Leading Anthropologists on Ethical Academic Advocacy for Palestinian Rights

On 19 November 2015, leading anthropologists gathered at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Denver to discuss “Ethical Academic Advocacy for Palestinian Rights and the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions.”

The panel featured J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Roberto J. González, Nadia Abu El-Haj, Lisa Rofel, and David Lloyd.

A video of the panel is above and a transcript is below.

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui

This panel responds to the call from over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations, including the largest teachers and professors’ union to support the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Current events confirm once again the urgency of the need to end the occupation and its colonial expansion as well as the apartheid laws that violate Palestinian rights. That includes home demolitions as well as an escalation of Israeli settler and army violence against Palestinians, just this fall as we’ve seen.

I want to call your attention to the report of the AAA Task Force on Israel/Palestine, which provides a devastating account of the human rights situation in Palestine. If you haven’t taken a look at that then it’s very accessible on the AAA website. The report, and I’ll quote this one part of it, states “there is a strong case for the association to take action on Israel/Palestine.” The report also stated that censure alone is “an insufficient course of action.”

We here today want to talk to you about why we think academic boycott of Israeli institutions is the best way to take action at this time. We are advocates of resolution number 2, which will be voted on at the business meeting tomorrow night, Friday, at 6:15pm, in the convention center, in the mile-high ballrooms number 2 and 3. We urge you to vote yes on resolution 2, and no on resolution 1. We can always go through some of the differences of those in the Q&A if any remaining issues remain unaddressed. But the way that I’m explaining it to people that wonder about the difference and have read resolution 2 that we support, say “well how am I going to remember 1 or 2” and so I’m going with the synophone: Ours goes further. So think of resolution number two as in T-O-O, too. There are fliers in the back of the room with more information about our resolution as well as frequently asked questions, guideline, and highlights from the task force report. I want to note that the cameras you see rolling now have been approved by the AAA’s press policy, they are authorized recordings. And we ask that there be no unauthorized recordings. The AAA’s press policy forbids them.I just want to take another couple minutes here to highlight a few issues before I turn it over to Roberto, who will introduce our panelists.

I have been very active in academic boycott since the founding of the US campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, which was founded in the midst of operation Cast Lead in those weeks covering late 2008, early 2009. And the American Studies Association (ASA) academic boycott resolution emerged from a small delegation that I was a part of in January 2012 with Neferti Tadiar, Nikhil Singh, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Bill Mullins, and it was a USACBI delegation. Again USACBI was the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

But the ASA was not the first association to pass an academic resolution. It was the Association of Humanistic Sociology that passed the first resolution in the United States, and that was in 2013. After that the Association for Asian American Studies passed the next resolution, followed by the ASA, and then just a few weeks later the Council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association declared an endorsement for academic boycott. And I can speak in the Q&A if there’s time if people have specific question about sort of what that process looked like within the American Studies Association and NAISA, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.

But one of the things I want to highlight is that connection around “critique” of US imperialism in the region as well as settler colonialism there and here. Right, so not exceptionalizing American domination nor Israeli domination.

One of the things that I found fascinating in terms of the work of academic boycott is a two pronged charge. One is that it violates the academic freedom of Israeli academics, and that it’s punitive. And I want to just speak to that very briefly in my introductory remarks here. When people have charged academic freedom, or the violation of it, I have yet to hear an actual example that constitutes academic freedom. I endorse USACBI as an individual, and that’s different than our boycott resolution, which doesn’t bind any individuals at all. It’s institution to institution, so it the institution of the AAA in relation to academic institutions in ‘48 Israel. But let’s use the individual example for a moment. There’s nothing to say that I couldn’t or wouldn’t co-edit a book or an article with a colleague at Ben Gurion University or Tel Aviv University. I regularly have actual academic exchange and intellectual collaboration with scholars who do come to NAISA and ASA.

