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“Why I signed” (the petition for academic boycott of Israeli institutions)

Guest blog post by AAA member,  Steven Caton (Harvard U).

I have not been a fan of boycotts in the past, so why did I change my mind?

The Gaza war in June and the continuing settlement finally made me reconsider. All the hand wringing over the Palestinians and pronouncements critical of Israel and its policies were doing absolutely no good. I spoke to a number of colleagues and friends, two of them Israeli, and two of them not (no Palestinians I regret to say) about the pros and cons of the proposed boycott, and after contemplating what they said for several weeks, I finally decided to sign. In other words, I did not take this action lightly. I have thought longer and harder than ever about questions of academic freedom that boycotts raise, and whether it’s impossible to distinguish between boycotting institutions and individual scholars, as it is claimed by boycott opponents.

Let me try to tackle the issue of academic freedom first. Opponents of the boycott argue that the freedoms of individual academics will be jeopardized, Israeli, Palestinian, and even scholars like myself who might “self-censure” by not publishing in journals supported by Israeli academic institutions, and that the boycott will not only be counter-productive but wrong in principle. It’s hard for me to buy this argument, when the range of academic journals, publishers and internet sites are so numerous and various as to make it possible to communicate one’s research outside the boycotted venues. A more reasonable concern is whether by not attending Israeli conferences or not teaching in Israeli classrooms, one is weakening these institutions to the point where they will see a cut-back in support for, say, anthropology, and thus do damage to the discipline inside the country as well as to individual anthropologists working in these institutions who are critical of Israel’s policy towards Palestinians and other marginalized groups within the country. Or conversely, that I am denying the possibility of my own speaking out within Israel against Israel’s policies and the university system that supports them. Let’s face it, even if we were given the chance to make that point or debate it, it would be dismissed as a personal view. I’d rather forego the opportunity to debate the issues within Israel, where these things tend to get coopted or marginalized in any case, and align with my colleagues in condemning what I think is unjust, which I think is a much more powerful tactic.

Speaking more abstractly, there is the “infra-structural” or “material” argument that says academic freedom is dependent on certain conditions being operative, and of course I have to acknowledge the merits of this argument in that Palestinian scholars are being deprived of the material infra-structure they need to exercise their academic freedoms within Israel. Am I therefore being illogical by arguing that two wrongs make a right? That if Palestinians are being denied their academic freedom, then so should Israelis and others working in Israeli institutions?
The answer to that question gets to the other, whether it is possible to distinguish between institutions and individuals. The boycott does not say that an Israeli (or non-Israeli) working or teaching or otherwise doing research at an Israeli institution of higher learning ipso facto will be boycotted, it only says that the institution will be. Impossible to make this distinction in practice between institutions and individuals? Again, I have a hard time believing that it is impossible; difficult, at times, perhaps, but certainly not impossible. I have supervised several Israeli students and otherwise closely advised or mentored others, all of whom fall within the spectrum from right to left on the question of Israel’s policies, and I don’t see my practice changing. The question is the intellectual merits of the individuals and the proposed research, and also the degree to which the project is critical of existing injustices that fall within the scope of the topic. I suppose I can only make this judgment on the basis of the facts of the application but that is only all we ever have before us when making collaborative decisions such as these. Might the research I collaborate with be used later to support the oppressive policies of the Israeli state? Perhaps. But all of us take this risk with the research we publish once it is in the public domain. So, would I accept to work with a student (Israeli, Palestinian or other) from an Israeli university whose project explores a research topic within, say, Israel, but also looks at the question in a balanced way deploying critical anthropology at its best? Yes, absolutely I would work with him or her. Where I would have a problem is with someone who seems not to be aware of or averse to pushing a critical perspective, or is simply an apologist for one side or the other in the conflict. Where I would also have a problem is accepting an invitation from that student’s home institution to give a lecture or teach in the classroom.

To those who say there are better ways to address the very injustices that they too want to change, I ask that you please put them forward so that we can debate the proposal and decide whether we should support it. Give us the alternative. To those who say the boycott is ineffective, then propose something that is. To those who say that it will do more harm than good, it is hard to imagine how the present state of affairs can possibly be worse. But I hope the debate will allow us to explore what are obviously difficult and thorny issues.

Over 300 Anthropologists Oppose a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Today’s guest blog post is written by AAA member, David M. Rosen (rosen@fdu.edu).

More than 300 anthropologists have now signed a statement strongly opposing efforts by the political organization Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) and it supporters within the American Anthropological Association to organize a boycott of Israeli academic institutions (http://anthroantiboycott.wordpress.com). The goal of the boycott is to sever all ties between members of the American Anthropological Association and Israeli anthropologists, many of whom are also members of the AAA. A boycott will severely damage professional anthropological life, scholarly interchange, free speech, and free association. The boycott effort damages the American Anthropological Association by giving a partisan political issue center stage at the annual meetings. Finally, a boycott will create a discriminatory and hostile environment against Israeli anthropologists and anthropologists working in Israel, and a rift with many members of the American Anthropological Association who refuse to become collaborators in this process.

