This post is the first part in a three-part series, which will be posted over the remainder of the week.

If Israel is a contentious topic of conversation in mainstream and alternative news media, in everyday exchanges at the grocery store or the dinner table, it comes with at least as much vitriol when discussed in academia. Recent calls by members of professional associations such as the American Studies Association (ASA), the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the Modern Language Association (MLA), and the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to adopt resolutions boycotting Israeli academia attest to this. As someone whose work focuses on what can be learned from an analysis of contemporary Israel and of Zionism, I find the way in which the debates about the calls for an academic boycott are framed — by both pro- and anti-boycott sides — to shut down possibilities for thinking and for politics more broadly. As an anthropologist within this context, I focus in what follows on the recent calls to boycott Israel by members of the AAA.

There are currently two petitions circulating online regarding the call for anthropologists to boycott Israel and to support a resolution for the AAA to do so as an association. One petition is for those in favor, the other is for those against. With over 1,000 signatures on the former, almost three times as many anthropologists have signed in favor than have signed against. Many of the former include well-known senior scholars based at a wide array of different institutions, including some that are home to the most prestigious anthropology departments in the country.

Despite the hostility that many of those who criticize Israel have faced at different institutional levels, the numbers and names on these petitions signal a significant shift in the political waters of U.S. academia on the topic of Israel. At the same time, this shift seems to have led to a public discourse in which anything that is said is subsumed into one or the other of two increasingly entrenched and simplistic positions of either pro- or anti-boycott, with the moralizing discourse of one camp pitted against the moralizing discourse of the other. This is not, of course, to suggest that some of the signatories on both petitions do not have critiques of the specific wording of the petitions, but rather to characterize the public framing of the debate. Perhaps this “you’re either with us or against us” signature-based divide would be less troubling if these discourses engaged the specificity of Israeli and Palestinian contexts and their histories, as well as scholarship about the ethics, method, and the politics of anthropology itself. But they don’t.

Neither of the petitions holds the United States or Europe historically accountable for the political problems that Palestinians and Israelis confront. Neither of them addresses the political questions posed by Jewish, Muslim, or postcolonial difference generally in the context of Western liberal democracy. Nor do they acknowledge the historical relations between Israel, the United States, and Europe; between Arab countries and Palestinians; or between the United States and the so-called Middle East.

There is also no reference to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), failed or inadequate political initiatives such as the Oslo Accords, the Saudi Plan, or the ongoing weekly joint Palestinian and Israeli demonstrations in the Occupied West Bank and the intensification of Israeli military violence against them. And although the pro-boycott petition calls for people to abide by UN Resolution 194 (arguing for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions until Palestinian refugees are allowed to return to their homes), there is no acknowledgement that this Resolution was made in 1948 and does not address the difficult question of how to respond to the descendants of the refugee population that it originally addressed. There is no reference to the Balfour Declaration or to U.S., French, and British rule and military interventions in the region, including in the places today demarcated as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. Nor, indeed, is there any acknowledgement of the political connections between this regional history and the refugee crises with which Europe and the United States are confronted today and for which they are largely responsible.

To hold the U.S. and Europe accountable for this history would be to consider the implications of the fact that contemporary asylum seekers, along with Palestinian refugee camps, are testament to the currency of Hannah Arendt’s suggestion more than half a century ago that the stateless are “the most symptomatic people of the time.” It would seem that today, no less than then, they are a symptom of the inadequacy of Europe’s modern state form, and arguably, also of the concept of the human on which it is based. [1]

In what follows, I address the anthropology boycott petitions against the backdrop of this history. My discussion is divided into three parts. In this first post, I consider the framework of the petitions themselves; in the next, the wider discourse within which they are addressed, with a focus on anthropology; and finally, I will situate these discussions in terms of the so-called “Jewish question.”

The Framework of the Petitions

The beginning of the anthropologists’ pro-boycott petition’s statement declares first that “the world’s governments and mainstream media do not hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law,” and then that “as a community of scholars who study problems of power, oppression, and cultural hegemony, we have a moral responsibility to speak out and demand accountability from Israel and our own governments.”

The statement then continues:

Acting in solidarity with Palestinian civil society continues a disciplinary tradition of support for anticolonial and human rights struggles, itself an important departure from anthropology’s historical complicity with colonialism. As laid out in the American Anthropological Association (AAA)’s 1999 Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights, ‘Anthropology is 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 AAA has an ethical responsibility to protest and oppose such deprivation.’

The framework of the petition rests here on two questionable assumptions.

First, why should anyone, and especially those who “study problems of power, oppression, and cultural hegemony” expect from and even call upon governments and mainstream media to “hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law,” given that these same entities do not hold themselves accountable for European or U.S. violations of international law, and that it was “the world’s governments” who acted — in multiple ways — to establish Israel as a “Jewish liberal democracy” in the aftermath of WWII? Why the appeal, rhetorically, ideologically, and practically, to exactly those who are responsible for Israel’s establishment, to boycott Israel until it models them more closely? What would such modeling mean? Presumably, those calling for a boycott do not intend to call for a more effective erasure of the foundational violence through which claims to liberal democracy are sustained. And what to make of this appeal to “the U.S. and the world’s media” to hold Israel accountable when the Israeli media are frequently much more vocal in demanding accountability for Israel’s violations of international law than the media in the U.S?

