How BDS Risks Going over to the Dark Side; or, Why I am Ashamed of My Association
I get the logic of economic boycotts for political reasons.
In high school, I stopped buying grapes to support Cesar Chavez’ protest of the slave-like working conditions of Mexican farm workers in grape vineyards.
I also stopped buying Saran Wrap, to protest Dow Chemical’s manufacture of napalm for killing civilians in Vietnam.
When I became engaged, I informed my fiancé that I was disinterested in a diamond ring, to avoid supporting the apartheid regime that produced much of the world’s diamonds.
Since the 1970s, I haven’t bought gas at Shell stations—to protest the corporation that was supplying oil to the apartheid regime of South Africa, as well as polluting the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, where it has destroyed the livelihood of Ogoni fishers and impoverished surrounding communities.
In the 1980s, I stopped buying all products manufactured by Nestlé, to protest the aggressive marketing of infant formula to impoverished women in the global South, sold by saleswomen wearing white uniforms that made them look like nurses.
Until 1989, I avoided buying cars made by Ford, which supplied military and police vehicles to the apartheid regime of South Africa.
All these economic boycotts make sense to me. In every case, they involve refraining from buying products that have ethical issues deeply implicated in their manufacture. Damaging a corporation where it most hurts—their bottom line—is also pragmatic. Corporations make decisions based on profits. Punishing the source of the ethical quagmire in the way that hurts that source the most seems an optimal fit between means and end.
There are boycotts . . . and then there are boycotts.
The boycott of Israeli academic institutions that a majority of members of the American Anthropological Association present at the AAA Business Meeting in Denver recently voted to submit to the full AAA membership, for consideration of a AAA-sponsored statement, is a boycott of a different sort. This is the right boycott of the wrong target.
In this boycott, we would target those who are among the most vocal opponents of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands—the very occupation that supporters of the boycott likewise oppose.
This upside-down logic is reminiscent of the “death penalty.” Killing killers–to make a public statement that killing is wrong–makes as much sense as does boycotting opponents of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, in order to oppose Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
The claim that the boycott targets “institutions and not individuals” is disingenuous at best. As anthropologists, we are trained better than just about anyone else to pay attention to the human effects of institutional processes. Indeed, that’s our stock-in-trade. Unless an institution is devoid of humans, boycotting an institution means, by definition, boycotting those humans who work with and for the institution.
In the case at hand, if a majority of AAA members votes to support the proposed boycott, faculty and students at Israeli academic institutions, for example, would no longer have access to journals published by the American Anthropological Association that are supplied by AnthroSource. They would not be permitted to participate in the AAA’s Career Center or Graduate School Fair. They would not be listed in the AAA’s guide to departments of anthropology.
What next steps would individual scholars take, in solidarity with the spirit of the boycott? Shout down Israeli LGBT activists at a gay rights conference and then block them from existing the room? Refuse to debate Israeli students in campus debates? Prevent pro-Israel student groups from being allowed to exist on campuses? Vote down Jewish students from joining student councils because of their religious affiliation? In fact, all these troubling occurrences are already documented, with a recent report chronicling “54 percent reported instances of anti-Semitism on [US] campus[es] during the first six months of the 2013-2014 academic year.” The AAA resolution would legitimate such actions, and hence expand the trend.
The AAA’s full membership will begin voting on the BDS resolution on April 15, 2016. The resolution directs the American Anthropological Association to “refrain from any formal collaborations or other relationships with Israeli academic institutions, including the Israeli Anthropological Association.” If it is passed by a majority of AAA members, will we see refusals by US universities to admit Israeli graduate students to their doctoral programs? Will US scholars feel motivated, or pressured, to sever ties with Israeli co-authors and collaborators? Will we see invitations to Israeli researchers to speak on US campuses or at US conference sessions rescinded?
In short, anthropologists who are affiliated with Israeli institutions would be considered non-persons as far as our scholarly universe is concerned. The slope toward out-and-out anti-Semitism begins to appear ever more slippery.
Assuming all these effects would actually be upheld legally (and some might not, given, for example, the AAA journals’ publication by Wiley publishing company, which has its own legal requirements), how would they possibly further the cause of Palestinian rights?
Beyond the specifics of this misguided boycott lies an even more important issue: the broader political question of global ethics.
If we are to hold scholars responsible for the unethical and brutal policies of their governments, why stop at Israel? Why not include all scholars based in, say, China? All scholars based in Myanmar? All scholars based in Saudi Arabia? Syria? Sudan? Russia? When we start voting for our favorite repressive regime on the basis of human rights violations, the candidates start multiplying alarmingly.
If we really take this imperative seriously, will we have any colleagues left in the world with whom to engage?
Hell, what about those of us in the US? Should we not boycott our own academic institutions of higher learning for being complicit, both in the past and present, with objectionable policies? Take your pick—racist “stop-and-frisk” practices,
Iraq/Afghanistan bombing, TSA over-reach, (nutritious/fresh) “food deserts,” shameful incarceration rate of black men, below-poverty minimum wage,
health care system still in crisis, absence of sane and enforced gun ownership laws, ever-widening racial achievement gaps in education, unacceptable lack of meaningful jobs in inner cities—there’s plenty to hold American scholars accountable for, if our tactic is to equate scholars and scholarly institutions with their governments’ failed and abusive policies and practices. But wasn’t anthropology the first discipline to point out that condemning abusive policies and practices in other societies is hypocritical when we don’t first protest our own societies’ abusive policies and practices?
In short, if we want to be consistent—and, surely, that’s one of the scion aims of strong scholarship in general, and a hallmark of social science in particular–where should an academic boycott end?
I get the feelings of frustration that impelled my anthropology colleagues to vote for this motion to boycott our Israeli colleagues. But frustration over the lack of progress in ending Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands does not justify targeting colleagues who have nothing to do with that policy and, in many cases, strongly oppose it. As an association, we need to go back to the drawing board and design measures that will have appropriate effects relevant to our goal: ending Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
And we need to remember the basics of Social Protest 101. 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 aim to condemn.