Boycott supporters offer a strange and dangerous theory of vicarious complicity to bolster their arguments. Israeli academic institutions, they assert, must be punished because, as institutions, they have not adopted public positions against Israeli government actions and policies with respect to the occupation of Palestinian lands. But no such idea of second- hand complicity has ever been applied to any other academic institutions. Many BDS supporters themselves come from universities that never took official positions against the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Indeed, many come from state universities that were major recipients of defense funding at the time that thousands of innocents were killed by US forces. Furthermore, when the American Anthropological Association voted to boycott the state of Arizona over its immigration laws, it did not target Arizona public universities and our colleagues in Arizona because Arizona universities did not take a public stand against such laws. We did not treat such universities as complicit simply because they did not act against state government actions and continued to accept funding from the state of Arizona.

Indeed, many Israeli academics, in their work within and beyond the university, are leaders in advocating peace, non-violence and the end of the Occupation. Our unique skills as anthropologists lie in examining and challenging the taken-for-granted while suggesting new perspectives and previously unimagined ways to subvert the violence of the status quo. We urge all anthropologists to consider the manifold ways in which anthropology and anthropologists might move forward in the search for justice and in striving for peace in Israel/Palestine. Boycotting and demonizing Israeli academic institutions and our Israeli colleagues is not one of them, and is in fact, counterproductive. We urge our colleagues to join the thousands of others in organizations such as the American Association of University Professors and Modern Language Association in wholly rejecting boycotts of academic institutions. Such boycotts are subversions of the academic freedoms and values. necessary to the free flow of idea in the anthropological community. Anthropologists interested in signing this statement can go directly to the petition at http://anthroantiboycott.wordpress.com/sign-the-statement or forward an email with your name and academic affiliation to anthro.anti.boycott@gmail.com.

Format for December 4th Members’ Open Forum on Engagement with Israel and Palestine

Today’s guest blog post is written by Ed Liebow, Executive Director.

Last July’s Anthropology News mentioned a variety of ways in which AAA leadership is trying to foster dialogue and information exchange among AAA members on anthropologically relevant issues related to Israel/Palestine. We mentioned there that an Open Forum would be held at the Annual Meeting; it has now been scheduled for Thursday 4 December, from 13:00 to 14:15 in the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, Ballroom Salon 2. Our goal is to facilitate dialogue among AAA Members, bringing to bear on the conversation the culture of inquiry and analytical skills characteristic of our profession.

The frame for the discussion is: what issues related to Israel/Palestine are relevant to us as anthropologists, as members of a scholarly association, and to the AAA as an association of anthropologists?

Here is what you can expect at the Open Forum. The hall will be arranged with a number of tables; the hall is large and we can accommodate many small groups. You will be encouraged to sit with people you do not already know well. There will be introductory remarks from Monica Heller, the AAA President, a brief update on the work of the AAA Task Force on Engagement on Issues related to Israel/Palestine by the Task Force chair, AAA Past-President Don Brenneis, and a short explanation of the forum’s format by our lead facilitator, Tarek Maassarani. The process will include an opening round to build trust and familiarity amongst participants; several discussion rounds with prompts to share what questions, knowledge, perspectives, and experiences participants bring to the table; and a reflective closing round to share insights and their relevance beyond this one event.

Participants will also be given index cards that they can place in feedback boxes as they leave the room. Facilitators will be asked to fill out a reflection form immediately following the dialogue to help us better understand what happened at each table. If there is time, we might be able to hear from some of the facilitators before we need to vacate the room. Since the objective at this stage is to foster dialogue among members, we will check badges at the entrance. Executive Board members, Task Force members, Section Assembly leadership and AAA staff will likely attend as observers. We will ask the press to respect our privacy during the Forum, though we are happy for participants to speak to the press (or blog or tweet) before and after the event. We are also open to considering further such events, whether open only to members or not.

Over 250 Anthropologists Join the Call for a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Today’s guest blog post is by AAA member, Lisa Rofel. Please direct your questions and/or inquiries to her via email: lrofel@ucsc.edu.

More than 250 anthropologists have signed a statement endorsing the burgeoning movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions in protest of Israel’s systematic human rights violations against the Palestinian people. These violations, in which many Israeli educational institutions are complicit, include denying Palestinians their right to education and academic freedom.

The full statement and signatory list are at http://anthroboycott.wordpress.com As scholars who specialize in how power, oppression, and structural violence affect social life, and as witnesses to the State of Israel’s multiple and egregious violations of international law that constitute an assault on Palestinian culture and society, they pledge to abide by their discipline’s stated commitment to “the promotion and protection of the right of people and people’s everywhere to the full realization of their
humanity.”

