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.

A Progressive Response to BDS

By Dan Rabinowitz, Professor of Anthropology at Tel Aviv University. First published on

This essay comes in three parts. It begins with a brief statement on the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then presents my take on boycotts generally, and finally offers an analysis of BDS’s mode of operation and its vision for the endgame of the conflict.

Assessing the situation

Reasonably well informed people, averagely sensitive and equipped with an intuitive sense of justice, find it increasingly difficult to remain indifferent to Israel’s conduct. The occupation, now nearing its 50th year, has turned Gaza, and to a lesser extent the West Bank, into de facto detention zones. It humiliates millions of Palestinians, robs them of meaningful citizenship, and violates their human rights on a daily basis. The consistent refusal by official Israel to recognize the tragic consequences of 1948 for the Palestinians and the continuous disregard for the refugee problem are unacceptable.

The notable drift in Israel’s public sphere towards essentialist thought patterns with obvious racist elements underwrites disturbing policies which resemble those practiced by the Apartheid regime of South Africa. The inferno of Gaza, in which Israel is a willing collaborator with Egypt, is untenable. So are the periodic outbursts of violence initiated by Israel against Gaza, which are grossly disproportionate to any damage caused by missiles launched by Gazans at Israeli targets.

All this amounts to unacceptable intrusions on the part of Israel beyond the pale of reasonable behavior, common sense and natural justice.

This assessment of the situation in Israel and Palestine is not radically different from those offered by spokespersons for BDS – the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement behind the current call to boycott Israeli universities. I also agree that BDS has dramatically enhanced global awareness of the situation in Israel and Palestine, successfully propelling a realization in the West of the urgent need for meaningful change.

My unease stems from the leap of faith and logic associated with suggestion that descent people who are enraged by the situation and seek justice for Palestine must boycott Israeli universities and cultural institutions. I find this leap not only misguided and flawed in logic, but also cynical and fundamentally dangerous – to Palestinians, to Israelis, to the Middle East and to world peace.

Boycotts 101

Boycotts and sanctions are legitimate forms of political brinkmanship that can be inspiring and effective. Captain Charles Boycott, the heavy-handed manager of an estate in 1880s Ireland, evicted 11 tenant families for petty debts. Outraged parishioners got organized and declared that until he reinstates those families, no one would work for the state or trade with it. To save the summer’s harvest, Boycott hired farm workers from another parish. At the end of the summer however he discovered that, the costs of transporting and protecting his replacement work force exceeded the harvest’s worth. To cut the estate’s losses, he then reinstated the evicted families.

Countless instances of boycott have taken place since. Famous ones include the boycott of British goods in China in retaliation to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1902; the Jewish American boycott of Henry Ford in the 1920s; Ghandi’s boycott of British goods in the 1940s; the Montgomery bus boycott during the American civil rights movement in the 1950s; and the economic and disinvestment movement against South Africa in the 1980s.

To be effective, a boycott must fulfill four criteria:

  1. Those boycotted must be primarily and directly responsible for the injustice (Charles Boycott was the manager who instigated the eviction),
  2. Those boycotted must be capable of rectifying the injustice as soon as they resolve to do so (Boycott could re-instate those evicted at will, and eventually did),
  3. The conditions set for lifting the boycott must be clear, uncontestable and doable,
  4. Those boycotted must trust the boycotters to truly want their conditions to be met, without fear of any hidden future stipulations down the road.

The call for an academic boycott of Israel, as reflected for example in the resolution carried at the annual business meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) on 20 November 2015[1] fails miserably on all four accounts.

First, Israeli universities are not directly or primarily responsible for the occupation and the violation of Palestinians’ human rights. Second, these institutions cannot, even if they wanted to, rectify the situation.[2] Third, the condition set for ending the suggested boycott (“until such time as [Israeli universities] end their complicity etc….”) is deliberately murky. I want to invite the reader to perform a mental exercise. Think of a university you know. Now consider the following three questions:

  • In 2015, is this university currently more or less complicit in the US-led invasion of Iraq that it had been five years ago?
  • Is it more or less complicit in US drone attacks, social inequality or police treatment of minorities than the university down the road?
  • How would you go about determining the answers to these two questions?

