Dialogue’s Demise: Why the American Anthropological Association should support the boycott of Israe​li​ academic institutions

[this essay originally appeared on Mondoweiss]

by Laurie King

It was a novel – written in Hebrew by an Israeli Palestinian author – that first alerted me to the existence and experiences of Palestinian citizens in Israel. Arabesques (Arabesquot, in Hebrew), by Anton Shammas (1988) made the familiar strange and the strange familiar through vivid descriptions of one Palestinian family’s lives in a small Christian village in the upper Galilee from the Ottoman era to the 1980s. The novel is a retelling of the story of Israel’s founding from the point of view of those on its margins, from the stance of its silent and silenced victims. The novel is deliciously ethnographic in its attention to the fine-grained details of everyday life in a Palestinian village – the vistas of mountains, the sounds of birds and late night conversations, the taste of well water, the texture of ripe figs, the weakness of soup broth in the days of privation and scarcity for Palestinians in during the first decade of Israel’s existence, the folktales about magic roosters, and the mixing of historical archives and mystical visions.

As the central character grows up and falls in love with language and literature, we follow him to university and then into the literary circles of Israel and the wider world. One passage of the book in particular affected me as an anthropologist: Assuming the voice of a Jewish character, a famous Israeli novelist (said to be modeled on A.B. Yehoshua), Shammas lets us listen in on his internal musings as he wonders how to represent an Israeli Palestinian character’s inner world. He wonders how well the character would know Hebrew, deciding he would know a lot, but not the “kol nidre.” It’s a stunning literary achievement: A Palestinian writing in Hebrew about an Israeli novelist trying to write from the perspective of an Arab character—and really underestimating Israeli’s Arab citizens in the process.  All one needs to know about Orientalism is summed up in this one paragraph.

Arabesques gave me a lot of food for thought about the relationality of identity, and reminded me of a quote from James Baldwin: “If I am not what you say I am, then you are not who you think you are.” The subaltern had spoken, in Hebrew and Arabic, in a way that problematized the totalizing discourses and identity traps so evident in academic and journalistic writing about Israeli Palestinians.

As a budding anthropologist who had begun her academic life in literature, theatre, and creative writing, Shammas’s novel entranced me, and provided much more insight into the intersubjective worlds of Palestinian citizens of Israel than I had been able to grasp through academic studies of the 20 percent of Israel’s population who are Palestinian Arab. Most, if not all, of those studies were penned by Israeli Jewish sociologists. The ironies, pathos, warmth, and nostalgia for not only a lost, but also a denied, identity and past that illuminated Arabesques clinched it for me: I would conduct my anthropological dissertation field research on this little known and misunderstood community.

Arabesques caused a stir in Israeli literary and political circles; Shammas, a Palestinian, was praised as the best Hebrew literary stylist of his era. The English version of his book came out just a few months after the 1987-1993 Intifada began. I was a graduate student at Indiana University-Bloomington then, studying political and linguistic anthropology and Near Eastern languages and literatures. About a year before I first read Shammas’s book, my role as the graduate assistant, conference planner, and newsletter editor for the Middle Eastern Studies Program at IUB had opened my eyes to the toxic atmosphere surrounding any lecture, film, conference, or event related to Palestine.

American Jewish students from right-wing groups like Betar would come to our speaking events, sit in the front row, open up bags of Doritos and noisily crunch them to drown out Palestinian speakers. Then, as the question and answer portion of the event would begin, they’d jump up and angrily accuse the speakers of anti-Semitism, radical political views supportive of “PLO terrorists,” or worse.  Stunned at their lack of civility and aversion to dialogue, I looked at my fellow students and our professors, who rarely intervened. One or two graduate students from Lebanon would make sarcastic remarks, but usually, the Jewish students would eventually leave, looking satisfied with themselves for making their points and preventing anyone else from talking.

A Jewish friend and fellow Arabic classmate who was working in the Jewish Studies office down the hall from me, who was equally horrified at the behavior of the Betar supporters, began thinking about starting a dialogue group between American Jewish and American Arab students, as well as Israelis and Arab students on campus. We began to have informal meetings in the 1986.

