I have signed the petition against the academic boycott of Israeli institutions by the American Anthropological Association. After signing, I felt as if I had taken my stand and have since mostly stayed away from the contentious spaces of debate that are populated largely by pro-boycott anthropologists at this year’s meeting. I had hoped that scholars who had signed the anti-boycott petition and were more advanced in their careers and more entangled with research in this area would bring to the table a better explanation than I could. I also felt that if the boycott came to pass, that I would not fight it as it is better than no action at all and likely would not have devastating effects (either positive or negative).
I chose to write this post, however, after observing the Twitter feed under the hashtag #AAA2014, reading the Inside Higher Ed article, and listening to the buzz around the conference hotel. I do not feel that my anti-boycott stance has been represented in the discourses of the AAA. So, I sat down this morning at my laptop before heading out to put into print why I signed the “Anthropologists Against the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions” petition.
My critique of the academic boycott by anthropologists could rather easily be summed up in one word: conceit. The easiest target for critique is the question of our power as anthropologists to effect change through withholding. Do we as American anthropologists actually have a commodity that is is so valuable to Israel that withholding it will produce a change in tone, rhetoric, or action by either Israeli academic institutions or the Israeli government? Pessimistically, I tend to believe not. However, having little power to bring about the change that you feel is right, is not a particularly good argument for inaction. If the boycott changed just one mind it could be argued as a success. When I speak of conceit in the context of the academic boycott, this is not the critique I am making.
I see conceit in the aim of the boycott: Israel. I doubt there are many anthropologists who look to Israel and Palestine and are happy or even apathetic to the egregious violation of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli state. However, I see conceit in the idea that American anthropologists can look to our peers in the state funded academic institutions of Israel and hold these individuals accountable for the actions of their government.
As anthropologists, we are trained to seek complex understandings and reside in the realm of nuance. Yet, this position on Israeli affords no room for the complicated experiences of Israeli academics and paints their positions and their ability to produce positive change in their institutions and country with broad exaggerated brush strokes. The boycott movement then uses this position to hold these academics accountable and seeks to punish them.
Yet, American anthropologists reside within a country that is deeply implicated in and profoundly complacent with the occupation and military assault of Palestinian life. Steven Salaita, who has been evoked repeatedly within the debate, was not fired from an Israeli academic institution. He was fired from an American institution. We, as American anthropologists, are as equally tangled with the occupation of Palestine as our Israeli peers. Yet, the boycott movement is aimed exclusively at Israel. We take on very little or no responsibility for the actions of our government and our institutions while simultaneously holding our Israeli peers accountable for theirs. It is this conceit that drove me to sign the petition against the boycott.
We may protest, write books, produce blogs, and talk to the media about our outrage in the United States. However, our efforts have not resulted in substantial change in popular perceptions, in reducing U.S. complicity in the Israeli occupation of Palestine, or in the removal of barriers for outspoken academics who oppose Israel in higher education. From the position of our own struggles, why are we looking to Israeli anthropologists and expecting them to wield much greater power? Even if we say that this boycott is aimed at institutions and not individuals, we must acknowledge that individuals will bear a great burden that is unfairly targeted and has the potential to further diminish their ability to act.
So, I signed the petition against the boycott. It is my hope that we will find ways to collectively act that will (1) begin with our own implication and complicity in the U.S. and (2) approach this issue from the strengths of our discipline (e.g. managing complexity and finding creative methods of engagement based on that knowledge of complexity) rather than from the dubious perception that withholding our skills and knowledge carries more weight than wielding it.