If you are having difficulty producing sensible answers, do not despair. These questions have no obvious answers. I bring them here to illustrate that the pivotal condition of the AAA’s 2015 resolution cannot be met.[3]

Failure on criteria C of course leads to failure on criteria D. Those boycotted – and here I speak for myself and virtually every Israeli academic I conversed with on the boycott, including friends positioned on Israel’s far left – interpret the impossible conditions as proof that BDS has no interest in any Israeli university ever qualifying to have the boycott lifted. As the report of the AAA’s own Task Force on engagement with Israel and Palestine states, the initiative to boycott Israeli universities could potentially lead to an indefinite ostracization.

An indefinite boycott is deplorable not only because it is too harsh or too extreme. It is unacceptable because it defeats the purpose which every sanction ever deployed for political brinkmanship strives to achieve: to motivate the boycotted party to redirect its conduct and induce positive change. Why do anything when you think that however hard you try, you will never really qualify to have the sanction lifted?


The Political Context of the Current Call for Boycott

Boycotters are a diverse crowd. They have no official leadership and cannot be held collectively accountable for anything. But based on my observation of Palestinian politics for many years, I can say that amongst the leaders of BDS many dream of a future without Israel. Some of them have held this view for decades. Others joined the drift more recently. But that is clearly the dominant sentiment amongst them.

Others in that diverse camp (and many potential supporters) may see a future for Israel, perhaps even through a two state solution. But rather than clarifying this crucial point, BDS’s leaders deliberately obfuscate it. The standard line is that the movement ‘has no position’ on the endgame – it is strictly focusing on human rights for Palestinians.

This position is deeply unconvincing and unsettling. BDS’s leaders do have a position. But since the notion of a future without Israel is hard to sell, they do their best to mute and to embellish it. An attempt to undo Israel is thereby camouflaged as an attempt to reform it. And a boycott designed to isolate, marginalize and silence Israeli moderates pretends to be a quest to reduce academic complicity as part of a larger struggle for human rights.

To be clear, I do not wish to trivialize the struggle for human rights, to which I have been committed throughout my career in academia and as part of Israeli and international civil society. But in the case in point, calling to boycott academic and cultural institutions as a means to promote human rights is decontextualized and misguided. Its real intention is to instrumentalize universities in Israel and academic associations abroad to achieve a broader, much more sinister objective.

This is the seed of wrath in BDS – its original sin. A boycott and sanctions campaign cannot work if it denies its target a future. It can only work if those boycotted can expect a brighter turn once they comply with the boycotters’ demands. Applying boycott in a situation where the actual goal is to eliminate your opponent’s existence will result in die-hard unwillingness to compromise.

This is why BDS has never focused on attempts to pressurize Israel economically. Economic sanctions are carrot-and-stick ploys, forcing those under pressure to do things against their will now in exchange for an alleviation of the pressure in the future. BDS, which strives to eclipse Israel altogether, has no carrots for it. That is why it has neglected economic sanctions, leaving them to sporadic action by committed student activists on US campuses who operate with little intervention, supervision or direction from BDS’s leadership.

An academic and cultural boycott, on the other hand, is a perfect fit for those who seek a future without Israel.

The Netanyahu government’s uncompromising and violent conduct in recent years brought international sympathy for Israel to an all time low. BDS now hopes that this fall from grace could soon be followed by Israel’s ultimate collapse. They see an opportunity for them to play an active role in this process: demonize Israel as a radically essentialized epitome of evil, and you might expedite its ultimate demise.

This strategy finds willing partners on the Israeli right, where politicians thrive on cultivating an ethos which suggests that ‘the whole world is against us’. Moreover, it is a strategy which cannot tolerate Israeli moderates. A vibrant intellectual milieu, where academics and artists embrace complexity and nuance, subverts BDS’s essentializing mission. Israelis who openly criticize the occupation and the government, who stand in solidarity with Palestinian farmers against settler violence, who work with Palestinian whose villages with no electricity to install solar panels, wind turbines and rainfall water systems – such Israelis have no place in BDS’s cosmology.

Israelis whose actions and integrity complicate BDS’s over-simplified, self-righteous, monolithic tale of evil colonial oppressors versus angelic indigenous victims must be marginalized and silenced. Stakes are even higher when it comes to people like my friend the late Edward Said and like Daniel Barenboim, whose West-Eastern Divan Orchestra brings Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to play classical music together, was declared ‘boycottable’ by BDS in 2012. In fact, as far as BDS is concerned, the more amenable to dialogue we are, and the more prominent we might become, the more ‘boycottable’ we must remain.