Our enthusiasm for talking across political boundaries was not an isolated phenomenon then. The late 1980s brought us “People Power” in the Philippines, and “Track Two” diplomacy in international affairs – people-to-people meetings that attempted to break through stereotypes and tap into a common humanity, a shared vision of a world that did not have to live in fear of nuclear war, and a questioning of the hardline American military policies in Central America. I remember feeling optimism about the SANE/FREEZE anti-nuclear weapons movement and Christian Liberation Theology in Central America, the protests of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, and the speeches of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who entered the primary elections in the spring of 1988, right around the time I was reading Arabesques for the first time.  The Arab-Jewish dialogue group meetings were very emotional – people cried and yelled, and then went out for dinner together. It looked like simply talking could solve a lot. How hard could it be to solve this conflict if people would just look at one another as fellow human beings? (Cue “We are the World…”)

Change was in the air at the end of the 1980s. People were questioning the conventional answers to political impasses, and envisioning other futures. Nowhere was this more evident than in the West Bank and Gaza in 1988 and 1989. People power was breaking out all over Occupied Palestine. Journalists and pundits were criticizing Israel’s harsh suppression of Palestinians’ voices and demands. Even those now known as PEEPs (“progressives on everything except Palestine”) were taking notice. In the summer of 1988,Sojourners magazine featured a sympathetic cover story about the Intifada and the “children of the stones.”

Many Jewish-Arab dialogue groups sprang up across the United States during this period. The nightly televised images of Israeli soldiers breaking the bones of Palestinian protestors and shooting rubber coated bullets into crowds of unarmed women and children certainly made the familiar discourse of Israel as David fighting the Arab Goliath quite strange. Dialogue was having an effect. People were having difficult conversations and policy makers were taking notice, and I, preparing my proposal for field research in Nazareth, the largest all-Palestinian city in the state of Israel, felt excited to be living at this seemingly transformative moment in history.

By the time I arrived in Nazareth with a Fulbright dissertation fellowship in December 1991, so much had changed since my first stirrings of interest in Palestinian citizens of Israel. The US had opened a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization; a long-sought international peace conference was in the making (and took place two years later in Madrid), US Secretary of State Baker had upbraided Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir on prime-time television for dicking around about real peace. The remains of the Berlin wall were now a tourist attraction, the USSR was gone, and George H. W. Bush had triumphally crowed that the United States the only world superpower (“what we say, goes!”) just a year earlier upon routing Iraqi forces from Kuwait.  The New World Order had arrived, and history had ended, according to Francis Fukuyama.

I arrived in Nazareth just before the “peace industry” and the “civil society” craze swept through policy and academic circles. (I was to have a front seat to both when I lived in Lebanon from 1993-1998 and got involved in post war reconciliation projects and the politics of post-war urban reconstruction, and became cynical about the political uses of these fads early on. [1]) As the Reagan/Bush years gave way to the Clinton years in Washington, and as eloquent Palestinian spokespersons such as Hanan Ashrawi and Saeb Erakat became familiar faces to US news audiences, so much still seemed possible. Dialogue and transformation would change the Cold War world I’d grown up in, and perhaps even finally end the hell of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just one year in Nazareth, however, was enough to deflate my optimism and make these familiar and hopeful discourses strange indeed.

My field research implicitly was framed by debates about whether Israel’s one million Arab citizens were “Israel-izing” or “Palestinian-izing,” and thus, I had assumed that Palestinians in Israel could embody two identities. [2] I wanted to know if they felt more Palestinian than Israeli, or vice versa, and if so, in which contexts? It did not take long for my patient interlocutors to correct my naïve assumptions. “We are neither Palestinians nor Israelis here. We are outside the rules of the game. If we start acting and thinking like we are Israelis, someone will quickly remind us of what we are—non-Jews in a Jewish state.” I began to grasp a quiet but distressing form of human rights abuse: Palestinians in Israel are not viewed as Arabs or Palestinians by the state, but rather, as “non-Jewish minorities”  (miyutim lo yehudim) – defined by what they are not and never will be. In the context of Zionist governance and discourses—whether inside the green line or in the Occupied territories–Palestinians are not and can never be equal to Jews. Although they may be non-Jews, they are fully human, but are prevented from being so. In Nazareth, I witnessed an existential suffering that was just as devastating as any bone breaking in the West Bank.

An Israeli Palestinian lawyer told me “Zionism was not meant to discriminate, but to differentiate…but those on the receiving end of this differentiation experience discrimination everyday.” Can dialogue address this differentiation-as-disparity? Is this discussion even permitted in dialogue between Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians? From my experience, it was rarely broached publicly when Israeli Jews and Palestinians were together, but much discussed privately when Israeli Jews were not around.