Second, why are anthropologists assuming that “anticolonial struggles” should be waged in terms of “human rights” and the “protection of the right of people and peoples everywhere to the full realization of their humanity”? If those whose profession is based on the study of humans tie such study to a specific political project, according to what understanding of the human is such a project called for in the name of “human rights” and “the realization of one’s full humanity”? These are not minor questions, especially in light of classic anthropology’s deeply philosophical and still-unanswered questions about what it means to be human and to represent difference, and more recent pathbreaking work that has returned to these questions in new ways (Battaglia 2006; Biehl 2005; Boellstorff 2010; Boyarin 2008; Kirksey and Helmreich 2010; Naisargi 2014; Ticktin 2011). No less significantly, these are exactly the questions that 20th century Europe’s political context provoked, predominantly in terms of the politics of Jewish difference and of European colonialism.

The anti-boycott petition emerged as a response to the pro-boycott petition. It begins with this declaration:

We, the undersigned anthropologists, oppose the recent call by some of our colleagues to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Today, there is a state of Israel but not yet a Palestinian state: this injustice should be rectified as soon as possible. The conflict between the two national movements continues to result in tragic suffering and loss of life. Just as we affirm this, we assert that anthropology is about communication, grasping multiple perspectives, and understanding diverse histories; it can contribute to unpacking standard slogans and negotiating compromises. Boycotts erode this ethos: anthropologists taking absolute positions will not help the Palestinian cause.

The statement goes on to state that its signatories

believe that Israel, as the occupier of Palestinian lands for decades now, has the greater responsibility to move toward a peaceful settlement and withdraw from these lands. And Palestinian leaders must be prepared to respond. But a boycott of anthropologists and other academics undermines the principles of academic freedom, and squelches the exchange of ideas.

The anti-boycott petition is thus based on two main objections.

First, the anti-boycott petition suggests that any boycott, by definition, goes against the ethos and principles of anthropology, and should for this reason be opposed. This argument does not address the pro-boycott points that the boycott is a boycott of institutions and not of individual scholars, and that because the boycott is a response to a situation in which Palestinians’ academic freedom is curtailed by Israel’s politics, there is no neutral initial context of academic freedom to begin with. Second, the petition suggests that an academic boycott is a tactical mistake. This remains to be seen. History has often shown the skeptics to be wrong. Zionism is no exception; at the turn of the century it was only a very small group of people who believed Theodor Herzl’s call for a Jewish homeland to be anything but an unrealistic dream.

These two objections — of immorality and tactical error — are elided into one when the statement suggests that the boycott is morally wrong because it will not help the Palestinian cause; boycotts erode the anthropological ethos of “communication, grasping multiple perspectives, and understanding diverse histories.” While this may well be an “anthropological ethos,” the framework of the statement suggests such an “ethos” is necessarily more “moral” and politically efficacious than a boycott. In other words, the anti-boycott petition essentially uses a circular logic to suggest that anthropology rather than boycotting is a more effective political tactic for helping Palestinians in the face of Israeli oppression because it is more moral, and that it is more moral because it is more effective. There is no critique of the narrow objective of the call to boycott or how it is framed, and no consideration of the specificity of the history of Israel’s politics, let alone of whether political frameworks other than a two-state “solution” might be possible. Nor is there any acknowledgement that the work of anthropology and the work of pragmatic political goals may sometimes be at odds and not always be complementary, at least in the short term.

NOTES

[1] It is worth noting that a growing body of scholarship has substantively engaged with questions about Jewish difference (and postcolonial difference more generally) in terms of the concept of the human and its relation to the animal (e.g. Ackerman-Lieberman and Zalashik 2013; Berkowitz 2012; Geller 1995; Raffles 2007).

WORKS CITED

Ackerman-Lieberman, Phillip and Rakefet Zalashik. 2013. A Jew’s Best Friend? The Image of the Dog Throughout Jewish History. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.

Battaglia, Debbora. 2006. E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces. Durham, Duke University Press.

Berkowitz, Beth A. 2012. Defining Jewish Difference: From Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Biehl, João. 2006. Vita Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment. Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press.

Boellstorff, Tom. 2015 [2008]. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Boyarin, Jonathan. 2008. Jewishness and the Human Dimension. New York, Fordham University Press.

Geller, Jay. 1995. “The conventional Lies and Paradoxes of Jewish Assimilation: Max Nordau’s Pre-Zionist Answer to the Jewish Question.” Jewish Social Studies, New Series, 1(3): 129-160.

Kirksey, Eben S. and Stefan Helmreich. 2010. “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography. Cultural Anthropology 25(4): 545-576.

Naisargi, Dave. 2014. “Witness: Humans, Animals, and the Politics of Becoming. Cultural Anthropology 29(3): 433-456.

Raffles, Hugh. 2007. “Jews, Lice, and History.” Public Culture 19(3).

Ticktin, Miriam. 2011. Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France. Oakland: University of California Press.

One thought on “On the Academic Calls to Boycott Israel, Part I

  1. Your long post doesn’t touch on the main point. In the light of what is happening in Syria and Sudan, just to give 2 examples, the whole trick of deflecting the discussion towards a boycott of Israeli institutions is completely immoral.

    Anyone who engages in the debate for a boycott of Israel is an instrument of the machine to preserve the power of genocidal tyrants by deflecting the interest of the international community. Whether knowingly or unthinkingly, the boycott movement is an accomplice of genocide. The latter is an even higher crime coming from academia, because academics have the responsibility to inquire and know better.

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