Isaiah Silver and the Strange Crimes of Israeli Anthropologists

By David M. Rosen Professor of Anthropology and Law at Fairleigh Dickinson University

 Among the many peculiar and troubling voices within the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement in anthropology is that of the fictional character Isaiah Silver, whose writings feature prominently in the popular anthropology blog Savage Minds. The name Isaiah Silver, with its obviously Jewish shadings, is claimed to be the collective pseudonym of two members of the American Anthropological Association who have lived and worked in Israel and Palestine and who describe themselves as “proud Jews.”  And so it is as a “proud Jew” that Isaiah Silver points his accusing finger at Israeli anthropologists, charging them with all manner of crimes against Palestinians.

As a former “insider,” Isaiah Silver, the renegade “proud Jew,” lends the aura of authenticity to BDS’s accusations. In reality, the emergence of the character of Isaiah Silver is reminiscent of what the late Richard Hofstader dubbed the paranoid style of American politics, in which the renegade figure –formerly the ex-Communist and now the anti-Israel Jew—plays a central accusatory role. But why choose a pseudonym? After all, anyone remotely familiar with American anthropology knows that you don’t exactly need to be Braveheart to condemn Israel in front of a crowd of American anthropologists. But the pseudonym adds to the aura of staged victimhood, as these BDS propagandists demand that their identities be protected as they seek to destroy the careers of their Israeli colleagues.

But why go after Israeli anthropologists? After all, Israeli anthropologists, on the whole, are politically left, liberal, tolerant, and opposed to the politics of occupation as pursued by the current right wing government of Israel. They would ordinarily be natural allies of any anthropologists interested in finding fair and just solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But instead treating them as allies, “Isaiah Silver” and his ilk have invented vicarious and phony transgressions to be rectified by boycott. First and foremost is the charge that Israeli anthropology is responsible for the nationalist bent of some Israeli archeology. Left unsaid is that in Israel, as in Europe, archeology is not a subfield of anthropology. Archeology is a separate field with its own departments, training, faculty, and students. Anthropology students do not study together with archeology students, nor vice versa. How anthropologists are to be held responsible for the alleged transgressions of scholars in a completely independent and separate discipline remains unexplained. Also left undiscussed is the nationalist bent that archeology has taken in many other countries in the Middle East and beyond.

Secondly, BDS supporters charge Israeli anthropologists with ‘crimes of omission’ in their work, when they fail to engage the issue of the Palestinians. It is true that not all Israeli anthropologists are political, and many have engaged in research which has little or nothing to do with politics or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But anthropologists throughout the world engage in work that has scant connection to politics. How does the normal work of anthropology come to be characterized by BDS and its supporters, and even by our own Task Force, as a kind of crime of omission? Even more problematic, how anyone can buy into this nonsense?

The answer is quite simple: All radical movements demand simple binary oppositions: a world made up of oppressors and oppressed, good guys and bad guys. All radical movements have “take no prisoners” and “if you’re not with us you’re against us” positions. BDS is no different. Its own ideology – the destruction of Jewish sovereignty in Israel –cannot abide even the mere existence of liberal, tolerant, pluralistic, and progressive Israeli institutions and actors. The BDS anti-normalization project is specifically designed to eliminate all cooperation with centers of progress and reform in Israel. All become subsumed under the slogans of the regressive left, such as “settler colonial state,” “complicity” and, of course, the evil specter of “Zionism.”

What does all this mean for anthropology? BDS is now asking the American Anthropological Association to become a sponsor and underwriter of its ideology. It would be wise to remember that while the American Anthropological Association has had some proud moments in the past, it has also had some extremely dark moments. The horrific attacks on Franz Boas by the association and, in more recent years, the kangaroo court (aka Task Force) used to harass and condemn Napoleon Chagnon illustrate this association’s potential for viciousness when it is seized and overwhelmed by self-righteous illusions. Now we are being asked to take an unprecedented step: to become a party to a political conflict. Any contemporary observer knows that the forces of radicalism –left and right—have seized the opportunity for promoting violence in Israel and Palestine. In this conflict, BDS is asking us to take the side of the some of the most radical and irredentist forces within the Palestinian national movement, against the forces of moderation, including our own colleagues and their departments in Israel. I have grave doubts that American anthropology can ever recover from taking such a radical step.

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