Escape from the City of Brass

Mark Wagner’s review of Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm’s edited volume (2014) The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel was first published in Telos’s Winter 2014 issue (pp 171-79). The pro-boycott resolution which was carried by the Business Meeting of the AAA on November 20th 2015 renders Wagner’s text doubly poignant and insightful.  The added bonus: the piece illustrates how the clumsy attempt to boycott Israeli universities, ostensibly in the name of human rights and ending the Occupation, does not have to trigger only somber prose. This witty and entertaining review is fun to read!

Escape from the City of Brass

Telos 169 (winter 2014): 171-79

Mark S. Wagner is an Associate Professor of Arabic at Louisiana State University. the author of Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th-Century Yemen (Indiana, 2015), Like Joseph in Beauty: Yemeni Vernacular Poetry and Arab-Jewish Symbiosis (Brill, 2009), and articles on Arabic and Jewish literatures and Islamic studies.  He received his PhD in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies from NYU in 2004.  Originally from the Chicago area, Wagner finished his BA at Vassar College in 1996.




BDS’s best allies: Israel’s Right Wing rulers.

Haaretz’s editorial January 13th suggest an interesting view on the malicious nature of the call to boycott Israeli universities and the stupidity of those whose best intentions ‘to do something’ pushes them to this counter-productive notion.

Naftali Benett is the current Minister of Education of Israel. Leader of a nationalist religious party, a staunch supporter of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and a ferocious opponent of reconciliation with the Palestinians, he has also embarked on a crusade to ‘tame’ Israeli academia, curb its freedom of research and speech, and generally align it with his Settler-nationalist views views.

BDS’s call to boycott Israeli universities is attacking Israeli academics from the opposite flank, for being ‘complicit’ with the occupation. Nothing could be further from the truth. And the notion that Benett, Netanyahu and the others on the ruling Israeli right might budge an inch to end the occupation because  academics in the US ostracize their Israeli counterparts is nothing short of crazy. It is as likely as Putin promoting gay right after hearing that LGBT activists abroad boycott their Russian counterparts for being complicit with… Putin’s oppression of the gay community.

Will anthropologists really vote to do this in the electronic ballot April 15th to May 15th?

US Historians’ Group Rejects Anti-Israel Resolution

On January 9th 2016 a BDS sponsored anti-Israel resolution at the American Historical Association was overwhelmingly defeated. The resolution titled“Protecting the Right to Education in the Occupied Palestinian Territories” was harshly critical of Israeli actions in the occupied territories as these have affected Palestinian institutions of higher education. While not a call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions per se, the resolution was widely seen as laying the foundation for more intensive broader boycott efforts within the AHA in coming years, reflecting the BDS strategy of incremental takeovers of professional academic organizations. In sharp contrast to the recent vote at the American Anthropological Association, AHA members took seriously the fact that they were being asked to vote on political assertions for which there was very little actual evidence presented or debated within the association. Members were also concerned with whether highly politicized resolutions were in keeping with the professional mission of the AHA and whether passing such resolutions would stigmatize the AHA as it has the American Studies Association.

Read more about this story at The New York Times, I24 News, The Times of Israel and History News Network.



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.

Help Us Fight Academic Boycotts

Tax deductible online contributions to ADIP can be made here, the website of our partner organization Ameinu. Please remember to note ADIP Anthropology on the gift designation box online.

Ameinu, Hebrew for “Our People,” is a progressive Jewish organization committed to the struggle for peace, justice and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. It is also home of The Third Narrative (TTN) – an academic initiative to counter boycotts and other attempts to delegitimize Israel.

For those sending checks, Ameinu’s postal address is: 424 West 33rd Street, Suite 150, New York, NY 10001. Please remember to note ADIP Anthropology on the memo line of your check.

Throughout 2015, ADIP conducted a campaign calling for dialogue, reconciliation and anthropological engagement in AAA, rather than academic boycott. Unfortunately, at the November Business Meeting in Denver, those present voted overwhelmingly for a resolution supporting a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, and rejected our alternative anti-boycott resolution. The boycott resolution will now be sent to the full AAA membership for ratification or rejection, in an electronic vote between April 15th and May 15th 2016.

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.