On Boycott and Other Demons in Anthropology

By Dr. Armanda Hysa, Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Art Studies, Center of Albanian Studies, Tirana, Albania

Last Saturday I came back late to my hotel in Skopje, after an intensive conference day organized by the Macedonian institute of Folklore, “Marko Cepenkov”. Ethnology/anthropology and folkloristics in the Balkan countries have historically been oriented towards nation building of their respective peoples, often contributing to fostering of ethnocentric pride and sense of belonging. Ethnology and folkloristics of Balkan countries should not be held responsible for national chauvinism, or for the creation of excluded ethnic others, but they did do their part to contribute to the escalation of nationalist discourses, and were sometimes actively complicit in the shaping of highly chauvinistic nationalist programs. Yet, no boycott of these institutions was ever called by any international academic or scholarly body, association or institution. No boycotts were called on the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, whose academics wrote a nationalist memorandum in 1985 that would later be adopted by the late leader Slobodan Milosevic. Important academics would later directly participate in fomenting radical nationalism and chauvinism in the public sphere, such as the late academic Dobrica Cosic (the so called Serbian “father of the nation”). Yet no boycotts took place. On the contrary, world-renowned academics like Professor Noam Chomsky accepted honorary membership in that very Academy. During the 90ies, efforts of the Albanian community in Macedonia, that make up about 20% of the population there, to open higher education institutions in the Albanian language, were violently shot down by the Macedonian police, yet no boycotts were directed at any Macedonian university or the Academy of Sciences. Not only were there no international boycotts called, but research collaboration at the individual level persisted. Legal frameworks for cooperation among Ministries of Education of various Balkan countries do exist, but the level of cooperation at the institutional level is low because our countries have few resources, and funding for research is almost inexistent, let alone funding for international collaboration.

At an individual level, I have always trusted that having contacts and communicative exchanges with colleagues in countries where Albanians are stigmatized can only contribute to a better understanding and future, and I am grateful as up to this date such interaction has been a life-changing experience. International programs like RRPP[1] have greatly intensified such contacts, as well as increased cooperation between and among research institutions and NGOs. And I am convinced that the effects of such collaboration, although slow, will have a significant positive effect on the wider region in the future.

So, there I was back in my hotel room, after having had yet another chance to meet and chat with colleagues there, when the announcement of the AAA boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education and research hit me. Yes, it did hit me, like a slap in the face. This was so wrong, and on so many levels, that I did not know where to start in articulating my objections.

In the dictatorial Communist Albania, Marxism-Leninism was the only theory and method recognized as valid in social sciences and humanities. Other theories were not only dismissed: they were prohibited. Anyone who dared to have a slightly different approach would not only be fired, but would also risk prison or internal exile. Any other theories were considered unscientific, or tools in the hand of imperialism. Ethnocentrism was glorified as the effort of the exploited people for liberation. Cosmopolitanism was the demonic philosophy of imperialism. The result was a descriptive ethnocentric ethnography, impoverished of ideas and analyses, and increasingly filled with propaganda serving the regime.

As researchers, we have an obligation to strive toward objectivity. As anthropologists, our second obligation is to understand the complexities of society, culture, politics and economics, and to look at the ways they intermingle and shape the human condition. The results of our research can and should be used to lead humanity to a better future. But doing this is one thing, turning into biased activists is quite another. Against the backdrop of my afore-mentioned old ethnographic tradition, I have noticed lately and increasingly the similarities in the agendas of New Leftist Western academics with the ideas and discourses of the old official science of the communist Albania. With growing concern, I have seen how anthropological studies, especially from the West, of the communist era are increasingly apologetic of those regimes. It started with the idea that anthropologists should not lose sight of some of the positive achievements of those regimes, and the argument that communism was not all bleakness and there was pleasure to be had. And the trend increased with the gradual disappearance of the word dictatorship from the anthropological dictionary, to finally turn into a full-fledged construction of nostalgia about the communist past (rather than researching that nostalgia as symptomatic of something else).

But I thought that this was just an anthropological fad, and would soon disappear. I was wrong. The boycott of AAA against Israeli educational institutions is confirming to me that this leftist agenda of imposing a highly ideological and politicized vision of anthropology has become the official agenda of American anthropologists. Anthropologists from one nation-state have been singled out for punishment. In communist-era Albania, if any person would try to escape abroad, the entire family and close kin would be internally exiled, for not being able to stop that person escape. In a similar logic of collective punishment, AAA is taking on the role of an international court of justice, declaring Israel a colonial apartheid state, and punishing its anthropologists with a boycott, for not being able to stop the colonization of the occupied territories, or worse yet, for supporting the so-called apartheid state. Saturday night after the vote, the realization hit me that AAA is turning itself into a kind of new Politbyro, with its plenums in action.

The proponents of the boycott resolution claim that the boycott does not apply to individuals. As anthropologists, we know very well that no individual would be left unharmed when a punitive policy is being forced upon the institution he/she belongs to. We do know that boycotts do not affect walls, desks, computers or administration, but they do affect our fellow anthropologists. US anthropologists know very well what the limits are of their influence in their own national domestic policymaking process, and they are very well aware that the situation is no different for their colleagues in Israel or anywhere else. As I already mentioned, no Western academic association bothered to take account of the relative impact of the actions of ethnocentric academic institutions in ethnic tensions and wars in the Balkans precisely because anthropologists know that in those same institutions there are a lot of other researchers whose voice are ignored by their respective states. Those who cast the YES vote for the boycott resolution know very well that the conflict between Israel and Palestine is not coming to an end any time soon. They know that in the meantime, the boycott will work only to weaken the will and power of Israeli anthropologists to change society for better, and will have alienate Jewish anthropologists around the world. And yet they still voted yes, because that is the way of the new self-appointed radicals and conflict promoters, who are now occupying the wonderful field of knowledge about humanity, anthropology.

As anthropologists we know better that any other the power of symbols. We know that every act of exclusion leads to alienation and demonization. By singling out Israeli institutions of anthropology for boycott, AAA is turning our Israeli colleagues into undesirable Others. Any anthropologist in the world would feel alienated by boycott policies applied to them. But nothing can compare to what our Jewish colleagues might feel in such a case. Symbolically speaking, they are being othered again, in the span of 100 years, when memories of persecution and of the Holocaust are still fresh, and when people who survived are still alive. It is especially this, among other issues, that struck me as shocking. The radical ideologization of the discipline is a profound professional issue, the extent of which some anthropologists might be unaware. The issue whether anthropologists should collectively take official stances on highly political disputes and conflicts is also disputable. But no anthropologist can pretend not to understand the terrible symbolism of such a boycott. Anyone trying to deny it, either has no idea what anthropology is, or is in utterly self-deluded.

In the end, I have no personal connection to the Middle East, I have no power to change things at home, let alone abroad. But I want to say to my colleagues in Israel that I stand with them and that I will state my support for them wherever I can.





[1] http://www.rrpp-westernbalkans.net/en/about.html


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