A Boycott Story: An Old Practice, but Only One Possible Path

By, Harvey E. Goldberg, The Hebrew University

In the summer of 1981, in London, I participated in a conference on North African society. My work has had Jewish life in Libya as a major focus. Never having been able to visit Libya, I hoped the occasion might be an opportunity to meet colleagues from there. Before the first session, I spoke with some students from Libya. They were surprised at my presence, and expressed curiosity in a friendly tone.

Among the participants from different countries, one other Israeli attended: a student finishing her doctorate. Her research was on the political history of Tripolitania. My studies dealt mostly with daily life within the Jewish community. She was scheduled to speak first.

When my Israeli colleague was invited to the lectern, a person suddenly got up and addressed the chair. He introduced himself as a Palestinian and asked whether it was true that the speaker—who had not yet begun—was an Israeli. Upon hearing that she was, he expressed an objection that he and others were not informed earlier. His critical remarks included the statement that “Israelis are not human.”

He then began to walk out, and was joined by some others. I saw some people hesitate as whether to leave or not. Near me was one of the students with whom I had chatted. At first he did not move, but then I saw him notice a signal from and older person. He then left too.

At the end of the session, I was approached by a man from a university in Tunisia. In concise and crisp French he told me: “In politics we are adversaries; in science we are colleagues.” His statement has always stayed with me.

As Mideast Violence Escalates, Debate and Dialogue Shrinks

By: Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University.

As hot as things have become in Israel and the West Bank over the last several weeks with escalating violence, here in North America a chill is palpable. It comes in the form of silencing within and across communities – in private homes, on university campuses and in community institutions. It’s coming from both sides: those who call themselves “pro-Palestinian” and those who call themselves “pro-Israel.” While the Palestinian solidarity side uses boycott and silencing, the Jewish community has its own internal conversation watchdogs.

Last week, a speaker at the University of Minnesota was shouted down, his talk delayed by 30 minutes. The invited scholar was Moshe Halbertal, a philosopher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a professor of law at New York University. It was a scholarly talk: the Dewey Lecture in the Philosophy of Law, sponsored by the university’s law school. Prof. Halbertal is also a noted military ethicist who helped draft a code of ethics for the Israel Defense Forces. The Minnesota Anti-War Committee took credit for the stunt; Students for Justice in Palestine endorsed it.

If you’re concerned by the extent to which civilians have born the brunt of violence and destruction in the Israeli-Palestinian context, Prof. Habertal is someone you’d want to speak with, especially in an academic context where the point is the free exchange of ideas. But it’s hard to pose tough questions if you’re trying to silence the person.

This blocking of Prof. Halbertal’s speech is a trend that gets its fire from the academic and cultural boycott of Israel organized by the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, along with the more general push against what many Palestine solidarity activists call “normalization,” meaning ordinary engagement with Jews and Israelis and their ideas. Activists argue that the target is institutions, not individuals. But the effects on individuals and open speech, as they were at the University of Minnesota last week, are clear.

Continuing in this vein, last week producers of Dégradé, a film about Gaza told from the perspective of clients at a hair salon, pulled it from the Other Israel Film Festival sponsored by the JCC Manhattan because it’s a “Jewish” festival. While it seems that the producers’ decision was their own, it suggests a dangerous precedent: fortifying the silos between acceptable audiences and unacceptable ones in the world of art, ideas and culture.

Meanwhile, while the Jewish community doesn’t talk in terms of boycott and anti-normalization, it has its own troubling rules of engagement.

There are the narrow speaker guidelines for those with whom campus Jewish groups allow their members to publicly engage in dialogue. The guidelines for Hillel International, the world’s largest Jewish student organization, exclude anyone who “delegitimize[s], demonize[s] or appl[ies] a double standard to Israel, or supports the boycott, divestment and sanction movement.” While it’s natural that Israel supporters would bristle at those things, the rules effectively preclude Hillel students from inviting for debate and dialogue any Palestinian solidarity activists, almost all of whom, unfortunately, have jumped on the BDS bandwagon.

