Why Anthropologists Should Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions

[this post originally appeared on the Anthropology News site]

On Israel and Palestine:

Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israeli Institutions

Lisa Rofel
Ilana Feldman

In its best moments, anthropology is a discipline that is dedicated to social justice. It is a discipline that has historically stood up for marginalized peoples around the world. Anthropologists have not always lived up to these best ideals, of course, and the history of our discipline includes cooperation with colonial and imperial regimes and with war machines. Yet there have always been anthropologists who have criticized these relationships. And as a collectivity, we have generally looked back upon these moments of complicity with regret. The AAA has passed resolutions condemning academic research that lends support to the oppression of indigenous and subaltern cultural groups, as well as numerous motions that support human rights in a variety of communities and contexts.

Anthropologists once again have the opportunity to take a stance in support of the international, national and human rights of an indigenous group, in this case Palestinians. Palestinians have asked for solidarity in support of their efforts to end the 47-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to gain equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and to resolve the more than 65-year Palestinian refugee condition, ongoing since the displacement and dispossession of the majority of the Palestinian population in 1948. Palestinians have asked the international community to join in non-violent struggle against these violations, and to engage in campaigns of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

There are a number of things the AAA, and individual anthropologists, can do to participate in this effort. We can, and should, condemn widespread Israeli violations of Palestinian academic freedom, the ongoing seizure of Palestinian land, destruction of archeological sites, and systematic and pervasive threats to Palestinian community and culture. We can, and should, condemn Israeli practices that deny international scholars and students access to research and teaching opportunities in Palestine, both isolating Palestinians and undermining scholarship. And we can, and should, support a boycott of complicit Israeli institutions as part of the international effort to apply pressure on Israel to end the occupation.

As an occupying power, Israel has responsibility to protect the lives and rights of Palestinians under occupation. Instead, it has pursued a vigorous policy of settlement building in Palestinian territory, expanded significantly after the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords that many hoped would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It has appropriated Palestinian water resources and destroyed agricultural land. It has progressively limited Palestinian movement and denied Palestinians access to each other. In Gaza it has imposed a blockade that is designed to keep the population suspended on the edge of a humanitarian crisis. This summer it launched its third assault on Gaza in seven years, killing over 2,000 people, largely civilians. International human rights organizations have accused the Israeli military of widespread war crimes in Gaza.

In the face of this continued and intransigent occupation, an overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society organizations and unions, including the Palestinian Council for Higher Education (CHE) and the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE), have called for BDS, including an academic and cultural boycott. This boycott is of institutions, not individuals. It asks scholars not to accept invitations to give lectures, be visiting faculty, or attend conferences convened or co-sponsored by Israeli universities. For anthropologists, this would mean they can do field research in Israel, but not formally under the aegis of an Israeli institution. Anthropologists can continue collaborative relationships with Israeli scholars, but again, not under the aegis of an Israeli institution. The boycott also asks scholars not to arrange institutional agreements between their home institution and Israeli academic institutions or research institutes or to publish in Israeli academic journals sponsored by an Israeli university.

As scholars and teachers, members of the AAA are naturally concerned with academic freedom and may worry that their participation in a boycott would contravene those commitments. It would not. Not only is the boycott a statement in support of Palestinian academic freedom—which is consistently violated by Israel—it does not undermine the academic freedom of Israeli scholars. Any Israeli scholar, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, has the right to freely express their views and conduct their scholarship. The boycott does not deny Israeli scholars the right to attend conferences such as the annual AAA meeting, come to US universities, or publish their work; it only requires that they not do so as representatives or ambassadors of their institutions. The academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions is not based on race, ethnicity, or citizenship. It is not a boycott of individuals.

