Discussing the Calls for an Academic Boycott at the Annual Meeting

[this post originally appeared on the Anthropology News site]

Kirsten Scheid

What does it mean to produce anthropology in Palestine-Israel, to conduct fieldwork there, to write ethnographies of the hopes, dreams, and lives dwelling there, and to contribute to debate about politics and projects targeting them? Viewing this year’s annual conference theme, “Producing Anthropology,” from the vantage of the Middle East foregrounds a dire convergence between military incursion, civilian death tolls, and exploration by many of us about the meaning of being an anthropologist in contemporary America. In their annual meeting invitation, Mary Gray and Rachel Watkins noted that their chosen theme honors our association’s dedication to anthropology’s “capacious potential to confront challenges faced by human societies throughout the world” and “to understand and transform the world around us” (see the Call for Papers at http://www.aaanet.org/meetings ). Last spring, multiple US academic associations endorsed the boycott of, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel (BDS), including the American Studies Association, Association for Asian American Studies, Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, African Literature Association, and Critical Ethnic Studies Association.  After receiving multiple submissions related to BDS for the AAA annual meeting program from section members, the Middle East Section asked the Executive Program Committee how best to include discussion of the issue on the annual meeting program.

Anthropology’s epistemological investments in Palestine-Israel make it especially important for our discipline to discuss BDS, and, as scholars, for us to discuss its specific component of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Our discipline’s history includes both a concern for micro-territorial struggles to understand the human condition and ameliorate society, on the one hand, and complex entanglements with colonial powers, on the other. Today, can we rework anthropological engagements with contemporary colonialism? Can we use anthropology to understand contemporary urban settler societies? Can we confront the full potential of our role as public intellectuals and intellectuals of public life? Palestine-Israel is a high-profile site for addressing these questions today, one that involves Americans as tax-payers and decision-makers, as underscored once again by the bombing of Gaza this summer. Meanwhile, on campuses across the US, Palestine-Israel has become a litmus test for academic freedom, most recently with the case of Steven Salaita at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Given this convergence between national and international events, and the meetings’ location in our national capital, the Middle East Section (MES) is proud to be able to parlay the lifelong engagement in Palestine-Israel of some of our members into a wide array of sessions. We hope these diverse fora will inform and enrich the AAA membership’s discussion of the multiple ways our discipline has been, is, and could be involved.

For anthropologists interested in hearing the perspectives of colleagues who have conducted fieldwork in Israel and/or Palestine, MES is pleased to sponsor—together with the Executive Program Committee—the roundtable “Anthropologists of Palestine-Israel and the Academic Boycott of Israel” which includes presenters Rhoda Kanaaneh, Ilana Feldman, Rema Hammami, Julie Peteet and Nicola Perugini (Thursday, 9 am). Together, these scholars represent three generations of research conducted in Israel, the Occupied Territories, and across the Palestinian diaspora, on a variety of topics including gender, economy, religion, labor, citizenship, government, development, and humanitarianism, culminating in seven monographs related to that work. Notably, two of the participants teach at universities in Israel/Palestine: Hammami at Birzeit University and Perugini at Bard College in Jerusalem.

For those who seek concrete information about the conditions of life in the context of Israeli settler colonialism, MES and the Society for Urban, National, and Transnational/Global Anthropology have co-invited the panel “Spaces Under Construction: Building Towards an Anthropology of Contemporary Settler Colonialism in Palestine-Israel” (Wednesday, 8 pm). This panel brings together papers on social planning, commerce, art activism, and tourism to analyze contemporary urban settler colonialism as a “range of contested sites, spatial formations, and embodied practices,” including “border technologies and checkpoints,” “large-scale markers of territorial occupation,” and “the construction of settler-colonial territorial programs,” as organizers Michal Ran-Rubin and Jennifer Lynn Kelly explain. Studying “from the ground up,” instead of simply confronting “facts on the ground,” highlights the imaginations, futures, and projects of the colonial process, and consequently suggests sites for productive intervention. Ran-Rubin and Kelly expound, “On the one hand, this entails examining the everyday forms through which spatial violence is routinized, distributed, and policed, including: home demolitions, construction of exclusionary public spaces, as well as localized forms of violence, segregation, and displacement. On the other hand, we also explore how such forces can be challenged through the enactment of alternative spatial practices—from solidarity tourism, counter-mapping strategies, and alternative urban planning in Palestine.” The presenters for this panel are Michal Ran-Rubin, Jennifer Lynn Kelly, Bisan Adnan Salhi, Kali Jessica Rubaii, Jeremy Siegman, and Noa Shaindlinger. This panel is especially notable for highlighting research by graduate students and recent PhDs.