When my seven-year-long columnist post was cut from my local Jewish community paper last summer, I was told that it was to “make room for new voices.” Since then, it’s become clear that the publisher wanted only one angle on Israel. The columnist who focuses almost exclusively on the failings of Israel’s adversaries remained in place, while my replacement is steering clear of Israel altogether.

And then there are the corners of quiet shunning. I recently organized a Jewish community youth project involving rotating hosts. One of the participants pulled out, citing the fact that her husband “didn’t want me in his home.” He was appalled by my last Globe and Mail piece. When it comes to “support for Israel,” they said, “there is only one side.”

But some – young Jews in particular – are pushing back against this narrowing of discourse. First there was Open Hillel, a grassroots organization devoted to opposing the speaker guidelines mentioned above. (Disclosure: I am on the group’s academic advisory council.) And now there’s the Jewish People’s Assembly, which launched on Sunday in Washington. The group is demanding that Jewish Federations – the main funding body of local Jewish communities –“not condition support for Jewish institutions and organizations on these institutions’ adherence to red lines around Israel.”

One might fantasize about casting all the silencers into a room where they can sit in silence with each other to their heart’s content. Meanwhile, the rest of us can continue to try to talk, to write and to publicly grapple with the dilemmas of the day, trying to search for bits of common ground wherever they might be.

The original article was published at The Globe and Mail

What Your Boycott Means to Me

Like most academics in the summer time, I recently attended two professional conferences where I presented my research and heard about the research of my colleagues from around the world. Aside from the perk of world travel, summer vacation is an opportunity – perhaps the opportunity – to broaden horizons and learn about the state-of-the-art in our scientific fields. During this particular summer, I had pleasant conversations with Turkish, Chinese, and American colleagues, among many others.

Continue reading ‘s article.

Boycotting Israeli Universities and its Discontents

By: Dan Rabinowitz, Professor of Anthropology at Tel Aviv University

Those advocating a boycott of Israeli universities strive for the moral high ground, but puzzling contradictions cast doubts on their motivation

The initiative to have the AAA endorse a boycott of Israeli universities comes in two versions, each with its peculiar load of inner contradictions. The first version appeared in 2014 as a foundational statement. The gist: Israeli universities will be boycotted until ‘they call on Israel’ to end the siege of Gaza, withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967, grant Palestinian citizens of Israel full equality and ‘respect, protect and promote’ Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

Continue reading at Anthropology News

Resist the Call for Academic Boycott; Support Dialogue

We anthropologists, like others committed to human rights and justice, feel we must contribute to bring change to the Middle East. In the unequal conflict between Israel and Palestinians, primary responsibility for redressing injustices and relieving Palestinian suffering and for seeking and initiating a just and dignified solution rests on the shoulders of the more powerful party.

Boycotting Israeli universities, however, is the wrong choice of action. Rather than enhance peace and justice, it may exacerbate hostilities. Here are 5 reasons why:

  • Calls to boycott Israeli universities cavalierly conflate them with the state, the Occupation, and injustice generally. But Israeli universities are no more complicit with the Occupation than US universities are with the invasion of Iraq or Chinese universities with blocking Facebook. In fact, some of the clearest voices criticizing Israel’s occupation and oppression of Palestinians emanate from Israeli academics.
  • A boycott by academics abroad of Israeli universities will not inspire change in Israeli policies. Rather, it will augment a sense among Israelis that ‘the world is all against us,’ deepen intransigent impulses, isolate internal critics and stymie initiatives for peace.
  • The conditions that all pro-boycott statements set for ever lifting a boycott – including the proposal AAA members will be voting on in Denver on November 20th – are vague. Leaving those boycotted with no hope for it ever to end, such boycott loses all brinkmanship potential, yielding only acrimony and conflict.
  • Ostensibly defending Palestinian academic freedom, an academic boycott of Israel is a blunt instrument of retaliation, a punishment to Israeli moderates. It will damage academic freedom and will curtail the ability of social scientists and humanists of all political and disciplinary persuasions, including anthropologists, to teach and carry out research in Israel/Palestine.
  • Once a boycott is in place, distinctions between individuals and institutions become hollow. We may be more or less proud of our institutional affiliation at times, but it is part of our identity. Delegitimizing the institution an academic is affiliated with is a personal affront. And protocols that list activities an academic might be ‘allowed’ to participate in are shameful attempts at creating exceptions that prove a repugnant rule.