If the AAA adopted a boycott resolution, it would impose requirements on the association, but not on individuals. In their professional engagements members of the AAA would be free, as in all matters, to follow their conscience. The AAA recommends ethical practices, but does not adjudicate these matters. Boycott would be no different. For the association, its commitment would likely be to refuse in its official capacity to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives of those institutions or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law. By supporting a boycott, AAA members would put the power of our collective voice behind our commitment to justice.

Members of the AAA might expect Israeli universities to be vocal in their condemnation of violations of Palestinian rights, including to academic freedom. They are not. In fact, not a single Israeli university has ever spoken out against or condemned the occupation. Nor has the Israeli Anthropological Association. In the latest assault on Gaza, the Israeli government bombed 141 schools and utterly destroyed the Islamic U of Gaza. In the summer of 2014 alone, Israeli forces raided Al Quds U in Jerusalem, the Arab American U in Jenin, and Birzeit U near Ramallah—yet again. Since 2000, 185 schools have been shelled and scores of teachers and students have been shot at and arrested. Israeli universities did not speak out against these assaults.

Israel’s academic institutions are directly and materially involved in the occupation. Virtually all Israeli universities are involved in defense-related research with the Ministry of Defense. Ben Gurion U, Hebrew U, Tel Aviv U and Haifa U all made explicit statements of support for the summer 2014 assault on Gaza, including providing financial benefits to soldiers. Universities have been part of the colonization of Palestinian territory: part of Hebrew U’s campus is built on confiscated Palestinian land; Ariel U, the most recently accredited Israeli university, is located in a West Bank settlement.

Israeli universities also discriminate against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Some 20% of Israeli citizens are Palestinian, yet they make up only a tiny percentage of university faculty; these scholars face barriers to promotion, especially if they are known as critics of the government. Palestinian students in Israeli universities have less access than their Jewish counterparts to scholarships and campus housing, as a result of privileges offered to those who serve in the military. Their freedom of political and cultural expression is regularly curtailed. Israeli Jewish faculty members openly critical of state policies are also marginalized and threatened.

No Israeli university has spoken out in support of Palestinians’ right to education and academic freedom. Neither has the Israeli Anthropological Association. While Israeli scholars will certainly be inconvenienced by this boycott, through its restrictions on movement and repeated targeting of Palestinian universities the Israeli government has forced Palestinians to make a Herculean effort to pursue the right to education, let alone the right to academic freedom. The Israeli government also makes it extremely difficult for Palestinian scholars to travel abroad (since it holds the power to issue travel permits), for foreign scholars to teach in Palestinian universities, and for international students to study in Palestinian universities.

The US government provides enormous sums of money to Israel every year. US citizens are, therefore, not just witnesses to Israeli crimes, but complicit in them. For that reason an association such as the AAA—with American in its name, located in the US, and with a majority of its members US citizens—has particular responsibility to support the boycott. This support is an effective way to speak not only to the Israeli government, but to the US government. It is a crucial way to open up public discourse and to indicate that the US government needs to change its stance. It is about ending the silencing atmosphere in the US academy about the Palestine/Israel conflict as well.

As employees in institutes of higher learning we have a particular interest in and responsibility to respond to the obstacles to the right to higher education that the Israeli state has created for Palestinians both inside Israel and in the occupied territories. As educators we have a responsibility to model forms of horizontal solidarity for our students, showing them that charity is not the only form of engagement they can have with the world. The AAA fosters an engaged anthropology that is committed to supporting social change efforts that arise from the interaction between community goals and anthropological research. It is time for anthropologists to stand up for the Palestinian right to education, social justice and freedom.

Ilana Feldman is associate professor of anthropology, history, and international affairs at George Washington U. Her research on the Palestinian experience, inside and outside of historic Palestine, has focused on bureaucracy, policing, and humanitarianism. She is the author of Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-67.

Lisa Rofel is professor of anthropology and director of the Center for the Study of Emerging Worlds at U of California, Santa Cruz. Her research and recent interests include transnational capitalism, postcoloniality, comparative settler colonialisms, and imperial entanglements.