Dialogue is central to the doing and teaching of anthropology: the anthropologist is himself or herself the very instrument of research. Listening and engaging with the Other, taking an emic perspective, and exercising reflexivity are crucial to ethnographic research and pedagogy. Good data comes out of good conversations—i.e., open dialogue. Good conversations come out of good relationships. Good relationships come out of the establishment of trust, which requires the ethnographer to engage with his interlocutors in a respectful and egalitarian manner. In the context of Israel’s apartheid system, is dialogue of the sort required for ethnographic research even possible between Israeli anthropologists and their Palestinian interlocutors? Does engagement with Palestinians affect Israelis’ views of their identity, positioning, and privilege? If so, what do they do, not only as scholars, but also as citizens, when they see how unequally the decks are stacked?

Circumscribing the terms of dialogue in advance is not dialogue. Forbidding the expression of particular perspectives, emotions, and experiences is not dialogue. Dialogue is not dialogue if it takes place between the powerful and the powerless. Authentic and effective dialogue transpires among equals, or, at the very least, those desiring to become equals. How do the anti-boycott proponents envision the use of anthropology to engage with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

What does this mean for anthropology in Israel-Palestine? It is no longer credible, after theAmerican Anthropological Association Task Force on Israel and Palestine’s thorough report, to insist that Israeli-Palestinian dialogue is all that is needed, and to assure cynics that dialogue and conflict resolution efforts are more than capable of resolving long-standing structural violence and institutionalized racism. Thus, asking American anthropologists to jettison boycott and divestment as strategies of solidarity and protest is just another way of shutting down dialogue, in this case between Israelis and Americans, about the dire situation facing Palestinians, whose continued suffering stems from US and Israeli governmental policies and US taxpayers’ largesse.

We desperately need to discuss this, and a boycott might make that unavoidable, but not without considerable stress and discomfort in the Israeli university setting. Many Israeli anthropologists understand this, and this is why 43 of them wrote a dissenting opinion to the IAA’s statement on BDS. That they had to issue this statement anonymously speaks volumes about the difficulties of dialogue, and indeed reveals that the structural violence and oppression of the occupation reaches all the way into Israeli university offices, classrooms, and faculty meeting rooms.

If dialogue is hindered in a Zionist context, then anthropological research might well be hindered as well. Sincere and productive dialogue between Israeli Jews and Palestinians (citizens) will ultimately founder on this hindrance. If dialogue has to stop there–or is not even allowed to go there—there is no dialogue to speak of. Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza living under an illegal and crushing occupation cannot engage in dialogue at all, until the occupation ends.

Who is to end the occupation? If Israeli society is indeed democratic, then Israeli citizens can and should struggle much harder to end it. Israeli public intellectuals, among them anthropologists, can have a very important role to play in such a struggle. BDS does not prevent dialogue between American anthropologists and Israeli anthropologists. Rather, it may actually facilitate and deepen serious dialogue between Israelis, Americans, Palestinians, and others about Israeli governmental and military actions and policies that have drawn (and continue to draw) the condemnation of the world, and even the condemnation of Jews inside and outside of Israel.

A boycott of Israeli universities (not individuals) would show Palestinians that they are not forgotten, that their suffering has not gone unnoticed or unanalyzed, that they are still considered fully human, while encouraging Israeli society to confront the discrimination and structural violence implicit in Zionism as it now is manifest in Israeli governmental, military, economic, and social policies. To the extent that Israeli universities are indeed involved in supporting and buttressing the occupation, as well as repressing the voices of Palestinian citizens of Israel in their classrooms, they must be boycotted by not only anthropologists committed to dialogue between equals, but by anyone who cares about the future of human Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druse, Agnostics, and Atheists living in this battered part of the world.  To that end, boycotting Israeli academic institutions can actually increase the possibilities of solidarity and effective dialogue.



1.  See L. King-Irani, “The Power of Transformation and the Transformation of Power: Rituals of Reconciliation and Processes of Empowerment in Post-War Lebanon,” in I. William Zartman, ed., African Conflict “Medicine”: Traditional Cures for Modern Conflicts(Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000), pp. 129-140; “To Reconcile, or to be Reconciled? Agency, Accountability, and Law in the Resolution of Middle Eastern Conflicts.” In the Hastings International and Comparative Law Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, Spring 2005 (pp. 369-386); and  “The Millennial Medina: Discourses of Time, Space, and Authenticity in Projects to Market and Renovate Beirut and Nazareth,” in Hagar Critical Urban Studies Journal, Summer 2007.

2. See, in particular, S. Smooha, Arabs and Jews in Israel, Vol. 1: Conflicting and Shared Attitudes in a Divided Society (Boulder, CO: Westview Special Studies on the Middle East, 1989).