Anthropologists and Israel

At the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting, momentum builds in favor of a boycott of Israeli universities.

December 5, 2014

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Do anthropologists have a professional obligation to take a stand in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? What would the implications be if the American Anthropological Association were to endorse the growing movement to boycott Israeli universities?

Those questions were at the heart of several panels Thursday at the AAA’s annual meeting, where the subject of academic boycotts is taking center stage. More than 1,000 anthropologists have signed a statement supporting the boycott of Israeli institutions – as of Thursday evening, 887 had signed with their names, while another 145 had signed anonymously. The AAA has appointed a task force to advise its executive board on “the nature and extent to which AAA might contribute – as an association -- to addressing the issues that the Israel/Palestine conflict raises.” AAA’s commitment to create spaces for a “mutually respectful exchange” on the topic comes in the wake of pro-boycott resolutions or statements on the part of several other American scholarly groups, including the American Studies Association, whose pro-boycott vote last December was condemned by more than 200 U.S. university presidents as violating values of academic freedom and free exchange.

Advocates of the movement to boycott Israeli universities see it as a way that foreign academics can stand in solidarity with Palestinians and put moral pressure on Israel's government to change its policies. At the AAA conference on Thursday, panels featuring pro-boycott perspectives drew large crowds while the single anti-boycott panel – mostly featuring non-anthropologists – was sparsely attended. Some of the sharper pro-boycott statements received rounds of applause – as did a question in the anti-boycott session impugning the motives of a speaker who represented the Israel on Campus Coalition – leaving little doubt as to where the general sympathy in the room seemed to lie.

Some of the themes discussed throughout the day will be familiar to those who have followed the earlier debates about academic boycotts. Proponents of academic boycotts emphasized the distinction between boycotting Israeli institutions, which they endorse, versus boycotting Israeli individuals, which they don’t (a distinction boycott critics regularly dismiss as specious, as they argue it is the individuals who work for Israeli institutions who will be hurt). They discussed the restrictions on mobility faced by Palestinian students and scholars living outside the pre-1967 borders – as well as by foreign faculty seeking to enter the West Bank through Israel – and the effect of those limitations on Palestinians’ academic opportunities. They cited instances of intimidation and retaliation against pro-Palestinian students and scholars in the United States – frequently invoking the case of Steven Salaita, whose strongly worded tweets condemning Israeli military actions in Gaza last summer cost him a job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – and described a sense that discourse critical of Israel has heretofore been silenced in American academe.

This latter line of argument led Ilan Troen, a professor of Israel and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University who opposes the boycott, to stand up and criticize panelists for suggesting that a “cabal of people, with great power and money” are “capable of imposing their will on the minds, thoughts, ideas of the vast majority of Americans.” Panelists disputed Troen’s characterization of their views, responding that they were discussing a systematic pattern of “compulsory Zionism” in the academy as opposed to the activities of a small cabal of people. The last word on the question (and of that session) went to Nadia Abu El-Haj, of Columbia University and Barnard College, who said she detected within Troen’s statement “an implicit charge [against us] of anti-Semitism, and I think you should at least own it.”

That was one of the tenser moments of the day, but over all the tone of sessions in the morning and afternoon was relatively tempered considering the contentiousness of the topic. In addition to the panels, a members’ forum on Thursday, closed to the press, involved about 100 participants in facilitated roundtable discussions framed around the question, "What issues related to Israel/Palestine are relevant to us as anthropologists, as members of a scholarly association, and to the AAA as an association of anthropologists?"

Monica Heller, the president of AAA and a professor at the University of Toronto, described the topic as one that is relevant to the field. Large numbers of anthropologists work in the Middle East. And even for those who don't, she continued, many of the themes that are important to anthropologists in general -- themes like nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, trauma and memory -- are resonant in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In an afternoon panel, Jessica Winegar, of Northwestern University, drew on interviews that she and Lara Deeb have conducted with more than 100 anthropologists who specialize in the Middle East. They found that virtually all anthropologists who work in the Palestinian territories support the boycott, having "come to this decision through years of research and a realization that supporting the boycott is part of their ethical practice as anthropologists," Winegar said.

In a morning panel, Anne Meneley, of Trent University, said it was her sources in the Palestinian olive oil industry – her subject of research – who convinced her of the need for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel. She said that the olive oil professionals she worked with were "strong supporters of the BDS movement as a nonviolent strategy of resistance and means of opening up a wider conversation, and they asked me to support this movement. As an engaged anthropologist, I feel obliged to support them.”

But one member of the audience in that morning session asked whether it is wise for anthropologists as a collective body to align themselves with one faction in a longstanding conflict. That audience member worried aloud about the possibility of “fratricidal” conflict within the association.

AAA has taken stands on political issues before, but Harvey Goldberg, the president of the Israeli Anthropological Association and a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, described the act of boycotting an entire country’s institutions as extraordinary. Goldberg is one of about 400 anthropologists who have signed a statement opposing the boycott (as of Thursday, 386 had signed with their names, and 16 anonymously)

“We think that’s a destructive act,” Goldberg said in an interview, explaining that he thinks a boycott will not only be destructive for Israeli anthropologists but also divisive for the association and individual anthropology departments.

Goldberg said he sees a generational difference, with younger scholars being more willing to use the discipline of anthropology as a vehicle through which to further political goals -- to, as he paraphrased it, contribute to society or to humanity. “The fact is that the basic assumption of anthropology is that society and/or humanity is divided into many, many groups. Those groups are different if not frequently in conflict. So if anthropologists start saying 'I’m going to take the cause of group X or group Y,' it’s a recipe for anthropology to start just being an arm of the political struggles that exist rather than being some sort of force that is somehow moderated -- which I don't think necessarily means indifference or lack of caring. It’s just a kind of a move. It’s a mechanism which enables people to step back and get a broader perspective.”

At this point, to be clear, there is no pro-boycott resolution under consideration by the AAA as a whole, though a resolution opposing the boycott is on the agenda for today’s business meeting. Pro-boycott anthropologists are mobilizing to try to defeat that resolution but they do not plan to introduce an 11th-hour motion of their own this year. Lisa Rofel, one of the spokespeople for the "Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions" statement, said Thursday there were lots of honest questions raised at the sessions about what exactly an AAA-endorsed boycott would mean (among the questions posed on Thursday were whether academics at Israeli universities could use institutional funds to travel to AAA conferences and whether the association would provide journals with its imprint to Israeli universities).

“It’s really clear that we need time for more education,” said Rofel, of the University of California at Santa Cruz. She added that she expects advocates will bring a pro-boycott resolution to the AAA business meeting floor next year. 




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Elizabeth Redden

Elizabeth Redden, Senior Reporter, covers general higher education topics, religion and higher education, and international higher education for Inside Higher Ed. She has more than a decade of experience as an education journalist. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

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