By Refusing to Take Sides, We Side With the Occupier: Ahmed Kanna on the Boycott

[this essay originally appeared in Anthropology News]

By Ahmed Kanna (U of the Pacific)

As an anthropologist, why might I sign onto a call for a boycott of academic institutions? Aren’t boycotts a violation of the principle of democratic deliberation? Do they not contradict the anthropological ideal of unbiased relativism? There are situations in politics and in life where the “academic” mentality, which strives to weigh multiple perspectives with as much intellectual and emotional distance as possible, may not be helpful. A political situation may become so radically unjust that it undermines the very conditions for deliberation. What is happening in Israel-Palestine today is an example of this extreme injustice. Palestinian civil society has deliberated on how to respond, and has decided that the boycott of Israeli institutions is an effective tool for defending Palestinian rights. Supporters of the Israeli state attack the boycott movement for being “illiberal,” for being against free intellectual exchanges with Israeli civil society. As I discuss below, this view has it backwards. It is the Israeli state, through its colonial actions, that has rendered the liberal notion of “free exchange of ideas” ineffective in addressing the chaos that the Palestinians routinely experience.

The unraveling of Palestinian life under the Israeli occupation makes it more urgent to recognize that anthropology calls us to go beyond balancing diverse voices. Important though this is, in this situation it becomes clear that doing so is a way of avoiding difficult political questions. As Lila Abu-Lughod has argued in Do Muslim Women Need Saving? it is too late for that. We – especially those of us in the United States – are already participants in and beneficiaries of an imperial system that produces devastation in those parts of the world we conveniently categorize as the “non-West” and therefore culturally “other.” An inoffensive cultural relativism not only becomes insufficient; it becomes a form of blaming the victim. We must mobilize other instruments from the arsenal of anthropological critique: those that help us uncover the structures and infrastructures of power which form the conditions of possibility for knowledge and its exchange; those that enable us to identify, help build solidarity against, and dismantle racism, settler colonialism, and other apparatuses of domination.

That the Israeli settler colonial state is an example of such an apparatus of domination, and that the United States government is unique in its lavish and blind support of the Israeli colonial project, both of these are facts beyond dispute. The imprisonment of the population of Gaza, the US-armed and funded Israeli Defense Force’s (IDF) frequent violent forays there, the carving up of the West Bank into an archipelago of enclaves denuded of dignity let alone national sovereignty, the endless depredations by racist settler trailblazers of the Israeli state: all are unequivocal evidence of a colonial pattern of behavior in the direct genealogy of European colonialism going back centuries. By refusing to take sides, by continuing to operate under liberal illusions of “free intellectual exchange,” we refuse to recognize these colonial structures. We side with the occupier.

I do not believe that supporting the boycott of Israeli academic institutions targets the only site of critical resistance to the occupation in Israeli society. The notion that Israeli universities are sites of critique and resistance is one of the many patent falsehoods currently circulating during this boycott struggle. These institutions have strongly tended to support the occupation, as my colleagues who have contributed to the website Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions have amply demonstrated. I also do not believe that a AAA vote in support of the boycott would limit the freedom of expression of Israeli scholars, as has been claimed by our opponents. These critics ignore the fact that this is a boycott of institutions and not individuals. The resolution that my colleagues and I have submitted to the AAA is explicit on this issue, and reads in part: “Israeli scholars will still be welcome to participate in AAA meetings, use funds from their institutions to attend the meetings, publish in AAA journals, and take part in other AAA activities in their individual capacities … This resolution does not impose any requirements on AAA members acting in their individual capacities. Under this resolution, individual members will remain free to make their own decisions about whether or not to support the boycott in their own professional practice, such as whether to accept Israeli grants, attend conferences in Israel, or publish in Israeli journals” (see here).

But let us assume that the boycott does curtail some of the rights of Israeli scholars. Even if this were the case, I believe that supporting the boycott is the right thing to do. As Talal Asad explained in discussing why he supports the boycott:

Yes, boycotts often hurt innocent people – as boycotts did in the civil rights movement in the American South, or as part of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. But this ‘collateral damage’ doesn’t amount to killing people or rendering them homeless.

