Rosemary Sayigh: Why I Signed

[this post originally appeared on Savage Minds]

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions is pleased to present Part 2 of our series of essays. This piece by Beirut-based anthropologist Rosemary Sayigh joins earlier statements by Steven Caton, Talal Asad, Mick Taussig, and J. Lorand Matory in support of the boycott until Israeli higher education ends its complicity in the violation of Palestinian rights as stipulated under international law.

Why I Signed
Rosemary Sayigh
Visiting Professor at CAMES, American University of Beirut
Beirut, Lebanon

I have long supported the BDS campaign because I believe in its principles and aims. I do so in three capacities: i) as a citizen of the country that promised Palestine to representatives of the Zionist movement as a national home for Jews; and ii) as a resident in Lebanon, living close to Palestinian refugees, and witness of the ‘ongoing Nakba’; iii) as an anthropologist.

As a British citizen I feel obliged to work against the morally wrong and politically shortsighted decision taken by the British government when it issued the Balfour Declaration. By pledging itself itself to facilitate” “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, Britain initiated the displacement of Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants, a process it continued after gaining the mandate over Palestine.  Betraying its promise of national independence to Arabs who helped the Allies to defeat the Turks in World War 1, Britain also backed out of the promise made in the Balfour Declaration to do nothing  “which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. Though the Declaration’s definition of Arab Palestinians as “non-Jewish communities” was a first step towards their displacement, yet the statement contains a promise of protection that was betrayed throughout the Mandate, and particularly by the way it was terminated. By supporting the BDS campaign I hope to bring nearer the time when a broad segment of the British people will acknowledge a historic mistake and need to make amends.

As long term resident in Lebanon I have had the opportunity to witness the effects of the expulsions of 1948 on three generations of refugees, compounded by periodic Israeli invasions, settlement expansion, the incarceration of Gaza, and an increasingly brutal occupation of the rest of historic Palestine. Meanwhile the situation of refugees from Palestine in the Arab world deteriorates, with Lebanon operating a particularly tough regime in an effort to reduce their numbers. Discriminatory laws and media bias create insecurity, exclusion and economic hardship. Past massacres and destruction of camps darken the present and future with the possibility of repetition.  The closure of doors to migration keeps the refugee population trapped in a continually deteriorating situation.

Cumulative witnessing over six decades has made me aware that Israeli violence would be impossible without the complicity of governments — mainly Western — that benefit both materially and symbolically from Israel’s regional hegemony. I support the BDS campaign because it holds the promise of raising the cost to Western governments of their complicity in Israeli violence. As their publics become better informed it will require greater government investments to maintain the level and kinds of support that Israel has historically depended on.

As an anthropologist I regard public opinion support for Israel as an epiphenomenon of eurocentricism, or the assumption that European history and conceptions of history are universal. According to this assumption, all non-Western peoples are bound to follow the same line of ‘development’ from ‘backwardness’ to ‘modernity’.  Israel exemplifies ‘modernity’ in this kind of thinking, while Palestinians are placed in the slot of ‘backwardness’ or ‘primitivity’. In the world view that I support as an anthropologist, Europe is only one among many cultural centres, and its claims to universalism are challenged by emergent popular histories and cultures such as are currently embodied by the Palestinian people. For me the BDS campaign is one signal among others that Palestinians are resisting displacement, fragmentation, and silencing with the slender means at their disposal such as BDS. To the extent that most anthropologists deplore genocidal policies towards America’s First Nations, as well as the indigenous peoples of Africa, Australia and New Zealand, they must surely protest against the Zionist colonization of Palestine and displacement of the native inhabitants.

Finally, anthropologists are not only anthropologists, they are also in their great majority citizens of those same states that screen Israel from being called to account its history of war crimes and human rights violations.  It would be perverse if our adhesion to professional identities based on ideas of ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ were to override our concern as citizens to review and if necessary protest against our governments’ permissiveness towards Israeli violence. Support for BDS is a peaceful and principled way to express support for the indigenous people of Palestine whatever their religion or ethnicity, and one consonant with anti-racism, decoloniality, and anti-militarism.


Readers may also be interested in anthropologist Rhoda Kanaaneh’s essay on Israeli land expropriation and segregation, and how boycott offers a glimmer of hope that such practices will end. She connects boycott to the Black Lives Matter movement as part of a global struggle against militarized police practices.

As you learn more about this issue, it is important to remember this is not an issue of Israelis versus Palestinians. See this letter from Israeli anthropologists about the boycott.

For more information on the academic boycott movement, and to sign the statement pledging to boycott Israeli academic institutions until they end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law, visit Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions.

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