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On the Academic Calls to Boycott Israel, Part II

The Jewish Question and the debate over the Israeli academy

The following is continued from a previous post.

The Discourse of Anthropology and the Boycott Debates

After summarizing Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip and dispossession of Palestinians from land and livelihood, the pro-boycott petition’s signatories declare: “As employees in institutions of higher learning, we have a particular responsibility to oppose Israel’s widespread and systematic violations of the right to higher education of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line.” Pointing out the ways in which Israeli authorities, including institutions of higher education, have been complicit in violence and oppression against Palestinian universities and scholars, the statement then continues:

As anthropologists, we feel compelled to join academics around the world who support the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli academic institutions. This call is part of a long-standing appeal by Palestinian civil society organizations for the comprehensive implementation of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS) of Israel, and is supported by the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE).

In responding to the Palestinian call, we seek to practice what the AAA calls an ‘engaged anthropology’ that is ‘committed to supporting social change efforts that arise from the interaction between community goals and anthropological research.’ Anthropological research has illuminated the destructive effects of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian society. And the Palestinian community has called for an academic boycott of Israel as a necessary step to ensuring Palestinian rights, including the right to education.

Assuming we are a “community of scholars who study problems of power, oppression and cultural hegemony,” even a perfunctory glance at the history of anthropological scholarship about such problems makes it clear that they demand close attention to the detail and specificity of context, history, and the work of representation, including the historical context of the concepts with which we think. The concepts of “community,” “the human,” “sovereignty,” and “rights” should be at the top of the list in discussions of Israeli-Palestinian politics, and thus also in discussions of the politics of the AAA. Certainly, consideration of these concepts has marked some of anthropology’s most remarkable and paradigm-shifting moments.

As is well known, and as the petition’s statement itself references, anthropology’s early generation of scholars put their work about difference in the service of specific, and quite different, political projects (Price 2008). After anthropology’s imbrication in colonial state projects, many anthropologists took their cue from examples such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead to put anthropology to good political cause, this time understanding anthropology as an interpretive and subjective knowledge-formation rather than as objective science. When anthropology began to be redefined as subjective, the content of anthropology’s dominant politics shifted from being a tool of colonialism or the state to critiquing colonialism, oppression, representation, and power (Geertz 2002; Clifford & Marcus 1986; Marcus & Fischer 1986; Ortner 1984).

But what goes largely unmentioned is how, despite these significant shifts in the discipline’s approach to the study of difference, the accompanying trajectory of the discipline’s theorization of politics hasn’t substantially changed. Anthropology as a discipline has focused less on what constitutes politics — its terms and concepts — and more on how to do politics, with the assumption that this politics should be, in broad terms, in solidarity with the victims of unequal relations of power (Hale 2006; Gusterson 2005; Lutz 1994; Scheper-Hughes 1995). As a growing number of anthropologists point out, this investment in doing politics has had consequences for how we understand the relation between the epistemological and political implications of anthropological work (D’Andre 1995; Das 2014; Fassin 2008; Stoczkowski 2008).

If, as anthropologists, we intend to take our own work seriously, at the very least those of us who call for the AAA to boycott Israel (including at the AAA panels and roundtables), as well as those of us who respond in opposition, or who might take other positions, can situate our views within the context of the scholarship and political histories that have set the stage for the current situation in which we find ourselves — in terms of Israeli-Palestinian politics, U.S. academia, and in terms of the contemporary global political context generally.

In the context of the call for AAA anthropologists to boycott Israel, two of Hannah Arendt’s most well-known points are particularly relevant. Writing soon after WWII, Arendt famously pointed out that the establishment of Israel was not an adequate solution to the political problem of statelessness; Arendt called the stateless “the most symptomatic people” of the time. In her view, Israel was not an adequate solution because it reproduced the political framework of European liberal democracy that would produce a new category of refugees and stateless people. Relatedly, Arendt’s critique of the nation-state rests on her insight that within such a political framework, the possibility for being human is connected to the political status of citizenship and thus on belonging to a nation-state.

