The American Anthropological Association’s BDS proposal could have far-reaching consequences: strengthening Israel’s right wing and abetting BDS’s rhetorical pretense regarding its true aims.
By Harvey Goldberg, Yehuda Goodman, Dan Rabinowitz, Michele Rivkin-Fish, David Rosen, Gila Silverman, Alex Weingrod
This article was originally published at Haaretz
This Friday November 20th, the annual Business Meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) will convene in Denver to determine whether or not to endorse a boycott of Israeli universities. One proposal, inspired by BDS (the Palestinian initiative to boycott Israel, sanction it and divest from it), calls for an academic boycott. Our proposal, in contrast, calls on Israel and the U.S. to end the Occupation and do justice for the Palestinians as part of a two state solution. It also calls to resist academic boycott and to foster dialogue – the only realistic path to reconciliation.
Emotions are running high. Attendance on Friday is expected to beat all records. Both sides are using traditional media, social networks, sponsored events and personal persuasion to get participants to vote. There is a sense that the signal that will be relayed by the AAA – a large, respectable academic association that took the trouble to send a Task Force on Engagement with Israel and Palestine to the region last summer – will reverberate with other academic associations.
BDS uses a moralistic, self-righteous and simplistic narrative to frame its position as representative of the ultimate good (all Palestinians) against radical evil (all Israelis). Within this framework they herald boycott as the only practical step available to counter Israel’s intransigence and bring justice to the Palestinians.
This contrived dichotomy is objectionable not only because of the travesty it produces of academic freedom. Its obsessive nature and persistent detachment from reality poses a much greater danger. If its approach to the conflict becomes widespread, it could spell disaster for Palestinians, Israelis and many others on a massive scale.
The boycott controversy was constructed to actively ignore and smartly hide a much more pertinent divide. Israeli society is split. On the one hand there is a cohesive right wing, now in power, convinced that clinging to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 and keeping millions of Palestinians subjugated is the road to Israel’s survival. On the other hand, a consistent majority which regularly polls in favor of relinquishing these territories, that has not been able, since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, to ever stay in power long enough to implement such plan.
BDS’s essentializing, demonizing mission tries to convince listeners that the division between pro-boycotters and those who still believe in dialogue and compromise is the only one which matters. But if boycotters win, on Friday and on similar occasions later, they will profoundly impact the inner struggle within Israel. Their win will give the Israeli right a major boost.
A leftist Israeli member of Knesset told one of us recently how the success of BDS to boycott an Israeli film festival in New York in 2013 was met by right wing Knesset members with unmitigated glee. Boycotting a festival infested with subversive leftist Israeli film-makers, a right wing politician told him candidly at the time, was all the proof which right wingers needed to convince supporters that their propaganda is correct. The world is simply against us because of who we are, he said: it does not matter to anyone abroad what policies or actions we support or what documentaries we make. Bring on more silly boycotts, he concluded, and my party and those further to the right of it will stay in power indefinitely.
This is the paradoxical reality in which we live. The majority of Israelis are in favor of somehow ending the occupation and wants to give millions of Palestinian non-citizens an opportunity to have a state and live in dignity. But threats of boycotts and of sanctions exacerbate Israeli fears just as much as terror attacks do. This helps the Right, which poses as the only viable defender of a threatened national realm, to tighten its stranglehold on power ever more.
Instead of strengthening the Israeli peace camp, BDS weakens it, radically trivializing its efforts. Yes, dialogue has been frustrating and elusive. But academics are there to find innovative paths to justice and reconciliation, not to turn against each other in a futile, childish and destructive manner.
Embedded in what pro-boycotters say and write is an underlying urge to punish Israel. While Israeli academics are by no means justifiable targets of such anger, the basic sentiment cannot be blamed. But boycotters are not exclusively motivated by emotions. They also make political calculations. Their campaign, while ultimately geared towards a new reality where Israel no longer exists, often tries to pass as a moderate wish to merely end the Occupation, implying Israel might be allowed to remain. BDS’s statements systematically obfuscate the more radical vision. But as the debate of this campaign diversifies and deepens, and as more people learn to understand it better, the inconsistencies and confusions stemming from the tensions that exist between these contradicting goals emerge more clearly.
BDS sees Israel as a colonial project and an apartheid state which has run its course. For 7 million Jews in Israel and many more elsewhere however, the mere suggestion that Israel will be no more is unthinkable, unspeakable, abhorrent. Coercing Israel into relinquishing the territories is one thing. Forcing it to cease existing is quite another.
So far BDS scored victories and some defeats in academic circles. But let us assume, just for the sake of argument, its mission somehow becomes a runaway success. If it gets to dominate academe, conquer public opinion, shape the way important governments see the Middle East and turn the end of Israel into a universal blueprint, how will things pan out? Can anyone predict what a radicalized, desperate Israeli government possessing a nuclear arsenal might do when its captains become convinced that Armageddon is afoot?
BDS and its supporters must get real. The only way to diffuse the situation in the Middle East and prevent it from plunging the region and the world into colossal suffering is to accept that Israel is here to stay, make reasonable and doable demands from it and resume talking. A first step is to strengthen Israelis who are allies of the Palestinians rather than ostracize them.
Harvey E. Goldberg is Sarah Allen Shaine Professor Emeritus in Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University.
Yehuda Goodman is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University.
Dan Rabinowitz is Professor of Anthropology at Tel-Aviv University. A former President of the Israeli Anthropological Association, he is cofounder of Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel and Palestine.
Michele Rivkin-Fish is Associate Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
David M. Rosen is Professor of Anthropology at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Gila Silverman is a PhD candidate at the School of Anthropology, University of Arizona
Alex Weingrod is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.