New academic boycott effort — still the wrong target

Over 1,000 American anthropologists have signed onto a boycott Israel petition. What this type of activism fails to do is to target the occupation in its essence – as an international system, sustained by an array of multinational interests.

By Gil Hizi

Illustrative photo of boycott advocates. (Photo: Brian S /
Illustrative photo of boycott advocates. (Photo: Brian S /

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) will hold its annual conference in Washington DC next week. This year there are several panels scheduled to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian issue, with particular focus of how to promote sanctions on Israeli academic institutions. At present, almost 1,000 anthropologists have signed a petition in support of a boycott and the AAA will supply plenty of ink for scholars who wish to add their signature to the cause.

The occupation is a grave matter and international intervention is necessary. Yet what this type of signature-activism fails to do is to target the occupation in its essence – as an international system, sustained by an array of multinational interests.

The AAA petition explains how Israeli universities participate in the occupation. It demands very generally to end the siege on Gaza, to provide Palestinian refugees the “right of return” and to guarantee equal citizenship rights to Israeli Arabs. While one letter of reply from Israeli anthropologists supports this petition, the official response from the Israeli Anthropological Society is highly critical of the boycott. It laments that the AAA, the largest anthropological association in the world, is exercising its power over Israeli anthropologists and the fact that the boycott ignores the “complexity” of the conflict.

Read also: The academic boycott of Israel: No easy answers

Another response, a worldwide petition of anthropologists against the boycott, emphasizes that the occupation must end immediately and that Israel carries responsibility for the situation. Its criticism of BDS lies in the probability that sanctions will only serve the interests of the Israeli government, which wishes to mute radical voices inside local academia. Left-wing anthropologists such as Dan Rabinowitz, Edna Lomsky-Feder and Eyal Ben-Ari, who have all dedicated the last decades to criticizing Israeli institutional power, are supporters of this initiative.

While that second message expresses important ideas, even it fails to point out the biggest flaw of the boycott. The BDS petition discusses the political problem and the responsibility of scholars but ignores two important questions: how is the occupation operated? What initiative is required in order to undo the occupation and improve the living conditions of Palestinians?

Anthropologists Lisa Rofel and Ilana Feldman, two of the most vigorous promoters of the AAA’s boycott proposition, seem to understand this problem. In a recently post they state that because of the U.S. government’s support for Israel, U.S. citizens are “not just witnesses to Israeli crimes, but complicit in them.” Nevertheless, Rofel and Feldman’s instrument for change somehow remains a boycott that isolates Israel.

The U.S. indeed invests billions in the Israeli army and in addition, blocks every initiative for Palestinian self-determination in the UN. Even those who place all the blame on Jewish lobbies understand that Islam-hatred in the U.S. is hardly fuelled solely by love for the Star of David. Yet these underlying factors don’t lead scholars to realize that the U.S. does not merely “support” Israel altruistically, but is also operating with/through Israel, and that perhaps the White House should become the address for protests, rather than petitions that ignore the large picture. And perhaps the position of U.S. scholars vis-a-vis their government’s foreign policy should be scrutinized before the U.S. academy extends its institutional claws toward small academic communities in Israel.

A post by highly-acclaimed anthropological blog Savage Minds, which supports the BDS motion, correctly points out that most arguments against the boycott are, in fact, opposing the general principle of a boycott rather than responding to the crux of the matter. Yet, it seems that those who promote the boycott are guilty of the exact same sin: they praise the importance of taking a stance and engaging in political activism, while they forget to examine the conditions that may actually facilitate change.

How can we expect political change when there is no overarching pressure on the U.S. — and other allies — to transform its policies in the Middle East? Isolating Israel here serves all actors of the occupation: it is used by the Israeli right wing to demonstrate that it is the only true guardian of Israel, and it plays into the hand of foreign powers who prefer to keep their contributions to the occupation in the dark. This charade of “good cop, bad cop” has been going on for decades already, while residents in Gaza and the West Bank remain in despair. The occupation will not come to an end until activists and politicians fully acknowledge its international character.

Gil Hizi is a PhD candidate in anthropology and the University of Sydney. Although not the focus of his current research, he is concerned with social problems (and their academic analysis) in Israel, especially in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has been a Tel-Avivian most of his life, with more recent episodes in Jerusalem and Neve Shalom.

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