Arendt argued that it is the exclusion of the stateless from any category of political status – making them more abject and bereft of rights than a criminal – that deprives people from having even “the right to have rights.” When remembering this history, which was the context of Israel’s emergence, it may not be so difficult to understand why Israelis targeted by the tactic of a boycott would perceive it as another iteration of exactly the politics that led some to believe that Zionism, and the establishment of a specifically Jewish liberal democracy, was a necessary move. Such a perception is reinforced when the boycott is called for by members of, and in the name of, those countries who denied Jews political belonging in “humanity” and to the “family of nations.” Rather than critiquing Zionism and Israel, the call to boycott simply condemns Israel for human rights violations through a reinforcement of the universalizing discourse of liberalism that fueled the Zionist movement in the first place.

But the problem with the framework of the petition is not simply how its language might lead it to be perceived. The real problem is that neither the petition nor the related discussions of it, with very few exceptions, address the historical and contemporary specificity and politics of Israel and Zionism, and thus they also don’t address the politics and history of Europe, the U.S., and liberalism. At the same time, the boycott call vigorously reinforces the discourse out of which Israel emerged and through which Jews were excluded from the political framework of liberal democratic citizenship.

When the discourse about the tactic of a boycott, which is based primarily on punishment through exclusion and refusal to engage, itself refuses to engage the content and specificity of the example of Israel and Zionism, the boycott works against not only the principles for which anthropology stands, but against addressing the very political questions of which Israel is a result. The extent to which the calls to boycott involve a practice of shaming and refusal to engage was all too evident in the 2014 AAA meetings, held in Washington D.C. Not only was there almost no engagement with scholarship about Zionism, Israeli history, or Jewish difference, but there was an explicit refusal to respond to questions about such a refusal of engagement. In this regard, the discourse of the boycott took the form not only of a boycott of Israeli institutions, but a refusal of historical accountability, both within the discipline and well beyond it.

Israeli anthropologist Moshe Shokeid, for example, raised a question in a Q&A panel about the call for a boycott, asking how the boycott is institutional rather than individual, if scholars such as he are boycotted when giving talks in the U.S. He made reference to a public letter circulated by Daniel Segal, one of the panel’s presenters, in which Segal stated that he was refusing to attend Shokeid’s talk at Pomona college in 2012 because Shokeid’s early anthropological work had “participated in Zionist representations of Palestinians as antithetical to, and outside of, a modernizing, rational Israel.”

While, as the literature suggests, there is indeed justified critique to be made of anthropological work, Shokheid’s included, which has participated in situating Palestinians as “outside of a modernizing, rational Israel,” this critique is part of larger shifts in the field not only of Israeli anthropology, but of the discipline generally. Significantly, the push for inclusion of all difference within a universalizing, rational modernity has itself come under critique both within and beyond anthropology.

A great deal of the anthropological work that was done in the 1970s and 1980s about places such as Guatemala, for example, situated indigenous groups such as the Maya as “outside of a modernizing, rational” West, even if critical of Guatemala’s military dictatorship and the support given to it by the U.S. To boycott a scholar on the basis of such a critique is an example of how the discourse of the call for an academic boycott polices who is allowed to be part of the conversation and who not, by judging who is morally acceptable and who isn’t. One of the ironies here is that in so doing, anthropologists nonetheless appear to be reproducing a form of colonial universalizing discourse based on the sovereign, liberal subject of which they are ostensibly critical.

Israeli anthropologist Dan Rabinowitz, in his critical review of Shokeid’s work, along with that of six other major scholars of Israel’s first generation of anthropologists, argues that

As anthropologists, they were ‘professionaly empathetic’ towards the Palestinians they wrote about, staying clear from scholarly traditions that sought to merge Arabness with backwardness and malice … The two emancipatory movements in which they were involved — Jewish ethno-territorialism and academic research of the ultimate Other — incarcerated Palestinians as perpetual candidates for corrective reform. Based on deep conviction and unencumbered by critical inquiry — which at the time was only budding within anthropology — the project they were part of allowed Israel to preserve its clean self-image as a progressive agent of advent … [T]he concern of many first-generation Israeli anthropologists with what they perceived, often innocently, as merely ‘cultural’, and their implicit adherence to certain segments of Zionism ideology and rationalization, had a profound political and intellectual impact. It prevented them from using their empathy and first-hand acquaintance with Palestinians, their insight into the hardships of Palestinian daily life and their comprehension of the stress associated with being a Palestinian inside Israel to produce a meaningful critique of Israeli sociology — let alone of Zionism generally … (Rabinowitz 2010:68)

A strikingly similar emancipatory movement, based on “deep conviction” and “adherence to certain segments” not of Zionism, but of liberalism and human rights discourse, seems to be having a similarly “profound political and intellectual impact” on parts of U.S. anthropology, preventing anthropologists from producing “a meaningful critique of Israeli sociology — let alone of Zionism generally.”

