Activist Anthropology in 2014: From Palestine to #BlackLivesMatter

[This is an excerpt from Courtney Desiree Morris, “Where It Hurts: 2014 Year in Review,” American Anthropologist 117(3): 540-552, September 2015]


On June 12, 2014, three Israeli teenagers—Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah—were abducted and later murdered in the West Bank. The Israeli state and the media pointed to Hamas being behind the teens’ disappearance, and conflicting reports from the leadership of Hamas further complicated the situation. The wave of public anger over their deaths resulted in anti-Arab riots during one of which a Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khedir, was abducted, beaten, and his body burned in retaliation. Although Israel and Gaza had already reignited armed conflict prior to the deaths of the four teens, tensions escalated as militants launched rockets from Gaza into Israel, and Israel responded with devastating airstrikes (Erlanger and Kershner 2014).

On July 8, Israel launched “Operation Protective Edge” in the Gaza Strip, beginning a series of airstrikes aimed at stopping militant rocket fire into southern Israel. Approximately 1.8 million people call the Gaza Strip home, with more than 43 percent under 14 years old. It is a densely populated area that is 25 miles long by 7.5 miles wide. Military checkpoints have restricted Palestinian mobility in and out of Gaza and made fleeing the area during the airstrikes nearly impossible for civilians. The scale of death, injury, and displacement was astonishing: 110,000 displaced persons and 2,192 people killed, most of them unarmed civilians. Children accounted for 519 of the civilian deaths (Amnesty International 2014). More than 18,000 homes were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. Schools, universities, hospitals, and bomb shelters were routinely targeted and destroyed during the attacks. By comparison, despite the relatively high volume of rockets launched into Israel by Hamas, the Israeli government recorded six civilian deaths, including one child, and 66 deaths of members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Many international human rights organizations and political institutions denounced the disproportionate rates of civilian death and the destruction of civilian infrastructure in Gaza. Throughout the siege, organizations including the United Nations, the International Red Cross, Amnesty International, and others condemned Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians. Within the discipline, anthropologists began a more public conversation about how to respond to the Israeli–Palestinian crisis. Specifically, they debated whether the American Anthropological Association should adopt a more explicit position on the question of Israel and Palestine and what form that position should take. In the April 30, 2014, edition of Anthropology News, the leadership of the American Anthropological Association published “Towards an Informed AAA Position on Israel-Palestine,” demonstrating the increased salience of this issue among anthropologists. The association’s administration stated that “the debate over Israel/Palestine is historically important and anthropologically relevant” and that anthropologists “can provide a diverse set of lenses through which to explore and understand these questions” and to decide upon an appropriate course of action for the AAA (Heller et al. 2014). Toward that end, they outlined the range of possible positions that the organization might take, including economic boycotts, collaborations with Palestinian universities, or pressuring U.S. companies with ties to Israel and the Occupied Territories to divest. At this time, the AAA portfolio has no funds invested in companies based in Israel or the West Bank or with U.S. corporations with those links. While they recognized that this is a highly controversial and contentious topic, they also stressed the importance of maintaining a respectful dialogue that can facilitate robust intellectual exchange alongside the recognition that this has become an issue with which the discipline as a whole must contend.

On October 1, 2014, a group calling itself “Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions” released a public statement urging anthropologists to support an academic boycott (Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions 2014). Since 2011, responding to the call from the Palestinian Council for Higher Education (CHE) and the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE) for an academic boycott, a number of academic associations including the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the African Literature Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and the Critical Ethnic Studies Association have passed resolutions expressing their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. In the month following the AAA statement’s release, more than 900 anthropologists from 35 countries signed on, including several Israeli anthropologists. Inside Higher Ed, The Washington Post, and Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, reported on the boycott campaign and the tensions between anthropologists on the merits and potential problems of a boycott (Haaretz 2014b; Inside Higher Ed 2014; Strauss 2014). In calling on the AAA to consider endorsing the boycott, Farha Ghannam and Jessica Winegar (2014) point out that the United States plays a central role in the occupation:

Because most AAA members are citizens of or teach in the U.S., they have a stake in U.S. policy. The U.S. supplies more military aid to Israel than to any other country. Israel receives the lion’s share of its military aid (over $233 billion since 1948) from the U.S. The U.S. government systematically supports Israel’s use of that military aid to displace, oppress, or kill thousands of people. As an American association, the AAA has discussed and/or taken stances on forms of state violence of much smaller magnitudes and in cases where the U.S. plays little role . . . Why should Palestinians not be given the same consideration?

