BDS/AAA – An Ethnographic Report from the (Battle-)field

By Jackie Feldman, Ben Gurion University of the Negev

For me, anthropology is part of a search for personal freedom. The things that attracted me to leave my Orthodox Jewish home in New York for life in Israel are the same things that attracted me to anthropology: an openness to the world, a suspension of judgmentalism, a critique of power, a receptiveness to other ways of looking and living, and a consciousness of how our work might make a small difference for the better. It is for these reasons that the approval of the boycott resolution against Israeli academia at the AAA’s business meeting – or, should I say, “rally?” – in Denver was profoundly disappointing.

The setting: the BDS had mobilized students to hand out buttons and flyers, distribute green cookies and man the entrance to the business meeting with a line of placards with manipulative maps – “disappearing Palestine”. Some of the activists in the packed auditorium wore specially printed t-shirts – “another Jew for the boycott”. Each pro-BDS speech was accompanied by a burst of applause, until silenced by the chair. Some statements against the boycott drew hisses from the audience. When I stepped up to the microphone to present my two-minute case, I felt like a football fan of the wrong team in a visiting stadium. Or like I was walking down the wrong street in my childhood neighborhood. It was hostile.

Here’s what I said:

Thirty-seven years ago I immigrated to Israel in search of a Jewish homeland. A homeland where a Jewish presence could generate the confidence to create an open Jewish culture, one in which Israelis and Palestinians; Jews, Christians and Muslims could feel at home and interact in freedom. The land I found was not always the one of my dreams. I found a dynamic country, but one often marked by suspicion, violence, and defensiveness.

Over the course of three decades, I made my livelihood and carried out much of my fieldwork as a Jewish-Israeli tour guide for a Palestinian tour company, working with Palestinian bus drivers. At the height of the first Intifada, the Palestinian driver and I took turns switching between the kefiyya and the Israeli newspaper in the front window as we snaked from Israeli to Palestinian neighborhoods, bringing our Christian pilgrims to their holy sites – and putting bread in the mouths of our children. After work I came home, to neighbors and friends reeling from the last terrorist attack, who cursed the Arabs as motivated by eternal hatred and anti-Semitism. I would answer them – “I don’t know about ‘the Arabs’. But I know the Palestinians I work with. They want the same things you do – freedom, dignity and bread and hope for their children”.

As concerned anthropologists, we can choose to speak out against the occupation – but we have a choice: We can jump on the bandwagon and support the BDS – a movement whose final destination is unclear and many of whose leaders see no place for a Jewish homeland in the Middle East – or anywhere else for that matter [the mention of a Jewish homeland drew hisses from the public]. It may make you feel good. You can align yourself with the oppressed, and strike out against repressive forces on the American campus and society. But it misses the mark. It will not affect the Israeli government and only further isolate Palestinians and progressive Israelis who support their cause.

Alternatively, as anthropologists, you can support a nuanced position like the one adopted by the Israeli Anthropology Association: one that condemns the occupation and calls for support for Palestinian scholars and institutions. Here is where you as anthropologists have power – to further joint projects under AAA sponsorship; projects that can build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians and strengthen the hands of Israeli anthropologists who, as a group, have taken a stance against their government and foster greater equality.

That is the choice of hope.

My two-minute talk was interrupted once by hisses from the audience. One student asked the chair if the assembly could ‘forget about the rules’, and not have to go through the whole procedure of counting votes for and against the boycott. BDS supporters quickly ‘called the question’, curtailing discussion of the issues. Let’s get this over with and go out for a drink. The boycott against the Israeli academy was approved by about seven to one, to the sound of rousing applause.

The battle isn’t over, and I hope that more responsible, more anthropological voices will speak up when the issue comes to vote before the general membership in April. If they do, it will strengthen the critical voices working for peace and equality in Israel and Palestine. If not, the ‘gray’ boycott already in effect – scholars who have refused to read Israeli scholars’ proposals, recommend their Israeli grad students -will gain strength and legitimacy. In that case, I’ll have to think about my membership in the AAA. Not sure I wanna be part of that team.

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