James Ferguson: Israel BDS — Why I Signed…Reluctantly

[This essay originally appeared on Savage Minds.]

Israel BDS – Why I Signed…Reluctantly

James Ferguson

I did not come easily to the decision to sign the petition supporting an academic boycott of Israeli universities.  My experience has been that academic boycotts can easily do more harm than good.  They harbor the risk of creating divisions between scholars working on the outside (for whom grand denunciations come easily, and often without cost) and those on the inside (at least some of whom may be progressive intellectuals of courage and commitment, working under the most challenging of circumstances, who may resent rather than welcome attacks on the institutions that support them).  There are also, it must be said, risks of hypocrisy, when American scholars righteously denounce foreign universities while saying little about their own comparatively lavishly-funded institutions, which are of course dripping with their own forms of complicity with militarism and imperialism.

In a complex situation, however — one, moreover, of which I personally have only very imperfect and limited knowledge — I feel obliged to give great weight to the views of those more knowledgeable than myself.  This is, after all, the most basic sort of trust that we rely upon as a scholarly community.  And it seems clear to me that the members of our intellectual community whom I judge to have the most knowledge and the best understanding, both of the Israel/Palestine situation in general and of the political role played by Israeli academic institutions, are in strong support of the resolution.  This is not just a question of a list of names, but a set of convincing arguments that has been assembled by an impressive assembly of scholars, many of whom I know to be not only fine researchers, but fair-minded persons of honest character and good judgment.  

We are right to pause and discuss over this complex issue, and not to blithely assume that a repugnance for Israel’s policies simply or automatically warrants a boycott of its academic institutions.  And, in truth, I would be happier if the boycott were more closely aimed at specific practices of specific institutions (certainly, this would be desirable if our goal is to help transform Israeli institutions and not just to declare our opposition to the regime in the abstract).  But my assessment, in the end, after reviewing the arguments on both sides (and, as I have noted, giving special weight to the judgments of the scholars of the region whose work I know and admire, within anthropology and beyond) is that the boycott will find its fundamental meaning not within the academy, but beyond it.  In this light, we might see anthropologists’ support for the BDS movement both as a kind of public declaration that we have taken notice of the illegal and immoral conduct of the Israeli state and the institutions that support it, and as a small gesture of solidarity with those who have suffered most from that conduct.  That is reason enough for me.