The BDS campaign calls for individual scholars and academic associations to boycott those academic institutions that support, participate in, or benefit from settlement in the Occupied Territories. Under the terms of the boycott, those scholars and organizations that support the boycott would refrain from entering into collaborative relationships with Israeli universities in an effort to pressure the state of Israel to reverse its policies on Palestine and recognize the civil and human rights of Palestinians; it should be noted, however, that the boycott does not preclude working with individual Israeli scholars. In making this call, the group rooted its actions in the history of anthropologists taking controversial positions in political situations in which the human rights of vulnerable communities are threatened or violated. The Israel–Palestine question was discussed at length at the AAA’s annual meeting in more than a half-dozen panels.

The boycott campaign, however, met with considerable resistance, particularly among anthropologists who felt that academic boycotts by their very nature threaten academic freedom. In an article published in Anthropology News, “Why a Boycott Is a Bad Idea,” Paula G. Rubel (Barnard College and Columbia University) opposed the boycott on the grounds that it would do little to achieve the goals of advancing the peace process and would stifle free academic exchange with Israeli scholars. She suggested that it would be more effective to support a “positive resolution” supporting peace negotiations as the United Nations has attempted to do rather than endorsing a negative resolution for a boycott. A boycott, she argued, “will not influence the Israel government to change its policies in regard to Palestine, and the Palestinians, but only infringe on the freedom of Israeli academics” (Rubel 2014). Others seemed to share this position (Haaretz 2014a). Prior to the AAA’s annual meeting, the president of the Israeli Anthropological Association (IAA), Harvey Goldberg, condemned the calls for an academic boycott in an open letter, arguing that “punishing scholars in Israel for the acts of their government is not only meaningless, ineffectual and counterproductive, it is first and foremost a breach of academic freedom and freedom of speech” (Goldberg 2014). During the AAA annual meeting, a group of members sponsored a resolution opposing a boycott of Israeli institutions. More than 700 members voted on the resolution, which was defeated by a wide margin with only 52 votes in support of the measure (Haaretz 2014c; Redden 2014a, 2014b).

In response to the IAA’s open letter, 41 Israeli academics signed a counterstatement challenging the IAA’s claims and insisting on the need for a meaningful dialogue among AAA members on the question of Israel–Palestine. While they acknowledged that “what is true of Israeli anthropology as a whole is not true of all Israeli anthropologists as individuals,” many of whom have critiqued the occupation and offered support to the BDS campaign, as a whole, the IAA, in particular, has “never as a body declared their opposition to the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people . . . the Israeli academy is a central pillar of the state, playing a key part in its repressive policies,” including excluding Palestinians and other ethnic minority groups from higher education as well as participating directly in the occupation through intelligence, security, and defense research (Anthropology News 2014). They also noted that IAA has not, in its 26-year history, publicly criticized the state of Israel for its actions in the Occupied Territories and that the calls for “balance” and “civility” seem to be a response to the growing pressure of the BDS campaign.

In recent years, the question of civility and academic freedom has arisen in political debates that involve complex and violent processes of state control, dispossession, and the violation of human rights (Allen and Subramanian 2014; Balibar 2009; Nader 2001; Phillips 2011; Reichman 2014; Shapiro 2014). Specifically, these anthropologists have suggested that what constitutes civil discourse and appropriate forms of political engagement and public anthropology are deeply political and cultural questions determined by the power dynamics that shape the societies in which we live. They have discussed how civility can be mobilized in ways that, instead of cultivating spaces for convivial and respectful political dialogue, suppress some forms of political speech and action more actively than others. This raised particular interest among anthropologists in civility discourse as a cultural formation that disciplines social behavior. The discourse of civility, particularly as it related to questions of academic freedom and political dissent, pervaded the debate among anthropologists about whether to support an academic boycott.

This was especially true among some anthropologists who argued that publicly criticizing the state of Israel is an unpopular political position that can adversely affect one’s professional life. The boycott campaign organizers reported that of the more than 900 anthropologists who signed the call for an academic boycott, approximately 130 of the signatories opted to sign the statement anonymously out of fear that there would be reprisals at their home institutions or that their job prospects would be harmed if their support of the campaign became public (Allen and Subramanian 2014). Following the release of the boycott statement, the AMCHA Initiative, a U.S.-based nonprofit “dedicated to investigating, documenting, educating about, and combating anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education in America,” posted a list of the anthropologists who had signed onto what it dubbed an “anti-Semitic boycott” (AMCHA 2014).

