The Four Professors: BDS’s Front Line in Anthropology

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

The four professors, each a faculty member in a highly regarded graduate program in anthropology, were standing right in front of the entrance of the Mile High Ballroom at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver where the American Anthropological Association held it historic vote to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Each held up one of a series of four enlarged maps purporting to show a visual history of the shrinking Palestinian lands since the beginning of the British Mandate in 1918. The maps, however, had erased a key historical fact, namely that in 1922 seventy five percent of Mandatory Palestine was administratively severed from the Mandate and ultimately became the country of Jordan, whose population, by the most conservative estimates, is at least fifty percent Palestinian. Indeed, Jordan is the only country in the world that has a Palestinian queen. That part of “shrinking Palestine” was missing from the maps.

Now there are some right wing Israeli politicians who argue that Jordan is Palestine, but I did not want to get into that sinkhole of an argument. I just wanted to know how much the professors actually knew about the maps of shrinking Palestine they were carrying. So I began to ask them, one by one, “How is it that a huge swath of Mandatory Palestine is missing from your maps?” The first responses: absolute silence. One finally responded: “I don’t know.” At last, an honest answer. It was clear that these professors appeared to have little or no knowledge about the maps they were carrying. Had they created these maps, or had another BDS operative simply handed them the maps and told them to stand there? Would these professors have accepted such sloppy knowledge of history in an undergraduate term paper?

Sadly, this episode was merely the prelude to the know- nothing political carnival that culminated in the lopsided vote to boycott Israeli academic institutions and turn the American Anthropological Association a partisan in the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Long before the voting, smiling BDS supporters had been passing out cookies while urging anthropologists to boycott their colleagues. Political regalia was everywhere. Tee shirts bearing slogans “Boycott=Justice” and “Another Jew Against Apartheid” were ubiquitous. BDS supporters were a clear supermajority at the business meeting, and in the giddy self-righteous anti-Israel atmosphere that permeated the hall there was little tolerance for debate or discussion.

At the meeting, a resolution by boycott opponents, which called for engagement by AAA with Israeli academics to work together for justice in Israel and Palestine, was quickly disposed of. Only two anti-boycott speakers were allowed to speak before AAA president Monica Heller invited anyone to jump the queue of speakers and the question was called. An amendment to the pro-boycott resolution, which would have affirmed the American Anthropological Association’s commitment not to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sex, gender, national origin or disability, was similarly squelched without discussion. The pro-boycott vote was quickly called, with minimal debate. A motion from the floor to allow individual students in the Middle East (including Israelis) access to the online publications of the American Anthropological Association despite a boycott was also rapidly defeated. In the end, far more time was spent counting paper ballots than debating anything.

To be sure, the pro-boycott vote was a foregone conclusion. Anthropology has become so thoroughly politicized as a discipline, and narrative form and political aesthetics have so thoroughly replaced empiricism, that there little room for data or rational debate. In this land of magical thinking, in which large numbers of anthropologists are committed to the belief that justice for Palestinians demands the collective punishment of their Israeli colleagues, nuance or history are dead on arrival. So in the end, the shoddy historical maps of the four professors fit right in. The British historian Frederic William Maitland once opined that “anthropology will have the choice between being history and being nothing. “ Given the actions in Denver, anthropology may well be on the path to being nothing.

 

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