We anthropologist can do a lot to enhance dialogue and reconciliation in Israel/Palestine.

Actions we could embark on now:

The AAA’s Task Force on Israel Palestine (TFIP) submitted its findings to the Executive Committee in October 2015. Its full report can be found on AAA’s website.

The TFIP report suggests a number of avenues for actions as alternatives to a boycott, including:

  • Voice clear criticism of Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, including the continued Occupation of Palestinian lands;
  • Call on the US government to put pressure on Israel to advance Palestinian rights;
  • Call on Israel to enhance the freedom of speech and movement for Palestinians, and to stop persecutory policies toward Palestinian universities;
  • Support AAA members’ effort to teach anthropology and conduct anthropological research in the region;
  • Provide Palestinian libraries free access to anthropological journals;
  • Offer funds for visiting professors at Palestinian universities and to Palestinian anthropologists wishing to teach at home and elsewhere;

Note: A resolution proposed by ADIP, to be discussed and voted on at the AAA’s Business Meeting in Denver Nov. 20th , makes similar suggestions. It also advocates that the AAA should create an ear-marked fund, valued at 1% of its annual expenditure, to promote and enhance scholarly endeavors in conflict areas, with an initial emphasis on Palestine and Israel.

Come to the AAA Business Meeting on Friday November 20th 2015 6:15PM at the Colorado Convention Center.

Vote Yes on proposed Resolution number 1: End the Occupation; Resist the call for Academic Boycott; Support Dialogue

European Sociology Association (ESA) Adopted Ethical Guidelines Condemning Academic Boycotts.

In a recent meeting of its General Assembly on August 27th 2015, the EuropeanSociology Association approved two ethical guidelines which specifically condemn boycott against academics. Ethical Guideline 2 reads: ‘The aim of the Association to develop sociological understanding of both the diversity and the complexity of existing European societies should be reflected in norms of social investigation that take into account the experiences and perspectives of others according to our own non-discriminatory ethic’.

Ethical Guideline 3 reads: ‘To this end the ESA holds that its members, conference participants and partners are not to be discriminated against in any way, direct or indirect, including boycott of themselves or their institutions, based on their ethnic, national, gender, age, religious, disability, political or sexual orientation backgrounds’.

Click here for the full statement. See also the European Sociology Association website.

Why the BDS Campaign Can’t Tolerate Israeli Moderates

By: Dan Rabinowitz, Professor of Anthropology at Tel Aviv University

In 2001, Edward Said partnered with Daniel Barenboim to create what Said’s widow since labeled the most important project of his life: the East West Music Diwan, a platform for Palestinian and Israeli young music talents to meet, rehearse and perform together. In 2012 the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel denounced the Diwan as “undermining Palestinian civil resistance.”
I am an Anthropologist at Tel-Aviv University, proud to have been a personal friend of Edward Said. I am currently involved in an effort to curb attempts to boycott Israeli universities, attempts which, like PACBI, are inspired by BDS – the Palestinian movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel. The uphill battle in which my colleagues and I are engaged often makes me think of Edward’s legacy.
How did Said’s Diwan and Israeli universities end up being targeted by BDS?  “Boycott, divestment and sanctions” suggests an economic emphasis. Given the success of economic pressure elsewhere – South Africa and more recently Iran stand out as two examples – why does BDS neglect mainstream Israeli economic institutions? And why is it so eager to boycott Israeli universities, inhabited by individuals who, like Said in his time, are overwhelmingly in favor of dialogue and compromise?

