Rethinking BDS

A shorter version of this post has just appeared online as a podcast, in coordination with the motion put to a vote among the membership of the American Anthropological Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions.  Here’s the text . . .

 

The first thing I want to say is that I firmly support Palestinian rights and a Palestinian state; I firmly oppose the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestinian communities; and I strongly critique Israeli policies mistreating Palestinians in myriad ways.

 

In fact, I grew up in a household in which Palestinian rights was, literally, a nightly dinner-table conversation because my father worked as a public relations director of the only Jewish, anti-Zionist organization in the US, through my childhood in the 1960s.

 

The second thing I want to say is that I’m also deeply troubled by the prospect of boycotting any scholarly colleagues, whether Israeli or anyone else, because of the abuses of their government.

 

I get the logic of economic boycotts. These involve refraining from buying products that have ethical issues deeply implicated in the social conditions of their manufacture. Damaging a corporation or government where it most hurts—their bottom line—is also pragmatic. That produces an optimal fit between means and end.

Nestle Boycott

Academic boycotts are another creature. I’m convinced that the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, like all academic boycotts, takes aim at the wrong target. I oppose academic boycotts on philosophical and ethical grounds for four reasons:

 

First: The claim by supporters of this boycott that the boycott targets “institutions and not individuals” is disingenuous. As anthropologists, we’re trained to pay attention to the human effects of institutional processes. Indeed, that’s our stock-in-trade.

 

Boycotting an institution means, by definition, boycotting the people who work for the institution.

 

In the case at hand, if a majority of AAA members vote to support the proposed boycott, faculty and students at Israeli academic institutions, for example, would no longer have access to journals published by the AAA that are supplied to their institutions by the AAA’s distribution network, AnthroSource.

AnthroSourcepng

They wouldn’t be permitted to participate in the AAA’s Career Center or Graduate School Fair—if, say, they wanted to leave Israel for a US institution, either as a student or a professor.

AAA Career Center

They wouldn’t be listed in the AAA’s Guide to Departments. In short, they would be considered non-persons as far as our social universe is concerned. What sense does this make as a way to engage with our scholarly colleagues?

AnthroGuide 2015-16

Assuming all these effects would actually be upheld legally (and some of them might not–already, the American Studies Association is being sued by four scholars for its BDS vote), how would they possibly further the cause of Palestinian rights?

 

Secondly: By tarring a group of scholars with the same brush, we essentialize people by reference to their nationality. Surely, that’s a move we anthropologists have been in the forefront of opposing in so many other contexts.

 

In the case of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, we would target precisely—indeed, perversely–many scholars who are among the most vocal opponents of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands—the very occupation that supporters of the boycott themselves oppose.

 

This is upside-down logic.

 

Thirdly: Beyond the specifics of this boycott lies an even more important issue: the broader political question of global ethics. If we decide to hold scholars and their scholarly institutions responsible for the misguided, unethical and brutal policies of their governments, why stop at Israel? Why not include all scholars based in China? All scholars based in Myanmar? All scholars based in Saudi Arabia? Sudan? Russia? N. Korea? When we start voting against our favorite repressive regime, the candidates start multiplying alarmingly.

 

Will we have any colleagues left in the world with whom to engage?

 

What about those of us in the US? Should we not boycott academic institutions of higher learning in the US for being complicit, both in the past and present, with objectionable policies?

 

Take your pick—racist “stop-and-frisk” practices, Iraq and Afghanistan bombing, ROTC recruitment on campuses to our unethical military, TSA over-reach, campus investment in environmentally polluting corporations, university hiring policies that promote exploitation of part-time/adjunct faculty—there’s plenty to hold American scholars accountable for, if our tactic is to equate scholars and their institutions with their governments’ (or campuses’) policies.

 

If we want to be consistent—and, surely, that’s one of the central aims of strong scholarship–where should an academic boycott end?

In designing any sort of political action, it’s crucial to keep the goal front and center. Losing track of the goal risks imitating the behavior we wish to condemn.

 

Fourth, and finally: we need to be mindful of the precise target of this proposed boycott. The vast majority of scholars who would be affected are Jews.

 

Deciding to target Jews for the abuses of their government, when we are not similarly targeting members of other religions and nations for the abuses of their governments, starts moving implicitly—if not unintentionally–toward anti-Semitism.

 

Given the history of anti-Semitism, which has produced brutal forms of oppression across over 2,000 years, including the Inquisition and the Holocaust, I think were ethically bound to be sensitive to the historical overtones and symbolic resonance of this boycott. To Jews, this academic boycott—targeting only residents of one of the many governments that has disturbing policies oppressing minority populations–is starting to feel all too familiar.

 

As a body of thoughtful scholars, the AAA should indeed forge means to oppose Israeli occupation of Palestinian communities and support the creation of a Palestinian state—means that will actually be consistent with, and promote, our goal.

 

One comment

  • Joan Cassell

    Alma, you’re absolutely right! And there is a whiff of Anti-Semitism in the entire business. We might as well boycott Duke and the U of North Carolina for what’s going on in NC.

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