On Israel, Is Impartiality Possible?

As the American Anthropological Association begins voting on a resolution to boycott Israeli universities, boycott opponents allege bias in report commissioned by the association.

April 15, 2016

As the membership of the American Anthropological Association begins voting on whether the group should boycott Israeli universities, anthropologists who oppose the academic boycott have issued a document describing a report of an AAA task force on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as biased and “deeply flawed, both in its framing and in its execution.”

The report of the AAA Task Force on Engagement with Israel/Palestine, released in October, focuses on human rights and academic freedom issues affecting Palestinians, cataloging, as the report puts it, “the lengthy history of displacement, land loss, discrimination, restrictions on movement and free speech, and adverse health and welfare effects that Palestinians have experienced as a result of Israeli state policies and practices.” The task force report did not make a recommendation for or against the question of boycott, but did recommend that the anthropological association take some form of action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The AAA’s leadership has promoted the task force report as a resource for members deciding how to vote on a proposed resolution calling on the association to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Voting begins today. But members of Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel and Palestine, who oppose the boycott, argue that the task force report functions not as “an instrument of education” but rather “as the tool of a political program.”

In an approximately 40-page critique, ADIP puts forward an argument for the ways in which the task force report “consistently misrecognizes crucial data, decontextualizes the discussion, empties it of real historical validity and shapes it as a series of stereotypic and erroneous images.” The critique objects to the task force’s use of “settler colonialism” as its guiding interpretative framework, arguing that at the very least viewing Israel as a “settler-colonial” state is controversial and that other frames such as a “conflict of opposed nationalisms” or an “ethno-national conflict” could have been employed for conceptualizing the situation.

The critique argues that the use of a “settler-colonial” frame contributes to a pattern in which the task force report focuses on “biases, abuses, denials and prejudice presumably leveled in one direction only: by Israeli Jews against Palestinians …. The 'settler-colonial' frame encourages both extreme partiality and denial, leaving a one-dimensional view of a seemingly never-ending Israel-Palestine conflict.”

The ADIP critique argues that the task force report selectively cites data in service of such a unidirectional narrative, and seeks to illustrate this bias in its analysis of sections of the task force report that focus on Palestinian health outcomes and Palestinian access to higher education. “They are extremely selective in giving those facts which point the finger to Israel and what it’s done wrong without giving an overall context,” said Harvey E. Goldberg, who compiled the report. Goldberg is the president of the Israeli Anthropological Association and a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Ed Liebow, the executive director of AAA, disagreed with the characterization of the report as biased. “I think it’s important to understand that the task force spoke with more than 125 subject matter experts. They conducted lengthy interviews including with Dr. Goldberg and some of the other people who are a part of this group, Anthropologists for Dialogue, and the people that they spoke to represent a wide range of divergent perspectives on the political situation in the region,” he said.

Liebow also said the report developed by the six-member task force was submitted to 10 external reviewers, three before it was published and seven after, none of whom challenged its central claims. He did not identify the reviewers, citing conventions that grant peer reviewers anonymity, but said they included experts on Israeli and Palestinian history, colonial theory, human rights, and public health.

One member of the task force who asked not to be named because task force members had agreed that no one would serve as a named spokesperson said the report identifies “a truth about the fundamental situation in Israel/Palestine, a difficult truth for many Israelis to accept.”

“At the end of the day we did find the ultimate truth to be there is an occupation; there’s a fundamental asymmetry of power between Israelis and Palestinians,” the task force member said. “Palestinians are being pushed onto smaller and smaller parcels of land and their lives are becoming more restricted.”

The task force report was welcomed upon its release last fall by the group of anthropologists leading the academic boycott campaign, who described it as providing “a detailed, nuanced and utterly devastating account of the human rights situation in Palestine.” The group, Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, on Thursday dismissed the newly released ADIP critique as “a rambling set of rhetorical questions and startling misreadings of the task force report. We don't expect it to convince anyone.”

The AAA membership vote on the boycott will continue from today through May 31. Members of the AAA who were present for the group's annual meeting in November voted overwhelmingly to place the boycott resolution on the electronic ballot for an associationwide vote this spring.


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