Note from the editor: Anthropology News shares here two essays that discuss the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement (BDS) as it relates to current discussions among anthropologists. As a reminder, all essays appearing in AN reflect the views of the authors; their publication does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA. Authors are expected to verify all factual information included in the text. We have published the two essays together here to help ensure a wider conversation. The two essays appear in the order they were received by the AN editor.
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Why I Support the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions
By Thomas Blom Hansen (Stanford U)
I came of age politically as an anti-apartheid activist in my native Denmark during the late 1970s. We campaigned for a comprehensive boycott of South Africa. The UN General Assembly had recommended this since the 1960s but effective international sanctions were repeatedly blocked by the US, the UK and France in the Security Council as late as 1988—two years before Mandela was released from prison. Regardless, the campaign gathered force as many countries imposed sanctions and trade embargoes on South Africa. In 1986, the US Congress finally passed legislations that boycotted South Africa in a range of fields.
Many forget the odds we were up against at the time. We were called radicals, unbalanced, one-sided, agents of Soviet style communism, and supporters of “terrorist organizations” like the ANC’s armed wing, Umkonte we Sizwe. We were told that there were two sides to this conflict; that we should go and see for ourselves (many of us had in fact been to South Africa which made us even more committed to our cause); and that people of color in South Africa lived better lives than the majority on the African continent.
We called for a boycott because we saw the systematic dispossession of an entire people—robbed of their land, history, livelihood, political rights, dignity, life and future—by a powerful and wealthy state, with the strongest military on the African continent, backed by major Western powers.
Did the boycott campaign work? Yes, it contributed to the gradual erosion of the apartheid regime’s legitimacy and standing in the world. It is hard to find anyone today that would admit to have ever supported apartheid, or to have opposed a boycott of South Africa.
Did it hurt and inconvenience people in South Africa? Yes, it did in many fields, including many of the South Africans of color whose interests and future we were vested in. However, most of the progressive civic, religious and political organizations in South Africa strongly supported the boycott. Most South Africans of color deeply appreciated these efforts. It made them feel less forgotten by the world.
The boycott movement included calls for boycott of academic institutions, scholars, book contracts, research collaborations, academic visits, conference participation and much else. These measures were applied to all institutions and scholars in South Africa. The history of this academic boycott has been summarized in a thoughtful study by Lancaster and Haricombe. They conclude that the boycott gradually, symbolically and indirectly isolated South African academics and undermined the credibility of the regime. See a summary at http://www.monabaker.com/pMachine/more.php?id=A1105_0_1_0_M
I had grown up with the heroic story of the rescue of Danish Jews during the war, and the special relationship between Denmark and Israel was a part of our lives: visiting school classes, cultural events, lectures by eminent scientists, music performances, Israeli produce in our shops, and a steady flow of young Danes spending time in progressive kibbutz communities. In our worldview at the time, Israel and South Africa belonged to two very different categories. South Africa was the last bastion of colonialism, brutally dominated by a culturally unsophisticated and provincial white community. Israel, by contrast, appeared as a more cosmopolitan democracy full of vigorous debate and critiques of the consolidating occupation of Palestinian territories. Although the occupation clearly violated international law and the human rights of Palestinians, and although Palestinian organizations called for action against Israel, a full-scale boycott did not appear as an appropriate action at the time.
This perception of Israel and Israeli policies has not changed among many liberal minded people across the world. But events in the occupied territories in the last two decades have been so grave that this stance must be re-evaluated: the systematic expansion of settlements and theft of land across the West Bank, the undermining of the Oslo Accord, the undermining of the Palestinian Authority, the building of the wall, the military destruction of life and infrastructure in Gaza in successive campaigns, the routinized harassment of Palestinians by the IDF, the demonization of Israeli Arabs as an enemy within . These are only some of the most glaring acts of state violence against an entire category of people.
Israel of today is different from the rosier picture I, and many others, grew up with. Its economy and society is more militarized and securitized than ever before. The political landscape is dominated by political formations that range from belligerent majoritarianism to the outright racist. An earlier rhetoric of co-existence and peace in the political mainstream has given way to a shrill rhetoric of danger and fear. Even moderate critics of Israeli state policies are shouted down as self-hating Jews, or, more commonly, as simply anti-semitic.