Those convinced that Israel should not have been created in the first place, or that it no longer has the right to exist, are entitled to their opinion. But they have obligations, too. They must come clean about seeking a post-Israel endgame. They must own up to the highly stereotyped, dichotomized incitement they pursue. They must develop detailed plans for what the new post-Israel reality might look like, with particular attention to the process they think might lead there. And they must openly acknowledge the terrible price both Palestinians and Israelis might have to pay for an attempt to force this vision onto Israelis who, apart from a tiny group of academics, are unable to imagine such a scenario even as an intellectual exercise. In short, they need to heed Noam Chomsky’s warning, in a 2014 article in The Nation, that BDS and its supporters must be careful what they wish for.

The conversation I am proposing here will be tense. It will take place far outside the comfort zone of those amongst the BDS leadership who have so far controlled its discourse. But it will be a more honest one. Most importantly, it will allow stakeholders and observers to form opinions and decisions based on real positions, not deceitful manipulations.



Prof. Dan Rabinowitz teaches Anthropology at Tel-Aviv University. He is Co-founder of Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel and Palestine, a former President of the Israeli Anthropological Association and of Greenpeace Mediterranean and current Chairman of the Association for Environmental Justice in Israel. He has written books on Israel/Palestine published by Cambridge, UC Berkeley and Ashgate, and published articles in American Ethnologist, JRAI, Critical Inquiry, IJMES, JAR, Ethnic and Racial Studies and more.


[1] The issue will be put to an electronic ballot by the entire membership of the AAA between April 15 and May 15 2016.

[2] A nested argument which I will not develop here is that ‘complicity’, of which Israeli universities are repeatedly but not convincingly accused by boycotters, is an irregularity for which boycott is not necessarily the best remedy.


[3] This by the way is not a first. In 2014, many anthropologists signed a petition calling to boycott Israeli universities which had a different condition, equally impossible to meet: that Israeli universities ‘call on Israel’ to comply with BDS’s blueprint for normalization (above). It is impossible because universities do not, cannot and must not, as institutions, take sides in political debates that split the societies in which they operate down the middle.


Why the Academic Boycott is Immoral

By Ziggy Rivkin-Fish

This article was originally published on SociaLogics

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) recently approved at its business meeting a resolution to boycott Israeli Academic Institutions to be placed on the April electronic ballots for vote by the general membership. The resolution largely adopts the boiler plate language of PACBI and links the Academic Boycott as part of the larger boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

The resolution presents itself as in response to Israeli state transgressions and complicity by academic institutions in such transgressions, it also claims to be in response to some the call by some vague “vast majority of Palestinian civil society organizations.” But it is no secret who the backers and leaders of this effort are, and that many, if not most, of the leaders of BDS, most prominently Omar Barghutti, have made it clear that BDS’s unambigous goal is and should be the elimination of the state of Israel, and that it is the deligitimation element of BDS that will lead to this goal.

Some of the sponsoring organizations have provided apologist explanations that the movement contains a broad range of motives, including a one state solution that would eliminate an Israeli entity, but that once all conditions are fulfilled (including Israel giving up “all Arab lands” and allowing all Palestinians to return to all territories), the rest – as if there would be anything left – would be up to the parties to determine. This is at best an unacceptable moral compromise and at worst a sanction for ethnic cleansing. To claim that one can support BDS while also be for peace, is to pretend either that Israeli Jews will accept living under Palestinian majority rule and give up any aspirations of their own country, or that they will conveniently decide to self-deport. And it is simply not morally defensible to accept and legitimate aspirations for ethnic cleansing as a legitimate cost to secure Palestinian rights.

There is simply no alternative to a 2-state solution if one is committed to peace. I am aware that many boycott supporters, including some Jews, do not take for granted any inherent right of Jews to their own homeland. But that is morally irrelevant. The BDS path is a path to existential war and ethnic cleansing regardless of one’s position on Zionism or Palestinian nationalism.

While I object to academic boycotts on other grounds, I suppose one could make a moral case for them if they had clearly definable and achievable goals that would be verifiable, and targeted at the actual institution empowered to address the targeted actions. This is of course a very, very far cry from what this academic boycott resolution is. But it is the affiliation with BDS and the morally indefensible aim of its backers that makes it completely unacceptable, regardless of one’s position on Israeli state policies.

Ziggy Rivkin-Fish is a blogger, sociologist, and works in the IT sector as an expert on governance.