Some people might respond by asking how I could make such a claim, given that the call to boycott Israel is made precisely on the basis of a critique of Israel. But this critique, with few exceptions, is limited to condemnations of Israeli violence against Palestinians. Quite literally, the critiques read as references to human rights reports and testimonials of Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israelis. Every so often there are exceptions to this through brief reference to the important analysis of the politics of Israeli archaeology that Nadia Abu El-Haj presented in her path-breaking book Facts on the Ground. But rather than build on this work by turning attention to the subjects of these knowledge-formations and their histories — including the people, processes of identification, and political and social relations through which they take shape — the panels, roundtables, op-eds, and other forums of discussion appear to aim simply at convincing people that Palestinians are suffering because of the Israeli occupation.

The discourse of the call to boycott Israel thus seems mired in yet another iteration of anthropology’s impulse to speak for and save the oppressed, in a way that reasserts the presumptions of European modernity of which the discipline is critical in other guises. In this regard, Rabinowitz’s well-placed critique of Israel’s first generation of anthropologists resonates very much with the critiques made of early U.S. anthropology, as he himself suggests, but also with contemporary efforts to place anthropology in the uncritical service of human rights projects, however well-meaning they might be.

Rabinowitz writes:

Simmons (1995, after Trinh 1989 and Spivak 1990) shows how colonialist anthropology used terms such as ‘culture’, ‘cultural characteristics’ and the idiom of cultural relativism as markers separating ‘primitivism’ from modernity. Rosaldo (1988) and Appadurai (1990) likewise demonstrate how traditional anthropology isolates the primitive native, establishes strong barriers between the essentially European discipline and its non-European objects of inquiry, and so tacitly reduces the feasibility of joint membership in a universal humankind. The dichotomy between ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’, inspired by nineteenth-century sociology and perfected by twentieth-century anthropology, may have been freed of its more blatantly racist connotations. But in many parts, including Israel, it served forces identified with modernization and reform as justification for the rescue — and control — of groups in deserts and in jungles. (68)

While it is true that such critiques of 19th and 20th century anthropology have rightfully pointed out the ways in which the dichotomy between “primitive” and “modern” sustained a racist discourse, postcolonial critics such as Trinh Minh-ha, Gayatri Spivak, and Jacques Derrida were also pointing to how difference undermines the very idea of identity (Trinh 1989), the concept of the sovereign subject, and the universalist claims attached to European modernity’s concept of the human. Although this can be understood also as the intervention that Foucault made, it is on precisely this point that Spivak’s argument in her classic Can the Subaltern Speak pivots. As Rosalind Morris has put it:

It is at the point where, in Deleuze’s and Foucault’s otherwise brilliant claims to have decentered the subject of theory (and of history, in its Hegelian conception), Spivak discerns its secret reconsolidation, precisely through Deleuze’s and Foucault’s double incapacity to recognize, on the one hand, the nonuniversality of the Western position and, on the other, the constitutive place of gender in the formation of the subject — as the subject of language not only in the grammatical sense but in the sense of having a voice that can access power … (2007:4)

This “double incapacity to recognize the nonuniversality of the Western position, and … the constitutive place of gender in the formation of the subject,” appears to be differently at play in anthropology’s ongoing impulse to speak both for and with the oppressed, often non-Western or non-white Other in the name of justice. In this regard it is important to remember that the call for the AAA to boycott Israel, as the petition’s statement itself notes, is situated within a much wider history that can be traced in the archives of the AAA and anthropology journals. This impulse to speak for and with the non-Western or non-white oppressed, in light of Spivak’s critique, perhaps also helps to explain anthropology’s disciplinary preference for Foucauldian critiques of oppression, from Latin American contexts to those of the so-called Middle East. Spivak perhaps describes this problem best when she notes that Derrida “is less dangerous when understood than the first-world intellectual masquerading as the absent nonrepresenter who lets the oppressed speak for themselves” (1988:87).

