Parsing the TFIP Report

By: Harvey Goldberg, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Anthropology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem 

I have tried to get a good sense of the direction of the TF report. Some commentators have claimed that it reaches an unambiguous conclusion. Others have pointed to the complexity of its findings and diversity of the options it presents. A careful reading of the text itself may provide some openings.

The authors bring the authority of Foucault and Said to claim that anthropology should “deconstruct the inequities of everyday social life” (p 7). “Deconstruction,” of course, is a notion deriving from Jacques Derrida, who showed that a close look at any elaborate text shows unsettling gaps, and puzzles as how to continue. Here are a few that struck me.

The term “unanimous,” referring to the TF member opinions, appears throughout the report. Yet, when it comes to the crucial segment on the possibility of an “academic boycott” (80ff), we discover that we are “free to pick and choose as if ordering from a menu” (81). To me this was doubly puzzling. First, is this issue such a light matter that we can just relax and choose whatever we wish, as if in a restaurant? Second, what about the unanimous stand of the TF? Are the TF members actually split and not decided about the action to be taken? Also, given the short time frame and rules governing annual AAA business meetings, when and where would we actually have the ability to give all these options fair consideration?

These perplexities were a trigger for me, an invitation to look back and understand the TF procedures more closely.

Much work by the TF went into producing the text; members became aware of a “vast and rich literature” (6). A great deal of material was collected, while how they were sorted and selected is not apparent. One recommendation is that the “AAA maintain and regularly update a library and/or bibliography of relevant sources” (7), apparently with the hope that they will be read. But who is supposed to be collecting and reading them with an analytical eye? Next is the question of empirical inquiry. It turns out that the major research method was interviews, both in the US and during a visit to Israel and Palestine by the TF delegation (vii).

As an anthropologist, I particularly was interested in the move from absorbing background information to a position that, while not actual ethnography, was closer to a field situation. A broad view of approaching this step is outlined: The TF aimed to “validate, correct and amplify the observations gained” in the first stages of work (4). It was a short trip during which they sought to learn about “lived experiences” (ibid). This orientation, while echoing good anthropological tradition, still raised some more questions. What expectations did the three delegates bring with them, and could they be met in such a brief visit?

This is not just a mechanical question, but stems from an additional puzzle—the context depicted and the professional backgrounds of the TF members (including the delegation). On the one hand, members of the TF were selected for “not having deep histories of expertise in the region” (p. vii, in the box), but had “a record of significant service to the Association” (ibid). As such, they must have been exposed to the “increasing interest within the [AAA]… in researching, debating and intervening in the situation in Israel/Palestine” (1). Given these countervailing thrusts and potential conflicting interests, isn’t the absence of an explication of their initial perspectives within the report another conundrum for the reader?

Perhaps the text provides some hints as to how to sort out some of these puzzlements and gaps? Remembering the goal of visiting the region to “validate, correct and amplify,” I looked for instances of moves in all these directions. Examples of the second (to “correct”) eluded me (readers are invited to do their own search). While I found it difficult to identify examples of the TF being corrected, one case of amplification is made very clear: “With the delegation’s trip to Israel and Palestine, the human rights dimension took on greater prominence.” (2). But the way this issue is presented, constituted another set of stumbling points as I read on.

There is no question that serious human rights violations grow out of Israel’s control of Palestinian lands and of Palestinians, but in perusing the report I found my ethnographic senses balking. While the dominant term used within the report in referring to the region is “Israel/Palestine,” human rights are brought up only with reference to violations directed toward Palestinians. As is stressed often, it can be misleading to view “the conflict” in terms of even “sides,” but there has been much suffering by Israelis also. Some stems from clear human rights violations, the indiscriminate firing of thousands of rockets into civilian centers. This receives but the briefest of mentions —simply “Hamas rocket attacks” (p 18)—with Hamas not even appearing in the historical appendix. So I pondered the selective use of data. Has the report shared with us its bases for selecting and describing the material at its disposal? I could find hardly a hint in the text.

If the Hamas, that seriously threatens the existence of the Palestinian Authority, is given just one mention, is the TF report merely being sparse with words? I don’t think so, after finding myself pausing at other elliptical formulations.

In the subsection entitled “The ‘Settler Colonialism’ Frame” (11), I wondered whether this condensed expression is being used just to understand Jewish settlers in Palestinian lands after the 1973 war, or is this a reference to Zionism, or to Israel generally? My puzzlement was reinforced by the end of that section, where mention is made of Palestinians who are Israelis. We learn there that within Israel itself, Palestinians “can also vote and have access to the Israeli court system if they want to try to assert their rights” (14). The phrasing suggests that for Israeli Palestinians to “assert their rights,” occurs only now and then. It skips over, and maybe even hides, the facts that there are Palestinian members of Parliament as well as lawyers and judges who are part of the Israeli court system (as well as very many Palestinian students studying law in Israeli law schools). Or are typical AAA readers, with no “deep histories of expertise in the region,” expected to figure this out on their own?

These are only some of the textual and empirical bumps I encountered in going through the report. It contains many details worth knowing, but also begs to be supplemented both by more information and by context. The choice of words may seem confusing to some. The overall project is viewed as an “engagement,” while under “Potential Actions AAA Could Consider” (beginning p 78), subheadings direct us to terms like “censure,” “apply pressure,” and three versions of “boycott.”

Actually, the TF’s advice to “pick and choose” is prudent. The report offers a path to begin to learn about Palestine and Israel, but one that ought to be followed critically and with eyes open. It tells me that this is just a beginning. While the terms just cited seem to be more about “dis-engagement,” another alternative for anthropologists ought to be “dialogue.” In such a tense atmosphere, this undoubtedly would be difficult and frustrating. But does a menu without such a choice portend any serious anthropological contribution to relief for Israel/Palestine?

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