These anthropologists have determined that the policies, actions, and programs of Israeli academic institutions are complicit in the occupation and oppression of Palestinians in Israel and in the Occupied Territories in multiple ways. In calling for this institutional boycott, they pledge not to collaborate on projects and events hosted or funded by Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or attend conferences or other events at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel. They remain open to collaboration with individual scholars based in the Israeli academy.

The signatories of the statement call on their anthropologist colleagues to join them, along with thousands of members of a growing number of US academic associations (including the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association), in answering the call from Palestinian civil society as well as from a number of Israeli anthropologists, to cease legitimizing Israeli academic institutions and thereby condoning their role in the continued suppression of the basic rights of the Palestinian people.

Anthropologists interested in signing this statement should visit: http://anthroboycott.wordpress.com, or email their name and affiliation to: anthroboycott@gmail.com

Anthropologists Announce New Task Force on AAA Engagement with Israel/Palestine

The Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) announces the creation of the Task Force on AAA Engagement with Israel/Palestine, part of a broad association effort to respond to members’ interest in dialogue about the ongoing Israel/Palestine conflict. The Task Force is charged with helping the Executive Board consider the nature and extent to which AAA might contribute to addressing the issues that the Israel/Palestine conflict raises. It will report to the Executive Board by October 1st, 2015.

Task Force members were appointed by AAA President Monica Heller based on criteria including: significant expertise in relevant subject areas (e.g. conflict; historical memory); a representation of the main sub-fields of archeology, linguistics, biological, and cultural anthropology; understanding of the association; no two members from the same organization or university; no one with publicly identified positions on the issue.

The members of the group are Chair Don Brenneis (UC-Santa Cruz; AAA past president), Niko Besnier (University of Amsterdam), Patrick Clarkin (University of Massachusetts-Boston), Hugh Gusterson (George Washington University), John Jackson (University of Pennsylvania), and Kate Spielmann (Arizona State University).

The Executive Board has asked the Task Force to: 1) enumerate the issues embedded in the conflict between Israel and Palestine that directly affect the Association. These issues may include, but are not limited to, the uses of anthropological research to support or challenge claims of territory and historicity; restrictions placed by government policy or practice on anthropologists’ academic freedom; or commissioning anthropological research whose methods and/or aims may be inconsistent with the AAA statement of professional responsibilities; 2) develop principles to be used to assess whether the AAA has an interest in taking a stand on these issues; 3) provide such an assessment.

This may include providing a comprehensive and neutral overview of arguments for and against a range of specific possible stands on these issues, as well as on any broader but relevant issues that are raised in the context. The Task Force will also recommend whether or not the Association should take any action, and if so, will recommend what form it should take. To read the full Task Force charge, please visit http://bit.ly/1t9ELse.

“The ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine is of great relevance to the AAA, and it is worth the investment of time and careful thought that the Task Force is being asked to make,” Task Force Chair Don Brenneis said today. “The Association’s engagement in the relevant issues may take several forms. We want to be sure that we have the facts straight, and a clear understanding of the impacts associated with our choices before we recommend to the Executive Board a course of action.”

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Annual Meeting Dialogue on Israel-Palestine

Today’s blog post is by AAA Executive Director Dr. Edward Liebow.

Because violence begets violence, I have recently been looking for a better way (without bullets) to say ‘there’s no silver bullet’ to acknowledge the palpable absence of any simple remedy to the intractable latest episode in a decades-long Israeli/ Palestinian conflict. Indeed, in recent days, hopeful glimmers of an extended cease-fire are clouded by escalating negotiation demands with toweringly high stakes. This concerns me as an individual, and also as AAA Executive Director at a moment when we are opening up dialogue on Israel/Palestine inside the association.

Indeed, here at the AAA office, summer is almost over, and our planning machine is already at full speed in advance of December’s Annual Meeting in Washington. The program is available online. Judging by recent blog posts and social media exchanges, this year’s Meeting is among the more eagerly anticipated in recent memory, in no small part due to the opportunities that have been created for a scholarly consideration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – although of course there are possibilities for discussion both before and after. Anthropologists will be tackling many of the world’s challenges at this year’s Meeting, so let me take this opportunity to provide you with more information about the events surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict.113th AAA Annual Meeting

Paper presentations, roundtable discussions, and an open forum discussion will allow participants to unpack this conflict’s historical, cultural, and political-economic contexts, and also examine the advocacy role of scholarly societies like the AAA.

Thanks to the hard work of AAA members, the program chairs, the Executive Program Committee, and the AAA meetings and conference staff, we have aimed to make sure a wide range of perspectives will be represented in these events, which include:

For more information and session abstracts, log in to the meetings site. We invite healthy, respectful debate, and look forward to a deliberate, considered, and educational dialogue.

Haven’t registered for the 113th Annual Meeting yet? Register today! Will you be traveling from out of town? Save money by booking your hotel now at a discounted rate.

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