This is not the only puzzle surrounding BDS’s strategic choices. BDS’ homepage suggests that Israeli universities would be boycotted until they “call on Israel” to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, end the Gaza siege, give Palestinian citizens equality and recognize Palestinian refugees’ right of return.
These are reasonable demands (even the refugee clause is worded moderately). Hidden between the lines, however, is a procedural impasse: universities cannot, must not and do not state institutional positions on political issues. The condition, in other words, is one which universities can never meet, a recipe for indefinite boycott. Another version of a boycott, to be debated by the American Anthropological Association on November 20, suggests it will be enforced until such time when Israeli universities ‘end their complicity’ with the injustices inflicted on the Palestinians. Israel does inflict injustices on Palestinians, but making universities accountable for them is ludicrous, and a condition as vague as ‘when universities end their complicity’ is a new procedural quagmire. Who decides whether or when “complicity” has “ended?” Are universities everywhere ‘complicit’ with unseemly actions by their governments?

BDS is in the academic boycott business too long for these procedural blunders to be put down to oversight. Other elements of BDS’ strategy in fact suggest they were deliberate. BDS’ insistence on Israel’s withdrawal from the territories it took in 1967 suggests a two-state solution.

But statements by BDS leaders and supporters over the years reflect vehement opposition to this formula and a consistent preference of a future with no Israel. They are aware of course that such an endgame, complete with the negation of the right of Jews to self-determination, is hard to sell. So they embellish it. The demands from Israel, designed to be interpreted by innocent  bystanders as a call for a two-state solution, obfuscate a more sinister vision that has no place for Israel; and a call designed to ostracize Israeli universities indefinitely tries to pass as an effort to correct their moral fabric.

A vision of a future with no Israel explains BDS’ disinterest in economic sanctions. A stick-and-carrot ploy, economic sanctions nudge the target to do right under pressure now and enjoy benefits later. For example, economic sanctions of the type now contemplated by the European Union could force Israel to withdraw and to accept a Palestinian state, with the carrot coming later as renewed international support, so vital for Israel’s survival. Coy language on its website notwithstanding, BDS wants none of this. This is why economic sanctions, useless when the target is not assigned a future, are irrelevant for BDS.

Academic and cultural boycott, on the other hand, fits BDS’ endgame perfectly.  Israel’s intransigent and violent conduct in recent years brought international sympathy for it to an all-time low. BDS operatives hope this fall from grace could soon be followed by an ultimate collapse, and see an opportunity: demonize Israel as a radically essentialized epitome of evil, and you might expedite its ultimate demise.

This tactic has willing partners on the Israeli right, where politicians thrive on cultivating “the world is all against us” ethos. What it cannot tolerate are Israeli moderates. A vibrant, credible intellectual milieu, where academics and artists embrace complexity and nuance, openly criticizing the occupation and the government, subverts BDS’ essentializing mission.

Those who question the over-simplified, self-righteous, monolithic tale of evil colonial oppressors and angelic indigenous victims must be marginalized and silenced. Particularly when they include the likes of Said, Barenboim and Noam Chomsky. The more amenable to dialogue we are the more “boycottable” we must become.

Those who believe that Israel should not have been created or that it now no longer has the privilege to carry on have a right to their opinion. But they have obligations too. They must come clean about seeking a post-Israel endgame; they must specify the process they think might lead there; and they  must openly and realistically assess the price those on the ground might have to pay for it.
The conversation could grow tense, but at least it will be honest. This is essential if stakeholders and observers are to reach decisions based on real positions, not duplicitous manipulations.

This article was originally published in Haaretz

YES for Anthropological Engagement, NO to an Academic Boycott

By, Gila Silverman, School of Anthropology, University of Arizona

At the upcoming AAA Annual Meeting, the association’s members will be faced with two opposing resolutions about Israel and Palestine.