To share more emerging research on Palestine-Israel, I would like to draw your attention to several papers that appear on other MES-sponsored panels that help flesh out our understandings of the Palestine-Israel context. Olivia Martina Dalla Torre will present “The Alliance between the Neoliberal Ideology and the Political Struggle” on a panel that explores how people adapt to changing configurations of colonial, economic, and gender structures (Wednesday, 2 pm). Based on the life-histories of Palestinian businessmen under Israeli Occupation, this paper examines neoliberalism as engaged by the excluded and oppressed. On the same panel, Oren Knoll-Zeblin will present “Contesting Citizenship in East Jerusalem: Palestinians and the Right to the City.” Taking a specific urban setting, this paper promises to document colonial power’s manifestations in everyday life and to shed light on how such power may be reshaped and undermined. A panel that addresses the intersections of larger cartographies and culturally embedded conceptions of gender, sexuality and displacement (Friday, 11 am) includes papers by Ruba Salih, “Embodied Heroism, Domesticity, and the Political Narratives of Trauma among Palestinian Women Refugees,” and Faedah Totah, “From National Jihad to Social Jihad: Palestinian Refugees and the Old City of Damascus.” Also, as part of a panel engaging the political economic theories of Bourdieu, Foucault, and Gramsci in the Middle East and North Africa (Friday, 2:30 pm), Michael Vicente Perez will present “Violent Developments: Reconstruction, Politics, and the Israeli Occupation in the Jenin Refugee Camp,” and Sunaina Maira will present “Jil Oslo: New Youth Cultures and Youth Movements in Palestine.”

Finally, for members concerned about anthropology’s responsibility regarding public debate, I call your attention to two sessions that are not sponsored by MES but address this issue. The first panel—“Anthropologists and Controversial Engagements: The Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions” (Thursday, 2:30 pm), invited by the Executive Program Committee—places discussion of the academic boycott of Israeli institutions into the historical context of the AAA as an institution which, “since its inception has faced numerous controversial debates,” including the issue of controversial research in Vietnam, participation in the US military’s Human Terrain Systems program, and the protection of indigenous populations,” as organizer Lisa Rofel notes in the abstract. It further relates this disciplinary history to the various types of knowledge production involved in the construction of Israel as a Jewish state and the lives of Palestinian academics under Israeli rule. Magid Shihade presents an argument for the feasibility and necessity of an academic boycott. Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar examine how this proposal relates to others political motions discussed by the AAA since the 1970s. Nadia Abu El Haj analyzes how campus campaigns against Palestinian activism utilize the concepts of academic freedom and anti-Semitism. And drawing on her experience with an experiment in critical social theory based at the Jerusalem Institute for Social Science in the 1980s, Julia Elyachar decosntructs the specific notions of agency and society used by the critique of BDS.

The second panel is a Public Policy Forum, a type of session that intends “to provide a place to discuss critical social issues affecting anthropology, public policy issues of interest to anthropologists, and public policy issues that could benefit from anthropological knowledge or expertise.” In this vein, the Committee on Public Policy is sponsoring a pertinent forum titled, “What Is the Role of Academia in Political Change? The Case of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) and Israeli Violations of International Law” (Thursday, 6:30 pm). This forum, organized and chaired by Lori Allen, is especially important because it brings anthropologists together with policymakers, activists and legal scholars. Participants include anthropologists Saba Mahmood and Daniel Segal, who are joined by Omar Barghouti (a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel), Richard Falk (professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967”), Rebecca Vilkomerson, (executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace) and Noura Erakat (human rights attorney and activist, faculty member at George Mason University, and co-editor of the Jadaliyya e-zine).

The discussion of BDS, its academic boycott component, and Palestine-Israel is dense and complex. If there is one theme that all the sessions I have mentioned share, it is that our understanding of anthropology and colonialism cannot be confined to a historical reckoning with the discipline’s origins. It must confront the ongoing role we have in producing our discipline and ourselves as scholars and members of the world. That must occur through a micro-analysis of the sites in which our roles as citizens, scholars, and teachers combine most profoundly, perhaps one by one, perhaps according to agendas not always dictated by our personal or professional interests. For those of us who have waited long to talk about Palestine-Israel at the AAA meeting, as well as for those of us who have avoided doing so, or have had no real desire to do so until now, MES offers a sophisticated, ethnographically-grounded variety of sessions through which to think about the matter at the upcoming meetings. We hope to see you there.

Kirsten Scheid is the Middle East Section program chair.