While debates over Operation Protective Edge and the value of Palestinian life intensified in the human rights public sphere (Mikdashi 2014), many anthropologists and human rights advocates also turned their attention to human rights abuses and the question of the value of human life in the United States. They focused specifically on the case of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager shot by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri. His death was one in a string of police killings of unarmed African American men around the country. For many (Buck 2014; Gregory 2014; Smith 2013), these deaths reflected what they regard as the racist underpinnings of modern policing and exposed police abuse as an ongoing, national problem. Brown’s death sparked a series of protests on the streets of Ferguson that would continue throughout the summer, spilling over into the fall when a St. Louis grand jury chose not to indict Wilson for Brown’s death. The protests resonated throughout the country; the hashtags “#HandsUpDontShoot and #Blacklivesmatter encapsulated the rage and frustration that many felt not simply about Brown’s death but about the killings of many others: Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York; John Crawford III in Beavercreek, Ohio; Aiyana Stanley Jones in Detroit, Michigan; and Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, California.

The protests garnered international media coverage as local authorities cracked down on the community, arresting protestors and journalists and actively repressing local mobilization with a highly militarized police response. As Lydia Brassard (Graduate Center of the City University of New York) and Michael Partis (Borough of Manhattan Community College) note, protestors “utilized social media and grassroots media producers to bring immediate disruption to traditional media’s attempts to organize social comprehension of these events through the tropes of wantonness, criminality, and pathology.” Their digital activism demonstrated not only “how we see examples of racism and racialized injustice, but also [publicized] how the narrative of racial inequality in contemporary society is produced and transmitted” (Brassard and Partis 2014).

Interestingly, the protests also prompted a global conversation between activists around the world on the challenge and contours of state violence in diverse locations. Activists took to social media to show their solidarity for the Ferguson protests; images began to circulate on Twitter, for example, of Palestinian civilians tweeting advice to Ferguson protestors about how to handle being tear gassed by the police. Another image showed a young girl holding up a small placard that simply read:

From Gaza to Ferguson



While some spectators watched the events unfolding in Ferguson in shock, anthropologists suggested that they reveal how state violence against black and brown people remains normalized. As Pem Buck (Elizabethtown Community and Technical College) observed in Anthropology News, anthropology has a special role to play in exposing “the violence of the status quo” and helping others to “connect the dots between past violence and present violence” in ways that illuminate popular understanding of the roots of racism, structural violence, and police abuse (Buck 2014). Moreover, as Steven Gregory (2014) noted, anthropologists can also play a critical role in unpacking the tropes of criminality, violence, and incivility that accompanied most mainstream media representations of the protests. These reports, Gregory says, had the effect of indiscriminately marking young black activists as either respectable, nonviolent, peaceful protestors worthy of attention or unworthy, dehumanized violent protestors or looters whose breach of law and order placed their actions and demands outside of the realm of the appropriately political. Buck and Gregory argue that this retreat to the values of the status quo was simply another way to dismiss the anger and frustration that poor communities of color expressed about the culture of impunity that surrounds police killings of unarmed young people of color. As Gregory notes, the protestors were engaged in oppositional political practices that in theory are enshrined within and protected by the law but in practice are rendered illegible when black and brown people deploy them.

By December 2014, the tenor of the protests shifted from a moment of outrage and began to take on the appearance of a broad-based social movement. Protests unfolded throughout the country in the days following the nonindictment of a NYPD police officer in the strangling death of Eric Garner. Outraged citizens took to the streets, disrupting business as usual by holding die-ins at Penn Station in New York City; the Association of Black Anthropologists (ABA) and a number of allies held a die-in in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel during the AAA annual meeting. The ABA also released a statement calling on the AAA to pass a resolution condemning the systematic pattern of civilian deaths at the hands of the police:

As members of an academic discipline with the distinctive history of establishing the language and “science” of race, which has been used to justify settler colonialism and slavery, we understand the roots of this state violence. While U.S. ideologies hold that we are all equal under the law, this has never been the case, and in fact inequality has been structured into the justice system from the start, and is currently escalating via the militarization of local police forces.

For many, the demonstration at the AAA meeting was a key moment for linking the discipline to contemporary struggles for racial equality and demonstrating how anthropology can be brought to bear on questions of racialized state violence. For Aries de la Cruz, an anthropology student at Rutgers University who was attending the annual meeting for the first time, the die-in taught her that

our discipline can be most effective and affective when we respond to a political moment. The public takes us seriously when we speak in a language that’s relevant to them, understands their grammar and modes of being . . . All over the world, people can now see anthropologists as a resource they might be able to access in their local communities as allies, as people who can train them to conduct ethnographies of police departments to be able to be used in civil rights lawsuits. [McGranahan 2014]

Several anthropologists, including Lee Baker (Duke University) and Lynn Bolles (University of Maryland, College Park), offered their thoughts on anti-black racism, police brutality, and state violence on the popular anthropology blog Savage Minds, as well as via other publications. Their essays were often deeply personal and painful, the kind of anthropology that “breaks your heart” (Behar 1996). In her essay, Whitney Battle (University of Massachusetts Amherst), an archaeologist and black feminist scholar, wrote candidly about her fear and uncertainty following the St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson: “The prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, started to talk and talk. I felt as if I could not understand his words. No indictment. I felt trauma. I felt more tears. I held my two sons extra tight that night, for I was so unsure of this country I call home” (Battle 2014).

