Why I Signed the Boycott Petition — Steven Caton

[this post originally appeared on the blog of the American Anthropological Association]

Guest blog post by AAA member,  Steven Caton (Harvard U).

I have not been a fan of boycotts in the past, so why did I change my mind?

The Gaza war in June and the continuing settlement finally made me reconsider. All the hand wringing over the Palestinians and pronouncements critical of Israel and its policies were doing absolutely no good. I spoke to a number of colleagues and friends, two of them Israeli, and two of them not (no Palestinians I regret to say) about the pros and cons of the proposed boycott, and after contemplating what they said for several weeks, I finally decided to sign. In other words, I did not take this action lightly. I have thought longer and harder than ever about questions of academic freedom that boycotts raise, and whether it’s impossible to distinguish between boycotting institutions and individual scholars, as it is claimed by boycott opponents.

Let me try to tackle the issue of academic freedom first. Opponents of the boycott argue that the freedoms of individual academics will be jeopardized, Israeli, Palestinian, and even scholars like myself who might “self-censure” by not publishing in journals supported by Israeli academic institutions, and that the boycott will not only be counter-productive but wrong in principle. It’s hard for me to buy this argument, when the range of academic journals, publishers and internet sites are so numerous and various as to make it possible to communicate one’s research outside the boycotted venues. A more reasonable concern is whether by not attending Israeli conferences or not teaching in Israeli classrooms, one is weakening these institutions to the point where they will see a cut-back in support for, say, anthropology, and thus do damage to the discipline inside the country as well as to individual anthropologists working in these institutions who are critical of Israel’s policy towards Palestinians and other marginalized groups within the country. Or conversely, that I am denying the possibility of my own speaking out within Israel against Israel’s policies and the university system that supports them. Let’s face it, even if we were given the chance to make that point or debate it, it would be dismissed as a personal view. I’d rather forego the opportunity to debate the issues within Israel, where these things tend to get coopted or marginalized in any case, and align with my colleagues in condemning what I think is unjust, which I think is a much more powerful tactic.

Speaking more abstractly, there is the “infra-structural” or “material” argument that says academic freedom is dependent on certain conditions being operative, and of course I have to acknowledge the merits of this argument in that Palestinian scholars are being deprived of the material infra-structure they need to exercise their academic freedoms within Israel. Am I therefore being illogical by arguing that two wrongs make a right? That if Palestinians are being denied their academic freedom, then so should Israelis and others working in Israeli institutions?
The answer to that question gets to the other, whether it is possible to distinguish between institutions and individuals. The boycott does not say that an Israeli (or non-Israeli) working or teaching or otherwise doing research at an Israeli institution of higher learning ipso facto will be boycotted, it only says that the institution will be. Impossible to make this distinction in practice between institutions and individuals? Again, I have a hard time believing that it is impossible; difficult, at times, perhaps, but certainly not impossible. I have supervised several Israeli students and otherwise closely advised or mentored others, all of whom fall within the spectrum from right to left on the question of Israel’s policies, and I don’t see my practice changing. The question is the intellectual merits of the individuals and the proposed research, and also the degree to which the project is critical of existing injustices that fall within the scope of the topic. I suppose I can only make this judgment on the basis of the facts of the application but that is only all we ever have before us when making collaborative decisions such as these. Might the research I collaborate with be used later to support the oppressive policies of the Israeli state? Perhaps. But all of us take this risk with the research we publish once it is in the public domain. So, would I accept to work with a student (Israeli, Palestinian or other) from an Israeli university whose project explores a research topic within, say, Israel, but also looks at the question in a balanced way deploying critical anthropology at its best? Yes, absolutely I would work with him or her. Where I would have a problem is with someone who seems not to be aware of or averse to pushing a critical perspective, or is simply an apologist for one side or the other in the conflict. Where I would also have a problem is accepting an invitation from that student’s home institution to give a lecture or teach in the classroom.

To those who say there are better ways to address the very injustices that they too want to change, I ask that you please put them forward so that we can debate the proposal and decide whether we should support it. Give us the alternative. To those who say the boycott is ineffective, then propose something that is. To those who say that it will do more harm than good, it is hard to imagine how the present state of affairs can possibly be worse. But I hope the debate will allow us to explore what are obviously difficult and thorny issues.

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