And so the idea that my withholding of my presence at those institutions as an individual scholar somehow constitutes a violation of their academic freedom to me seems quite twisted. And then you couple that with the notion that it’s punitive and I think “Wow, people are really feeling violated and punished if I don’t go to Tel Aviv University and give a lecture on Hawaiian sovereignty?” You know, I’d like to think I’m a good lecturer but I don’t want to think that that would be a real hardship for someone if they didn’t hear me give a talk. So, you know, why do people see it as a form of punishment rather than a withholding? What if we frame this as an issue of consent, right? That I will withhold my presence in the institution. I don’t consent to actually partaking in this in that way.

And for that reason I do see academic boycott as moving beyond merely symbolic politics. I think of it as important work of anti-normalization, even as it’s grounded in normative international law. And I think anti-normalization is where it’s at. And I think it’s also important to recall or— for those of you who may be unfamiliar— to note, that the BDS committee, the Palestinian civil society call for BDS, broadly, for boycott, divestment, and sanctions, comes a year after the call for academic and cultural boycott. Academic and cultural boycott proceeds the broader BDS call by one full year. So if we’re paying attention as anthropologists to what people on the ground, as people like to point out “on the ground,” are asking the rest of the world to do is to honor that academic and cultural boycott, and now as a broader part of BDS.

Lastly, for now, I want to read something very brief. I received an email this morning at 6am as I was waking up making my hotel coffee, and I need to not identify the sender, but this is someone who is based in an Israeli academic institution, one of those subject to the call for boycott. They wrote:

“I hope all is well with you. I am sending this to you assuming that you are at the AAA right now. I wrote a brief statement, see below, that I hope you might be willing to distribute in relation to the business meeting on Friday. I want the statement to reach people who might not want to vote for the resolution that you’re advancing [resolution #2]. Since this action constitutes a violation of Israeli law on my part, I ask for strict confidentiality. If you decide to distribute or share with others, it must be absolutely anonymous.”

And this is that statement that they wrote: “Some people are reluctant to support the academic boycott of Israeli universities because of the common belief that it might hurt progressive forces within these institutions, who should instead be strengthened so they can transform Israeli society from within. I am an Israeli academic, closely familiar with progressives in Israeli academe. Time and again, in the face of systematic violations of Palestinian rights within the academy and beyond it, almost all progressive academics here have chosen to protect their own institutions rather than use their positions to reform these institutions and the wider Israeli society. Particularly in the context of Palestinian rights, Israeli progressivism functions more like a badge of honor than as commitment to action-oriented political stance. Thus Israeli progressives should not be seen as victims of the academic boycott, rather they have much to gain from it because external pressure will encourage them to choose between loyalty to the state and substantial action for human rights. The defense of progressive Israelis, much like the charge of anti-Semitism, is used to stifle debate and perpetuate the status quo, and it should be recognized as such.”

Thank you, I’ll turn it over to Roberto now, who will introduce our panelists.

Robert J. González [prepared remarks — may differ from video]

This morning I will give some background information about the current situation in Israel/Palestine, and then offer my thoughts about the significance of the proposed academic boycott of Israeli institutions.  Afterwards, I’ll introduce our four speakers.


Let me begin by saying that violence does not occur in a vacuum.  It emerges from specific historical and cultural contexts.  In Israel/Palestine, violence is rooted in Israel’s decades-long military occupation of Palestinian territories and the expansion of Jewish settlements in these areas, including East Jerusalem.  Military occupation and settler colonialism are by definition coercive and in Palestine, these processes have often been brutal.  Over the years, dozens of UN Security Council Resolutions have criticized Israeli violations of the Geneva Conventions, the UN Charter, and other international laws.

The past 18 months have been marked by intensified violence.  In July and August 2014, Israeli attacks on Gaza killed 2,300 Palestinians and injured 10,000 more.  According to the UN, more than two-thirds of the casualties were civilians.  Seventy-one Israelis also died, the vast majority soldiers.  The pattern is predictable: death, destruction, reprisal, counter-reprisal, and more death and destruction.

The latest round of violence began six weeks ago.  The corporate media would have us believe that religious extremists are inciting Palestinians to attack Israeli Jews with knives, cars, and stones.  These sources would also have us believe that Palestinians are angered by the possibility that the Israeli government may soon allow Jews to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque.  In  the official narrative, social media is radicalizing Palestinian youths.

