Dialogue or Boycott?

By Nicholas Herriman, Senior Lecturer, Anthropology, La Trobe University


Anthropology, for those who want a reminder, is the study of what it is to be human. Anthropologists come in different kinds. Socio-cultural anthropologists study contemporary societies and cultures. Archaeologists study stones, bones and other artifacts of the past. Linguistic anthropologists study language and social life. Physical anthropologists study primates. These and other types of anthropologists aim to deeply understand humankind.

We like to call ourselves a ‘broad church’, meaning we attempt to include a wide variety of approaches and opinions. This is necessary as we disagree about almost everything that comes under our purview. The case in point; we are devoted to changing human life for the better, but we disagree about how to do that.

As the premier international organization for anthropologists, the American Anthropological Association has, since its inception over a century ago, been capable of accommodating that variety.  This venerable tradition came to an end.

Vote for boycott

In a free and democratic vote, a majority of members arrived at what I believe is the wrong decision. 1040 voted to boycott Israeli universities. I have no doubt that the 1040 were well-meaning. But the result is that Israeli anthropologists, many of whom opposed the blockade of Palestinians, now find themselves subject to an academic blockade. This means my colleagues, some of whom have openly criticized the Israeli state and worked with Palestinians for dialogue are shut out.

The Occupation and the killing of civilians is hateful to me. So are suicide bombings and rocket attacks. But I do not see the boycott as assisting in finding peaceful and a fair solution to the Palestinian-Israeli question.

I am not suggesting that the country I now live and work in, Australia, is superior in this regard. I am a member of that country’s professional association for anthropologists. One former President, who has occupied professorships at our most prestigious universities is a powerful advocate for boycotting Israel. In an alienating and, for me at least, distressing move, this professor saw fit to send out information on the boycott but not for dialogue. The pro-dialogue position is also marginalized in Australia.

Malinowski not sanctioned

This runs counter to my belief  that anthropology should cherish academic freedom. Perhaps the most influential anthropologist, Malinowski, found himself in Australia as an enemy subject in WWI. The Australian government nevertheless provided him the opportunity to work in an Australian territory. The result was the conception of socio-cultural anthropology as we know it.

Boycott not about social justice

I am committed to social justice. As a young boy I supported sanctions against the Apartheid in the only way I could. I refused to buy candy from the local Shell petrol station (but I did used their air pump for my bike tires.). But as I thought about it more, I found the situation in Israel just a little more complex. For one, ‘Black’ South Africans were not rocketing and suicide bombing ‘White’ civilians to the same extent.  And even if we accept that Israel is a colonial settler state, as the advocates of the boycott insist, do we not have forms of Apartheid against indigenous and colored peoples in the US and Australia?

This is what my fellow anthropologists tell me. Yet they do not act on this.

So I wonder why no one has boycotted me, as a citizen of both America and Australia. And why have the 1040 anthropologists decided not boycott all my other American and Australian colleagues?

I would not support such a boycott. My own hypocrisy, sanctimony, self-interest, and self-righteousness precludes this. I can rest also assured that these or similar attitudes of the 1040 others will also ensure that America or Australia will never be boycotted.  I understand that; it’s the kind of pragmatism that gets me through the day after watching the news of terrorist bombings and Syrian refugees.

But as I look down on homeless people, sitting in my Denver hotel room, on land traditionally own by Araphoe and Cheyenne, in a country built on slavery, boycotting Israel first seems inconsistent to me. It indicates to me that however good the intentions of the boycott, the driving force behind is not social justice.

Death of dialogue

But there is another reason I wouldn’t support boycott of my two countries. I believe in sharing ideas, in talking, in dialogue, in promoting education. 1040 voted against dialogue. They did this for profound, deep, and heartfelt, I believe, ultimately, misguided reasons.

Repercussions of the vote

I remain unsure of the repercussions of their actions.

Some people think we anthropologists are merely quacks and won’t care what we do—this vote may help ‘confirm’ their suspicions.

As far as the right and for the hawks in Israel, if they even care, the vote has played right into their hands. If I could generalize: Israel used to court international favor. It used to care what people in the world think. These days it thinks the world is against it whatever it does.

I hope this boycott saves at least one Palestinian child. I don’t think it will. If anything it will probably have the opposite effect. One thing I am sure it will serve–the cause of those who are committed to the destruction of Israel.


Anthropology is a discipline that embraces complexity and reject simplicity. We are committed to seeing past stereotypes of evil aggressors and innocent victims.

As an anthropologist I want Israelis and Palestinians to know that I do care. I want to understand. I want to talk and study with them. Increasingly, this attitude can no longer be accommodated in anthropology.

Nicholas Herriman is not a member of the AAA but is looking for an international anthropological association which supports dialogue.


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