Battle’s comments echoed an essay by Christen Smith (University of Texas at Austin), published in late 2013 at The Feminist Wire, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. In an open letter to her son, Smith reflected on the politics of black motherhood and the terror that accompanies mothering black boys in a hostile culture. Connecting anti-black racism in Brazil and the United States, Smith states, “After spending years personally and politically speaking out against police violence (and its close relative vigilantism) against Black people in the United States and Brazil, and tracing the genealogy of the torture and death of Black people from hemispheric American slavery to lynching, death squads, and policing in both nations, I had come to accept that the world takes black boys from their mothers, often right in front of their eyes, without rhyme or reason, at random, and yet with cruel intent” (Smith 2013). While the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has reported the deaths of 76 unarmed black civilians (including children) by the police in the United States from 1999–2014, according to The Guardian, Brazilian police forces kill approximately 2,000 civilians annually, the vast majority of them poor black and brown people (Barker et al. 2014; Juzwiak and Chan 2014; Watts 2014).

In his post “On Disconnections Post-Ferguson,” Alvaro Jarrín (College of the Holy Cross) pondered the difficulty of engaging friends and colleagues on social media who simply did not see the racial politics at the heart of the debate and, perhaps more importantly, considered how best to talk about Ferguson in the classroom (Jarrín 2014).While social media provides an imperfect and limited space for discussing these issues, the space of the classroom is no less challenging. He stated

When I taught about Ferguson in class, I had a similar feeling: that most students were receptive to the critical analysis of racism in the U.S., but others were more interested in who was ‘correct’: Wilson or Brown. They wanted simpler answers, and when in doubt they prefer to side with the cops, with the rule of law, and with order. Our polarized political landscape certainly contributes to that divide. [Jarrín 2014]

While Jarrín did not offer easy answers for how to decrease this divide, he suggested that anthropologists might consider what tools the discipline offers for doing this work: “I do not know how the reality of black experience can be ‘felt’ by those outside of it. But I think noticing this crippling divide is a step to try to bridge it, in order to find creative ways to generate empathy for those who have led different lives from us. Is that not anthropology’s most important contribution? Can anthropology go beyond critique and build bridges once again?”

Of course, not everyone agreed with the explicitly activist tenor of this particular form of public anthropology. Anthropology News reprinted an essay by Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, entitled, “Ferguson and the Decline of Anthropology,” in which he criticized many of the anthropologists who responded to Michael Brown’s shooting for “misappropriating” anthropology for their own ideological ends. Specifically, Wood claimed that these scholars distorted the facts of the Brown shooting to serve their own political agenda, which was to reproduce the myth of state violence while obscuring the set of individual choices that led to Michael Brown’s death: namely, that he attacked Darren Wilson and Wilson was compelled to act in self-defense.

The article set off an intense debate among anthropologists about the way that some forms of public anthropology that are explicitly political are often dismissed as lacking in rigor and compromising the intellectual foundations of the discipline. Alex Golub (University of Hawai‘i) responded to Wood’s essay on the Savage Minds blog by challenging the idea that a preoccupation with questions of race and inequality is simply the province of biased “activists” distorting the facts to suit their political interests. Rather, he suggested that it is an ethical responsibility for the discipline: “I don’t think that every anthropologist should be an activist—I’m not an activist. I don’t think we should all study racism and inequality—I don’t. My point is that caring about structural violence and racism is not activism. It’s a normative commitment that all anthropologists working in our country should think is important” (Golub 2015).

The year 2014 represents a moment when anthropologists confronted a number of thorny questions about state violence, the defense of human rights, and the role of the discipline in these debates. Some anthropologists took “rude” positions, protesting in public space and advancing controversial forms of intervention and debate. These debates revealed that we must consider what is actually at stake when anthropologists ask the very difficult questions and where those lines of inquiry will lead. How is what is considered civil discourse defined, and who determines those parameters? In the deeply polarized political culture in which we live, how can anthropology be mobilized to contextualize and expand what can be said about state violence? In short, when is it time to become uncivil about a matter? Finally, how do anthropologists as an intellectual community decide what forms these “unruly” political practices might take?