Speaking of South Africa, as those who have experience with anti-apartheid movement have pointed out, the boycotts and sanctions of institutions doing business with the apartheid regime did indeed negatively affect the living standards of white South Africans, some of whom were decent people who supported black South African liberation. A boycott of the South African economy during apartheid was among other things a project that, like Palestinian civil society’s call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), was initiated and led internally by indigenous liberation activists and supported externally by international solidarity movements. It worked precisely because of the pressure it brought and the costs it exacted on the racial system that privileged white South Africans through the violent exclusion and dehumanization of black South Africans. Many white South Africans did not like this, as many Israelis will not like having forced on them a boycott of the status quo they currently enjoy. The cost to a racist and colonial system – minor in comparison to the harm it does – is not, however, an argument against a boycott.

As good practitioners of our discipline, we might listen carefully not only to the voices of experience in general, but also to the voices of subaltern struggle in particular. This call for the boycott, and other manifestations of the broader movement for justice for Palestinians, is unfolding in the current US context along with other movements: #BlackLivesMatter and more explicitly left/anti-imperialist movements such as Black – Palestinian Solidarity and the Black Is Back Coalition; struggles by low-wage workers for a $15 minimum wage and more militant left labor movements in cities such as Seattle, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, the Bay Area, and beyond; the movement to abolish campus sexual assault and dismantle rape culture; and others in the recent upsurge of mass resistance against the hegemony of militarization, gender hierarchy, racism, and the ruling class in the United States. These movements are at the forefront in pushing for radical change, challenging patterns and practices of racialization, gendering, and economic inequality dominant in US society — in short, the very machinery of US imperialism. But these movements are also deeply interconnected. When I began writing this essay in April 2015, mass demonstrations were breaking out in Baltimore, protesting another episode in an epidemic of racist police killings of African Americans in US cities. Freddie Gray, whose murder by Baltimore police triggered the protests, came from Sandtown-Winchester, which like many other predominantly African American urban communities has been utterly devastated by successive waves of American capitalism, from deindustrialization to the drug war to the subprime loan/foreclosure disaster. Capitalism and racism, manifested in a militarized police apparatus, combine in a poisonous admixture in these communities, rendering vulnerable populations “surplus,” mostly irrelevant to neoliberal capitalism, except as targets for its most predatory forms (see Tania Murray Li’s 2010 Antipode article, “To Make Live or Let Die?”) . Interestingly, as journalist Max Blumenthal wrote in an essay at the time of the Baltimore uprising, the leadership of the Baltimore police regularly makes trips to Israel to exchange “information relating to best practices and recent advancements in security and counterterrorism.” The Baltimore PD is far from unique among American police departments in this regard.

The aforementioned resistance movements connect the struggles of African Americans and Palestinians with what often are the very same US and Israeli systems of capital accumulation and related biopolitics of “letting die,” rendering valueless the lives of those deemed economically and socially useless (Li). These movements also, implicitly, challenge dominant models of American academic work, in which knowledge production is highly individualized and organized around the reward structure of celebrity status and competition. This is in large part a product of the corporatized and militarized political forces already mentioned, in which a large majority of faculty have become contingent, placed at an enormous structural disadvantage as they labor in the modern servitude of adjunct teaching. Such pressures act to constrict the space in which to forcefully challenge the reigning system. As an anthropologist I take seriously our key concept of intersectionality and look with skepticism and suspicion upon our inherited academic system of reward and prestige. Knowledge is political, intersectional and collective. I hope that we continue to work and think along and in solidarity with the contemporary justice movements, and that they inspire us to begin, or continue, to organize inside and outside our campuses.

Ahmed Kanna is an associate professor of anthropology and international studies at University of the Pacific. As an activist, teacher, and researcher he is engaged with issues of urbanism, US empire, class, and race. His books include Dubai, The City as Corporation (Minnesota 2011), Rethinking Global Urbanism (Routledge 2012, co-edited with Xiangming Chen) and The Superlative City(Harvard 2013).

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