Both resolutions acknowledge the ongoing tragedies and suffering in Palestine and Israel. Both seek to do something about this suffering.

But only one resolution provides productive options for anthropological engagement in the region. The other seeks to ostracize our Israeli colleagues, and will cause serious damage to anthropological efforts in the region.

I will be voting NO to an academic boycott. The reasons for this have been stated clearly elsewhere, but the main points that I find relevant are:

  • Such boycotts end up punishing individual scholars, not institutions;
  • These scholars are often the very people seeking to understand and address the issues in the region;
  • Singling out Israel when other conflicts and human rights issues are ignored implies that there are other underlying reasons for this call to action;
  • Singling out Israel demonstrates a lack of understanding of this particular conflict and the larger socio-political dynamics of the region as a whole.

I will be voting YES for anthropological engagement. I believe that anthropologists can make an important contribution to the heated and passionate discussions about the Middle East, and about Israel-Palestine in particular. We are one of the only scholarly disciplines who have the tools to problematize the social, religious and political histories of the public discourses on all sides of the debate, and to explore the everyday experiences of those living in the midst of these terrible events.

If we as anthropologists truly want to support greater understanding and catalyze movement towards peace in Israel and Palestine, academic boycotts are the opposite of what we should be doing. AAA should be encouraging academic dialogue, theoretically and methodologically sophisticated scholarship, and curriculum development. Rather than an academic boycott, AAA should spearhead an initiative for greater academic engagement in Israel/Palestine, advocate for more research and scholarship funding, challenge universities to teach more courses and create more faculty lines for those who take on these complex issues.

There are many anthropologists – Israelis, Palestinians, Americans and Europeans – who have done excellent work to help us analyze and understand this region. These scholars have demonstrated tremendous sensitivity and have worked hard to build the trust and neutrality that is necessary in such a polarized and emotionally-laden region. They have done this academic work despite the risk to themselves, their families, and their careers. Their research looks beyond the deep fears, angers, and passions that characterize any discussion of the Middle East; it forces us to challenge our assumptions, helps us to better understand those we might see as “other” – on all sides of the political, cultural and religious spectrums – and provides rare insights into an extremely complicated situation. This is exactly the type of anthropological scholarship that I want to make available to my students. I want to hear more from these researchers, and I want new scholars to tackle these complex questions. I would hate to see us shut down these lines of inquiry through a boycott of our colleagues and peers. We would achieve nothing by silencing the very voices that are most needed on this complex issue.

We might also consider turning our anthropological lens on ourselves, in order to explore the very questions raised in discussions of an anthropological academic boycott: Why has Israel/Palestine been singled out? Why is the discourse around Israel so different from that about other countries in the region? Why have AAA members chosen to bring this issue to the Executive Board, and not the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Ukraine?

Anthropological studies of Israel-Palestine, and of the other conflicts spread throughout the entire region, have much to teach us. Rather than boycott those grappling with these issues, we should do everything we can to support and encourage them.

Oppose Academic Boycott: A Letter From a North Carolina-Based Anthropologist

By: Michele Rivkin Fish, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A boycott positions “us” –the non-Israelis– as less entangled, less responsible, less complicit in the militarization and violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—despite the deep involvement of the US government and corporate world in this conflict. It expresses a hubris of moral purity that one can condemn colleagues without understanding the lives they lead, or knowing the specific labor they pursue. A boycott represents a simple refusal to engage, under the guise of engagement, rather than the challenging investment of time and energy to figure out how our expertise may contribute positively to the goals of peace.

Read Michele’s letter: Rivkin Fish letter to AAA re-boycott

Isaiah Silver and the Strange Crimes of Israeli Anthropologists

By David M. Rosen Professor of Anthropology and Law at Fairleigh Dickinson University

 Among the many peculiar and troubling voices within the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement in anthropology is that of the fictional character Isaiah Silver, whose writings feature prominently in the popular anthropology blog Savage Minds. The name Isaiah Silver, with its obviously Jewish shadings, is claimed to be the collective pseudonym of two members of the American Anthropological Association who have lived and worked in Israel and Palestine and who describe themselves as “proud Jews.”  And so it is as a “proud Jew” that Isaiah Silver points his accusing finger at Israeli anthropologists, charging them with all manner of crimes against Palestinians.

