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.

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.