I cannot help but compare this with the shrillness and aggressiveness of the apartheid regime in the 1980s as it grew ever more isolated in the world. Dignified men of the cloth like Desmond Tutu and Alan Boesak were depicted as blood-thirsty agents of world communism! That was every bit as absurd as Netanyahu’s recent statement that that the BDS campaign in effect amounts to support of ISIS….!
Today, it is no longer just political organizations like the PLO that calls for boycott of Israel. The current BDS movement responds to calls from a range of Palestinian civil society organizations, professionals, and academics who after years of attempts at collaborating with Israeli counterparts have reached an impasse. Their inevitable conclusion is that only comprehensive global boycott, divestment and sanctions aimed at the aggressive policies of the state of Israel can begin to change the desperate situation of millions of Palestinians.
I want to support this effort because what I see now, is so close to what I saw in the 1970s—to repeat my formulation: “an entire people robbed of their land, history, livelihood, political rights, dignity, life and future—by a powerful and wealthy state, with the strongest military in the region, backed by the major Western powers.”
I want to support this effort from where I stand, think and work. I believe that an academic boycott of those Israeli institutions that are actively engaged in efforts that supports the continued occupation of Palestinian territory is the only way forward. It may not change Israeli policies, and yes, it may appear as merely ‘symbolic’ as the defenders of Israel’s policies never fail to tell us. However, as any anthropologist will know, symbols and symbolic action are at the heart of human life and can change things, albeit often slowly and indirectly—just as the academic boycott of South Africa worked slowly, symbolically and indirectly.
Joining an academic boycott of selected Israeli institutions is for me first and foremost an appropriate way of supporting our embattled Palestinian colleagues at their financially deprived and marginalized academic institutions. It is also a way of communicating to our Israeli colleagues in the academy that we are not afraid of taking a clear stand on this issue and that we would encourage them to do the same. In the 1980s South Africa, draconian emergency laws curtailed what academics and others could say and do in the public. No such strictures apply to Israeli academics. Yet, surprisingly few have come out in solidarity with their Palestinian colleagues, or in open protest against the systematic violation of Palestinian human rights by the Israeli state.
To all those who argue that ‘yes, BDS was appropriate in the case of South Africa, but not in the case of Israel’, please take a moment to consider what actually happened in South Africa in the apartheid years, and what is actually happening today in Gaza and on the West Bank. Rather than dismissing this comparison as intrinsically unfair and even anti-semitic, as is often alleged, it behooves us as scholars and academics to look at the facts, the death toll, the structures of deprivation, the daily humiliation, the theft of land, the legal frameworks and much else. Let us have a real conversation, and let us use our resources as anthropologists and scholars to develop a truly informed debate that enables us to understand and properly assess what has been happening in Israel and Palestine for many years.
I would also ask my colleagues who are in two minds about the issue to take a moment to study the facts of the actual academic boycott of South Africa. It was pretty sweeping and blunt, it did not discriminate between institutions and it was targeted at inconveniencing individual scholars as well as whole professions. The current proposal for boycott measures against Israeli institutions by Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Institutions is much less blunt than what was ever applied to South Africa, much more precisely targeted, and much less aimed at individual scholars
As Sheldon Adelson in his Las Vegas hotel persuades Republican presidential hopefuls that BDS is the next big threat against Israel and Jews across the world, it may be a good time to take a fresh look at the facts on the ground.
It may also be a good time to listen to the fast growing and truly progressive organizations like Jewish Voices for Peace that actively supports BDS.
Thomas Blom Hansen is professor of anthropology and director of the Center for South Asia at Stanford University. His most recent book is Melancholia of Freedom. Social Life in an Indian Township in South Africa (2012).
Anthropologists against the BDS Boycott
By David M Rosen (Fairleigh Dickinson U) and Alex Weingrod (Ben Gurion U)
Anthropologists are adept at analyzing political symbols and deconstructing the rhetoric and tones crafted into political debates. We pride ourselves as experts in uncovering the “real meanings” planted deep within the give-and-take of political contests and thereby understanding what really is at stake.
But what happens when anthropologists themselves become activists in a political movement that aims to ostracize other anthropologists? How do some anthropologists frame their political actions as they seek to discredit others and advance their goals within the AAA, the world’s largest and leading anthropological association?
A revealing case in point is the BDS supporter’s political maneuvering now underway leading up to the forthcoming annual meeting of the AAA in November 2015. A move to boycott Israeli anthropologists will be on the November agenda, and the boycott activists recently issued a five page statement billed as “Advice for Anthropologists.” This special directive for anthropologists is a version of the 2014 guidelines originally issued by the Palestine Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Comparing the original PACBI Guidelines with the newer “Advice for Anthropologists” can help us to understand what is at stake in the current boycott debate.
The original PACBI Guidelines are written in austere dark tones; it is a detailed guide that directs boycott supporters to cut any and all ties with Israeli academics. Thus, while it begins by accepting the “universal right to academic freedom,” the Guidelines immediately go on to state that “an individual academic, Israeli or otherwise, cannot be exempt from being subject to ‘common sense’ boycotts.” The Guidelines list 12 academic activities that are forbidden, ranging from taking part in “Academic events” convened by Israel or “complicit Israeli institutions” to “Publishing in or refereeing articles for academic journals based at Israeli universities.” A central claim throughout is that the boycott is aimed at academic institutions, not at individual academics, but this attempt to distinguish between a university and its students and academic staff totally fails to convince. For example, in section 10, the explicit ban upon “serving as external reviewers for dissertations, writing recommendations … on hiring, promotion, tenure decisions” is followed by an exception for letters written on what is obscurely called “a personal basis.” So the sentence that excepts letters written on a “personal basis” is designed to make it seem that the ban is targeted at institutions rather than at persons, but is a total smokescreen, in that it completely ignores the reality of academic life—letters of recommendation, reviews of dissertations, etc, reference the work and career prospects of individual academics, and their careers depend upon them. In other words: in its most crucial section, the boycott is specifically aimed at Israeli students and academics, not Israeli academic institutions.
While the PACBI Guidelines are grim and austere, the new “Advice for Anthropologists” is presented in a friendly, folksy fashion. What were steely commandments in the previous version are here transformed into mere suggestions, just friendly advice to fellow anthropologists, “a useful framework to help scholars.” The boycott is depicted as a way of “signaling,” “an act of protest,” and the document once more insists that the boycott is directed at Israeli academic institutions and not at “Israeli scholars acting in their individual capacity.” But again, this attempt to distinguish between institutions and individuals is a failure, or really, a sham, a shell game that supports the convenient lie that the boycott merely favors a good cause and hurts no one. Specifically, in the section called “Academic Service,” anthropologists are told that serving on PhD committees for Israeli anthropology students, or writing letters regarding promotion for Israeli anthropologists, are “generally covered by the boycott.” Just like the earlier BDS statement, this version is also an attempt to ostracize Israeli anthropologists and their students.
Why is this so important? Because letters of recommendation, serving on PhD committees, or reviewing journal articles, are integral elements in our profession, and boycotting these activities will adversely affect the careers of Israeli anthropologists—Jewish and Palestinian—as well as their Jewish and Palestinian students. The BDS movement, and the anthropologist activists who support it, would effectively be driving Israeli anthropologists out of the anthropological profession.
Unfortunately, discrediting Israeli academia is viewed by some as important in the struggle for Palestinian independence. Israeli universities are well-known as centers of social and political critique and liberal thought. Weakening them is really aimed at discrediting Israel generally. All this illustrates the fundamental dishonesty of BDS. The sly “Advice to Anthropologists” is not about anthropology or anthropologists, but part of the BDS attempt to re-write history and injure Israel by delegitimizing its more progressive groups. This is central to the BDS anti-normalization campaign, whose primary goal is to shut-down debate and communication among anthropologists regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, and to drive out the voices that favor dialogue and informed discussion. Is this a position that anthropologists can support?
David M Rosen is professor of anthropology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. His most recent book is Child Soldiers in the Western Imagination: From Patriots to Victims (2015)
Alex Weingrod is emeritus professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. A collection of articles called Towards an Anthropology of the Building and Un-Building of Israeli Society (2015) was recently dedicated to him.