YES for Anthropological Engagement, NO to an Academic Boycott

By, Gila Silverman, School of Anthropology, University of Arizona

At the upcoming AAA Annual Meeting, the association’s members will be faced with two opposing resolutions about Israel and Palestine.

Both resolutions acknowledge the ongoing tragedies and suffering in Palestine and Israel. Both seek to do something about this suffering.

But only one resolution provides productive options for anthropological engagement in the region. The other seeks to ostracize our Israeli colleagues, and will cause serious damage to anthropological efforts in the region.

I will be voting NO to an academic boycott. The reasons for this have been stated clearly elsewhere, but the main points that I find relevant are:

  • Such boycotts end up punishing individual scholars, not institutions;
  • These scholars are often the very people seeking to understand and address the issues in the region;
  • Singling out Israel when other conflicts and human rights issues are ignored implies that there are other underlying reasons for this call to action;
  • Singling out Israel demonstrates a lack of understanding of this particular conflict and the larger socio-political dynamics of the region as a whole.

I will be voting YES for anthropological engagement. I believe that anthropologists can make an important contribution to the heated and passionate discussions about the Middle East, and about Israel-Palestine in particular. We are one of the only scholarly disciplines who have the tools to problematize the social, religious and political histories of the public discourses on all sides of the debate, and to explore the everyday experiences of those living in the midst of these terrible events.

If we as anthropologists truly want to support greater understanding and catalyze movement towards peace in Israel and Palestine, academic boycotts are the opposite of what we should be doing. AAA should be encouraging academic dialogue, theoretically and methodologically sophisticated scholarship, and curriculum development. Rather than an academic boycott, AAA should spearhead an initiative for greater academic engagement in Israel/Palestine, advocate for more research and scholarship funding, challenge universities to teach more courses and create more faculty lines for those who take on these complex issues.

There are many anthropologists – Israelis, Palestinians, Americans and Europeans – who have done excellent work to help us analyze and understand this region. These scholars have demonstrated tremendous sensitivity and have worked hard to build the trust and neutrality that is necessary in such a polarized and emotionally-laden region. They have done this academic work despite the risk to themselves, their families, and their careers. Their research looks beyond the deep fears, angers, and passions that characterize any discussion of the Middle East; it forces us to challenge our assumptions, helps us to better understand those we might see as “other” – on all sides of the political, cultural and religious spectrums – and provides rare insights into an extremely complicated situation. This is exactly the type of anthropological scholarship that I want to make available to my students. I want to hear more from these researchers, and I want new scholars to tackle these complex questions. I would hate to see us shut down these lines of inquiry through a boycott of our colleagues and peers. We would achieve nothing by silencing the very voices that are most needed on this complex issue.

We might also consider turning our anthropological lens on ourselves, in order to explore the very questions raised in discussions of an anthropological academic boycott: Why has Israel/Palestine been singled out? Why is the discourse around Israel so different from that about other countries in the region? Why have AAA members chosen to bring this issue to the Executive Board, and not the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Ukraine?

Anthropological studies of Israel-Palestine, and of the other conflicts spread throughout the entire region, have much to teach us. Rather than boycott those grappling with these issues, we should do everything we can to support and encourage them.


One thought on “YES for Anthropological Engagement, NO to an Academic Boycott

  1. One could do archaeological digs until it got too hot to do so, or study archaic pottery until the last shard was dated, the
    results will be meaningless and serve little purpose unless the adversaries first commit to diligently working to achieve a solution. This method does not seemed to have produced anything but more profound dissention. Religion blinds and separates human beings, education often results in understanding, Hatred can’t be quantified nor resolved unless it is accepted as a reality which id destructive
    to both sides of any adversarial conflict,
    Unless the preconceived goal of any interchange of ideas is the resolution of the conflict and a mutual agreement that compromise it makes little or no sense to attempt it at all, simply because unresolved issues tend to exacerbate feelings which creates more profound resentment. Education essential, but in ideological warfare that has been going on as long as it has, cooperation may take as long to accomplish as the battles have been raging,
    First, a canvassing of existing schools to discover young people enthusiastic enough to want to engage in creative communication and change. Followed
    by the creation and expansion of more groups of people cooperating to achieve their common goals.
    When human beings treat each other humanely bigotry, prejudice and hatred often disappear as drops of water on the sand on a desert!


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