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.


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.






American Anthropologists Betray their own Values

While debating an academic boycott of Israeli universities Friday, an overwhelming majority of those attending the annual business meeting of the American Anthropological Association rejected a motion to reaffirm the discipline’s historic commitment to non-discrimination

A turning point in American academic history took place Friday night during the annual business meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). With an all-time record attendance of more than 1500, the Association debated a resolution to boycott Israeli universities which was eventually upheld. Minutes into the debate, the Association refused to take up an amendment to the boycott resolution which affirms the AAA’s “long standing support of academic freedom and its opposition to measures that foster discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability”. The proposed anti-discrimination clause was rejected by a crushing majority of those AAA members who were in attendance. With this rejection, and by embracing the boycott resolution which discriminates against Israeli universities later that evening by a 1,040 to 136 majority, the AAA repudiated its long cherished values of promoting pluralism and tolerance.

Apart from tabling this failed amendment to the boycott resolution, founders of Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel and Palestine (ADIP) also joined ten other anthropologists to offer an alternative resolution at Friday’s business meeting. This alternative resolution strongly criticized Israel’s policies and actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians, called upon the AAA to address injustice and human rights violations against them by investing in academic initiatives in the region, and rejected the call for academic boycott. This alternative resolution was rejected by the Business Meeting by an almost equally large majority as the adopted boycott resolution.

ADIP regards the boycott resolution as a boost to the Israeli government’s intransigence and a recipe for extending the occupation of Palestinian lands which Israeli has occupied since 1967. “Such actions” said Prof. Dan Rabinowitz of Tel-Aviv University, a co-founder of ADIP, ”play into the hands of the Israeli Right, who will herald it as further proof that ‘the world is all against us’ and that whatever Israelis do, even left leaning academics, they will be marginalized”. Rabinowitz, who together with Prof. Susan Kahn (Harvard) proposed the non-discrimination amendment to the boycott resolution which was rejected Friday. The non-discrimination amendment was supported by Professor Harvey Goldberg (Hebrew U.), Professor Yehuda Goodman (Hebrew U.), Professor Jackie Feldman (Ben Gurion U.), Prof. Amalia Sa’ar (Haifa U.) and other Israeli anthropologists who are known for their pro-peace stances and work. Professor Rabinowitz continued: “The rage and indignation at Israel’s actions was wrongfully and dangerously diverted by boycotters to sow divisions within the academic community which are counterproductive and, in the case of me and my Israeli colleagues, most depressing”.

Dr. Gila Silverman (University of Arizona), Co-founder of ADIP, who addressed the AAA business meeting Friday, said: “The AAA’s vote today demonstrated a failure on the part of anthropologists to truly devote themselves to listening, learning, and acknowledging social complexity. The AAA betrayed our Israeli colleagues by ostracizing and silencing them, and unfairly holding them accountable for governmental policies that they themselves have courageously opposed.”

Prof. Michele Rivkin-Fish (UNC, Chapel Hill) said after the vote: “Something significant and powerful in me has broken. I feel it viscerally: a physical blow, a kick in the stomach. It is the kind of personal loss in which you know that nothing will ever be the same again. What has broken is my belief in my profession. My trust in my colleagues”.

ADIP co-founder David M. Rosen, professor of Anthropology and Law at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said after Friday’s vote: “This resolution will curtail the ability of anthropologists, social scientists and humanists to teach and conduct research with an open mind on the issues affecting Israel and Palestine. In embracing the right to discriminate, the boycott resolution has dangerously delineated a new terrain. The AAA’s decision could boost and provide a cover for governments and political operatives everywhere that seek to marginalize or suffocate academic institutions and members of civil society. The boycott resolution is something the AAA and members who supported it will need to grapple with for decades.”

The boycott resolution carried by the AAA’s Business Meeting on Friday is preliminary. The only final decision taken is to bring it to an electronic ballot in April 2015, whereby all 12,000 members of the AAA will be asked to approve or reject it. ADIP shares the view of many that an electronic vote taken by members individually is different to a crowded meeting setting, where a well-organized, well-funded group truncated debate, willfully preventing participants from having an opportunity to listen to the present minority’s point of view. ADIP remains committed to its campaign against the boycott frenzy, for dialogue and reconciliation, and will be dedicating more energy and whatever resources it can obtain to keep its struggle going in coming months and years.