After WWII, as colonialism came under increasing disciplinary critique, anthropology was influenced by both a changing political context and an engagement with other fields, including feminist theory, literary studies, and postcolonial studies. George Marcus and M.J. Fischer’s Anthropology as Cultural Critique (1986) and Clifford and Marcus’s Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (1986) turned questions about representation and self-reflexivity to ethnography itself, calling for more experimental forms of writing that could open up ethnographic texts to reveal the political and social relations through which they are constructed. Anthropologists drew on literary studies, and specifically deconstruction, to insert a subjective and autobiographical voice into ethnography in order to undermine their own authority and to draw attention to the subjective and partial nature of any ethnographic account. Clifford and Marcus (1986), for example, drew on Jacques Derrida’s critique of Levi-Strauss to suggest that ethnographic authority should be rethought in light of the recognition that even non-literate cultures are “already writing themselves” before the ethnographer literally writes down the myths and allegories his informants recite into his tape recorder.

But as Morris (2007) has pointed out, Derrida was also calling attention to something which destabilizes more than ethnographic authority founded on an assumption of the primacy of writing over speech, a call which she suggests initially went largely ignored in part because “the critique proffered by Derrida was concerned less with the question of how to reform the discipline (about which he had nothing to say) than with whether it could ever be extricated from the metaphysics on which its residual humanism was founded” (356). She went on to say that “if anthropologists are now comfortable with the idea that their object of study is not unitary … the discipline has not yet done and perhaps cannot ever do without the idea of the human as the basis of its comparativism” (ibid). It certainly would seem that the ongoing debates about Israel demand attention to this question through returning us to a consideration of how the human itself has been defined in the context of what goes under the name of “European modernity.”

The specific history of Israeli politics is rooted in exactly this question of the human — the so-called “Jewish question” in 20th century Europe (which arguably is as much about gender, sexuality, and postcolonial difference as it is about Jewish difference), the Palestinian Naqba, and Arendt’s prescient critique of what Israel’s establishment would involve. These histories and the challenge they pose to how we understand the human also haunt contemporary political debates about immigration, Islam, Africa, and the permeability of Europe’s borders. I will turn to this in the third part of this essay.


Abu El-Haj, Nadia. 2001. Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Clifford, James and George Marcus (eds.). 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

D’Andre, Roy. 1995. “Moral Models in Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 36(3): 399-408.

Das, Veena. 2014. Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty. New York: Fordham University Press.

Fassin, Didier. 2008. “The Humanitarian Politics of Testimony: Subjectification through Trauma in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Cultural Anthropology 23(3): 531-558.

Geertz, Clifford. 2002. “An Inconstant Profession: The Anthropological Life in Interesting Times.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 31(1): 1-19.

Gusterson, Hugh and Catherine Besteman. 2005. Why America’s Top Pundits are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hale, Charles. 2006. “Activist Research v. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology.” Cultural Anthropology 21(1): 96-120.

Lutz, Catherine. 2009. “Anthropology in an Era of Permanent War.” In Hugh Gusterson and Catherine Besteman (eds.), The Insecure American. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Marcus, George and M.J. Fischer (eds.). 1999 [1986]. Anthropology as Cultural Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Morris, Rosalind. 2007. “Legacies of Derrida: Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 36: 355-389.

Ortner, Sherry. 1984. “Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 26(1): 126-166.

Price, David. 2008. Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rabinowitz, Dan. 2010. “Oriental Othering and National Identity: A Review of Early Israeli Anthropological Studies of Palestinians” in Across the Wall: Narratives of Israeli-Palestinian History. Eds. Ilan Pappe and Jamil Hilal. New York: I.B. Tauris Press.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1995. “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 36(3): 409-20.

Spivak, Gayatri. 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture.

Stoczkowski, Wiktor. 2008. “The ‘Fourth Aim’ of Anthropology: Between Knowledge and Ethics.” Anthropological Theory 8(4): 345-356.

Trinh, T. Minh-ha. 1989. Woman, Native, Other. New York: Routledge.

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