As a former “insider,” Isaiah Silver, the renegade “proud Jew,” lends the aura of authenticity to BDS’s accusations. In reality, the emergence of the character of Isaiah Silver is reminiscent of what the late Richard Hofstader dubbed the paranoid style of American politics, in which the renegade figure –formerly the ex-Communist and now the anti-Israel Jew—plays a central accusatory role. But why choose a pseudonym? After all, anyone remotely familiar with American anthropology knows that you don’t exactly need to be Braveheart to condemn Israel in front of a crowd of American anthropologists. But the pseudonym adds to the aura of staged victimhood, as these BDS propagandists demand that their identities be protected as they seek to destroy the careers of their Israeli colleagues.

But why go after Israeli anthropologists? After all, Israeli anthropologists, on the whole, are politically left, liberal, tolerant, and opposed to the politics of occupation as pursued by the current right wing government of Israel. They would ordinarily be natural allies of any anthropologists interested in finding fair and just solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But instead treating them as allies, “Isaiah Silver” and his ilk have invented vicarious and phony transgressions to be rectified by boycott. First and foremost is the charge that Israeli anthropology is responsible for the nationalist bent of some Israeli archeology. Left unsaid is that in Israel, as in Europe, archeology is not a subfield of anthropology. Archeology is a separate field with its own departments, training, faculty, and students. Anthropology students do not study together with archeology students, nor vice versa. How anthropologists are to be held responsible for the alleged transgressions of scholars in a completely independent and separate discipline remains unexplained. Also left undiscussed is the nationalist bent that archeology has taken in many other countries in the Middle East and beyond.

Secondly, BDS supporters charge Israeli anthropologists with ‘crimes of omission’ in their work, when they fail to engage the issue of the Palestinians. It is true that not all Israeli anthropologists are political, and many have engaged in research which has little or nothing to do with politics or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But anthropologists throughout the world engage in work that has scant connection to politics. How does the normal work of anthropology come to be characterized by BDS and its supporters, and even by our own Task Force, as a kind of crime of omission? Even more problematic, how anyone can buy into this nonsense?

The answer is quite simple: All radical movements demand simple binary oppositions: a world made up of oppressors and oppressed, good guys and bad guys. All radical movements have “take no prisoners” and “if you’re not with us you’re against us” positions. BDS is no different. Its own ideology – the destruction of Jewish sovereignty in Israel –cannot abide even the mere existence of liberal, tolerant, pluralistic, and progressive Israeli institutions and actors. The BDS anti-normalization project is specifically designed to eliminate all cooperation with centers of progress and reform in Israel. All become subsumed under the slogans of the regressive left, such as “settler colonial state,” “complicity” and, of course, the evil specter of “Zionism.”

What does all this mean for anthropology? BDS is now asking the American Anthropological Association to become a sponsor and underwriter of its ideology. It would be wise to remember that while the American Anthropological Association has had some proud moments in the past, it has also had some extremely dark moments. The horrific attacks on Franz Boas by the association and, in more recent years, the kangaroo court (aka Task Force) used to harass and condemn Napoleon Chagnon illustrate this association’s potential for viciousness when it is seized and overwhelmed by self-righteous illusions. Now we are being asked to take an unprecedented step: to become a party to a political conflict. Any contemporary observer knows that the forces of radicalism –left and right—have seized the opportunity for promoting violence in Israel and Palestine. In this conflict, BDS is asking us to take the side of the some of the most radical and irredentist forces within the Palestinian national movement, against the forces of moderation, including our own colleagues and their departments in Israel. I have grave doubts that American anthropology can ever recover from taking such a radical step.