedom.