Beyond Zero-Sum Logics on Israel/Palestine

The upcoming vote on a resolution to boycott Israeli academia is unprecedented in our field’s history, and is being followed throughout the social sciences and humanities as a harbinger of future trends surrounding dynamics of political activism and academic “freedom.” I write to offer critical insights on two key concerns: 1) why and how this issue has become so intensely debated in anthropology; and 2) problems with the notion that academic boycott is a means of promoting justice. I conclude with alternatives to academic boycott that would enable the American Anthropological Association to stay true to two of its fundamental goals—to promote anthropology and support the dignity and equality of all people.

First, it is important to acknowledge that there are ethical justifications for addressing the political oppression of Palestinian people in the context of AAA’s membership. Defending the equality of oppressed people is a core principle of the AAA, as expressed in the Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights:


Anthropology as a profession is committed to the promotion and protection of the right of people and peoples everywhere to the full realization of their humanity, which is to say their capacity for culture. When any culture or society denies or permits the denial of such opportunity to any of its own members or others, the American Anthropological Association has an ethical responsibility to protest and oppose such deprivation.


These commitments to human rights inspire many anthropologists to oppose Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and violent incursions into the Gaza Strip. Many of us are outraged at the structural inequalities faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel. Many of us are angry and frustrated at the international community’s apparent inability to resolve this conflict with justice for all. The troubling images we see and read about Palestine and Israel compel and disturb. The recommendations of BDS supporters to take collective action have thus tapped into a broader set of questions that gnaw at our collective and individual conscience: Who are we as moral actors? What is the value of Anthropology? How can we uphold the AAA’s purpose and aims with integrity, if we stay silent on this issue?

My colleagues and I founded Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel-Palestine (ADIP) because we share the AAA’s commitment to engagement, and because we agree with BDS supporters that this crisis demands urgent redress. However, we do not agree that academic boycott is a path to justice. Indeed, the idea of engaging as anthropologists in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exposes profoundly difficult questions about how to realize an imperative for professionals to protest injustice. In the seemingly straightforward language of the AAA’s Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights, we have a narrative of one “culture or society” denying the capacity of others to full humanity—a simple image of strong oppressors harming weak victims. Yet enduring political conflicts rarely fit such neat dichotomies; inequalities and violence may be perpetrated by victims as well as victimizers. Fear, suffering, and perceptions of vulnerability are rarely monopolized by one group.

A similarly reductionist approach characterizes BDS cosmology, which portrays Israel’s government as a monolithic regime and dismisses any reference to progressive Israeli social movements as irrelevant diversions from the Palestinians’ plight. BDS proponents discount the diversity of Israeli political positions, the existence of human-rights oriented, Zionist parties, non-governmental Israeli human rights organizations, and Jewish cultural and religious movements for peace and justice. Moreover, BDS depicts recognition as a zero-sum game—as if supporting Palestinian human rights and nationalist aspirations prohibits one from also recognizing that Israeli Jews have also sustained losses, harbor legitimate fears and live with a pervasive sense of vulnerability. This logic culminates in a false and dangerous dichotomy for academics—that promoting justice in Israel/Palestine is a decision between either expressing solidarity with the Palestinian cause by supporting academic boycott, or implicitly supporting the belligerent Netanyahu government. This is where the ambiguity in AAA’s Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights—which establishes a duty to stand up for oppressed people without providing guidelines regarding how such protest should be defined and undertaken—becomes its Achilles heel.

Proponents of BDS base their arguments for academic boycott on requests for support from “Palestinian civil society,” an entity they represent as speaking in a single voice materialized in the protocols of PACBI, the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Given anthropology’s generally critical and nuanced sensibilities about social movements, this idealized portrait of a readily consumable, unified voice of the Palestinian People, harboring no political contestations, no historical contradictions, and no competing interests, should give us pause. So, too, should BDS claims that only Israeli institutions, not individuals, are the targets of academic boycott. This argument contradicts basic anthropological insights about the embeddedness of persons in institutions, erasing the ways that our debates about a boycott of Israeli universities have already stigmatized and marginalized these universities’ faculty and students.

The BDS campaign reveals a troubling situation: without clear guidelines and limits on how to realize our professional duty to protest injustice, the Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights leaves open the possibility that anthropological engagement may become an instrument for the pursuit of a political movement’s priorities and aims, rather than a form of critical engagement grounded in anthropologically derived concepts, methods, and research. It opens up the paradoxical possibility that the AAA may strive to promote the rights of an oppressed group by harming the professional lives and work of some of its own members. PACBI “anti-normalization” rules assert that, to evade boycott, an Israeli Jew must accept the political ideas of the PACBI movement and agree to their terms for engagement. In other words, when BDS calls for the AAA membership to refuse to engage with fellow anthropologists who do not defer to that movement’s stipulations, they are asking anthropologists to cede the criteria for defining what constitutes legitimate scholarly activity, and who qualifies as a legitimate player in our anthropological field, to “Palestinian civil society”/PACBI leaders. To do so would amount to trading in the autonomy of anthropology as a form of knowledge and practice. I view this as approach to anthropological engagement as tragically self-defeatist.

As our discipline explores creative ways of developing public anthropology and engagement in society, we must carefully examine the ethics of how we engage. Developing effective anthropological engagement in political dilemmas requires reaching across diverse constituencies to open people’s minds. An anthropological engagement must aspire to an approach that recognizes how competing narratives of history make for multiple truths and collective wounds that cannot be ignored in the search for justice. These, in fact, are the kinds of goals that anthropologists, including Israeli anthropologists in Israeli universities, strive for in their teaching, research, and administrative work. They must remain central to our field’s public engagement.

Promoting an end to the Occupation may be done through numerous strategies—from economic boycott of settlement products, to strengthening NGOs devoted to human rights, to putting pressure on US politicians. In our capacity as an association of anthropologists, we must ensure that our engagement stays true to anthropological principles and the purpose of our organization.

I urge us to show confidence in the power of anthropology to engage with the situation in Israel-Palestine by promoting understanding of the diverse communities who live there; the logics, fears, and struggles that motivate them; the traumas that they carry and the progressive changes they work to achieve. Our engagement on behalf of Palestinian rights and a just resolution can be pursued by enhancing anthropological work in the region, by cultivating the capacities of Palestinian and Israeli anthropologists to deal with the intense pedagogical challenges they face, to conduct and disseminate their research, and to gain public legitimacy. It can be pursued by enhancing the autonomy of anthropology as a field in Israeli and Palestinian universities and creating the conditions for anthropological teaching and research to flourish. We should promote legislative and financial infrastructures to protect anthropologists’ work from state interests and other political agendas, enhancing scholars’ abilities to define and pursue their own agendas. Most importantly, we must establish guidelines for how our association may fairly protest against human rights violations. To boycott anthropology departments is to divide fellow scholars on the basis of their government’s policies. It is to undermine the integrity of our discipline. In contrast, ADIP is exploring creative modes of promoting anthropological research, insights, and engagement as a progressive intervention in public opinion and social movements for justice in Israel-Palestine. I invite you to join us.

Michele Rivkin-Fish is the author of Women’s Health in Post-Soviet Russia: The Politics of Intervention (2005), and co-editor, with Mara Buchbinder and Rebecca Walker, of Understanding Health Inequalities and Justice: New Conversations Across the Disciplines (forthcoming, 2016). She is an affiliated faculty member of Ben Gurion U, Israel.


The leadership and members of the AAA should be commended for the serious and thoughtful debate over the extremely contentious issues of human rights and academic freedom in Israel – Palestine. On the specific proposal to boycott Israeli universities the recent comments in Anthropology News by Lila Abu-Lughod (supporting the boycott) and Michele Rivkin-Fish (opposing it) exemplify the maturity of our discussion.

To provide some context for my comments: I am an environmental anthropologist working in the United States. Two decades of applied research on conflicts between American Indian rights and values and natural resource development led me to lecture and write on human and cultural rights. I agree with the conclusions of the AAA Task Force on Engagement with Israel / Palestine that there are many useful actions open to the AAA to support academic freedom and greater justice for both Palestinians and Israelis.

However I oppose a boycott of Israeli universities, for two reasons. First, whenever possible our discipline should proceed by encouraging dialog and interactions across cultural and political boundaries, not by erecting barriers. Second, I find the proponents’ argument that the boycott would affect institutions rather than individual scholars naive. I note from the AAA Task Force report: “At a June 2015 meeting of the Israeli Anthropological Association (IAA) a resolution was passed [by 74%] calling for the end of the occupation, opposing academic boycott and supporting dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.” The most likely outcome of the proposed academic boycott would be to weaken further the position of those Israeli anthropologists who are most critical of the status quo.

This article mischaracterizes supporters of BDS as lacking an understanding of the political diversity of Israeli and Palestinian societies. One can appreciate this internal diversity and still support an academic boycott because it is a tactic that may break the log-jam and lead to change in the status quo. This article also creates a false dichotomy between anthropological engagement as “an instrument for the pursuit of a political movement’s priorities and aims, rather than a form of critical engagement grounded in anthropologically derived concepts, methods, and research.” Our research is always political, even if it pretends not to be. Voting “yes” or “no” on the AAA academic boycott is a political choice–it will hurt one side’s academic freedom either way. The question is whether you support the more powerful side, the Occupier, or the more powerless side, the Occupied.

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