The ‘Emics’ of Complicity

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

Ahmed Kanna claims that one of the reasons for boycotting Israeli universities is that these universities have strongly tended to support the occupation, and that this fact has been amply demonstrated by boycott supporters. Interestingly enough, the Task Force itself did not find this to be the case, and I hope that most of my anthropological colleagues will agree that the mere repetition by boycott supporters of the same narrative slogans hardly constitutes a demonstration of anything other than a commitment to that narrative.

BDS supporters continually use the term “complicity” to describe Israeli support of the occupation. The term complicity appears eight times in the academic boycott guidelines created by the Palestinian BDS National Committee, which serve as the foundational charter of the BDS movement. In thinking about the upcoming vote, it may be helpful to examine the “emics” of complicity and how charges of complicity function as a component of BDS rhetorical strategies. The BDS boycott guidelines identify three distinct human and organization levels and five separate modes of action and thought, which combined together, create the 15 forms of culpable thought and action. These levels are 1) individual complicity, 2) Israeli institutional complicity, and 3) Non-Israeli institutional complicity. The modes of action are 1) Silence 2) Justification, 3) Whitewashing 4) Diversion, and 5) Direct Collaboration. These fifteen BDS-defined forms of complicity make up the universe of transgressive thought and action with regard to conflict in Israel and Palestine. Individual complicity falls under BDS’s so-called “common sense” boycott standards, which target persons, while institutional complicity falls under the institutional guidelines.

While I can’t review all fifteen forms of complicity, it is clear that culpability rests in both doing nothing (silence) and in doing something. Individual anthropologists and departments in Israel which engage in the normal routines of academic life are presumed to be complicit in these ways. Presumably an anthropologist studying kinship and family or ritual in Israel would be complicit by virtue of her silence. A scholar advancing arguments of Jewish indigeneity in Israel and Palestine — thereby challenging the trope of the colonial settler state so widely embraced the BDS movement—might be charged with the transgression of justification.

Beyond this, both individuals and institutions are subject to the charge of “whitewashing,” which covers almost any issue or topic in which Israel might, directly or indirectly, be cast in a favorable light. In the BDS worldview, “whitewashing” is the term used to stigmatize progressive and liberal practices in Israel that are said to exist merely as cover for Israeli crimes and as a diversion from the occupation. As an example, it was used recently to describe the activities of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO) founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said. Any simple Google search will show that BDS supporters employ numerous synonyms for whitewashing. These include pinkwashing (Israel’s gay rights movement); greenwashing (Israeli’s environmental movement); genderwashing (Israel’s feminist movement); brownwashing, blackwashing, and redwashing (advocacy by members of minority groups on behalf of Israel); Healthwashing (Israeli medical outreach in crisis zones); Veggie-washing (Israeli vegetarian advocacy); and animal-washing (Israel’s animal rights movement). The laundry list of “washings” make clear that BDS rhetorical strategies are designed to mark out and dismiss virtually all activities in Israel, elsewhere regarded as normal and/or progressive, but which BDS rhetoric recasts as forms of complicity. Such categorizations are attempts to close down all ordinary forms of discourse.

With respect to the issue of direct collaboration, it is clear that no one has been able to actually demonstrate that Israeli universities or individual scientists behave any differently than universities in the United States, Canada, England or anywhere else in the world. Indeed one only needs to look at Vice News’ report last week of the “The Most Militarized Universities in America” to recognize that hundreds if not thousands of anthropologists across the United States are deeply embedded in highly militarized institutions in ways that, BDS rhetoric aside, are indistinguishable from their Israeli counterparts.

Finally, there is the BDS charge of complicity for non-Israeli institutions. Here the boycott guidelines identify Horizon 2020 as “the clearest example of academic complicity with Israel that is supported by governments.” Horizon 2020 is the largest European Union research program ever undertaken, which will make available more than 80 billion Euros in research funding over a period of 7 years. Here are only a few among the wide range of academic projects which involve Israeli universities: 1) Rounding the circle: Unravelling the biogenesis, function and mechanism of action of circRNAs in the Drosophila brain (Hebrew University); 2) Crisis on the margins of the Byzantine Empire: A bio-archaeological project on resilience and collapse in early Christian development of the Negev Desert (University of Haifa); 3) Single cell genomic profiling of renal cancer stem cells (Bar Ilan University). Towards the elimination of iodine deficiency and preventable thyroid-related diseases in Europe (Hebrew University in cooperation with more than a dozen European academic instiutions). I invite readers to decide how projects like these fit into one or more of the 15 forms of complicity.

It is clear that that the BDS notion of complicity has metastasized so as to embrace the entire universe of normal science and all of the individuals and institutions that support it, so long as these have any connection to the State of Israel. The question before us as anthropologists is what are the implications of joining up with BDS and this worldview? A vote to boycott Israeli anthropology will transform the American Anthropological Association from a scientific organization into a partisan NGO in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is no doubt that this will be a celebratory moment for BDS activists within our association. But for those who, like myself, oppose both the occupation and the boycott, real justice in the Israel Palestinian conflict requires something else: it requires that the many anthropologists who are frustrated and angry about the situation in Israel and Palestine join with and not ostracize their like-minded colleagues in Israel, including the vast majority of the members of the Israel Anthropological Association. Voting for a boycott will harm both American anthropology and any prospect for this association to play a role in bringing about real justice in this conflict.



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