For those reciting the official narrative, history only begins yesterday.  They ignore the longer range of history that made it possible for us to arrive at the current situation.  The official narrative minimizes or disregards entirely the Israeli state’s role in creating the conditions for violence.

Netanyahu’s government, like those before it, has claimed that it has the right to build homes for Israeli Jews anywhere it wants, including in East Jerusalem.  The results have been devastating: in 1995 there were approximately 150,000 Jews in East Jerusalem; today there are more than half a million.  Palestinians are being squeezed out of their homes by Israeli policies that limit family reunification, redraw Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, and expand Jewish settlements.  Jeff Halper calls it a “matrix of control”–a web of infrastructural, bureaucratic, and ideological mechanisms that are incrementally impeding the viability of Palestine.

But beyond matrices of control, beyond Kafkaesque rules and regulations, beyond violations of international law, beyond the Orwellian “silent transfer” of Palestinians, are human beings.  Extreme criminality and violence make it easy to forget just who is being affected.  While keeping track of statistics and casualty counts is important, it’s also important to keep individual lives in focus.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the events of the last six weeks is not the fact that most victims are Palestinian–that has been a consistent pattern–but that approximately half of the victims have been teenagers.  The last six weeks have been, among other things, a war on Palestinian youth.  The median age of the 84 Palestinians killed by Israeli military, police, and settlers since October 1 is 19 years old.

To put a human face on the Israeli defense force’s disproportionate attacks, we could talk about the youngest victim, two-year old Rahaf Hassan, who was killed along with her mother when the family’s house collapsed following an Israeli airstrike near Gaza City.  It’s a stark reminder of the unevenness of the two sides–the life of an innocent toddler, cut short by a missile launched from a US-made, US-financed General Dynamics F-16 fighter plane from thousands of feet above.

I would like to spend a moment reflecting upon the life and death of another Palestinian child, 16-year-old Ishaq Badran, who was fatally shot by Israeli police five weeks ago.  I think it reveals a great deal about how daily injustices and indignities of occupation drive a cycle of violence.

Most Israeli and Western media outlets predictably wrote him off as a “terrorist” because he stabbed an Israeli man, but the story is more complex.  Ishaq Badran, a resident of East Jerusalem, was an eleventh-grader in an Israeli vocational high school who enjoyed soccer, weightlifting, and swimming.  He was the oldest of six children.  Ishaq was deeply upset by an incident in which an Israeli settler attempted to remove the hijab of a Muslim woman in Jerusalem’s Old City.  According to his father, Ishaq “spoke to his mother about this and cried. . .saying no one is defending these women.”

Ishaq prayed at the Mohammed al Fatih mosque.  After his death, the mosque’s muezzin remarked that young people like Ishaq, who were born after the 1993 Oslo Agreement that established Palestinian self-rule but failed to end Israeli occupation, are a something of a lost generation.  In his words, “The US, Britain, Israel and the [Palestinian] Authority thought that in the last 20 years these children would adapt to their ways, that they would contain them, but this did not happen,” he said.

The justice motive can sometimes override even the most hegemonic controlling processes.

Using the sociological imagination, we can come to a better understanding of the biographical details of Ishaq Badran’s truncated life as they intersected with historical facts that were decades in the making: a half-century of military occupation, the slow-motion process of ethnic cleansing, institutionalized racism, and economic subjugation.  Ishaq Badran was, in other words, a boy who witnessed intolerable insults, indignities, and injury–and at some level, internalized this pain.  Children learn what they live, not just in the United States but also in East Jerusalem.

None of this is to deny that Israeli Jews are also experiencing death, devastation, and pain.  But it is important to understand that their experiences are just as much the result of a vicious circle originating in Israeli military occupation and settlement expansion.

Why Support the Boycott?

In the time that I have left, I want to address the question of why our Association should support a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

First, we are at a crucial historical moment.  The BDS movement, now in existence for more than a decade, is accelerating globally.  A growing number of student governments have passed resolutions calling for their universities to divest themselves of investments in Israel.  In Spring 2013, the Association for Asian American Studies voted to support a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, followed by the American Studies Association in December 2013.  If the AAA votes to approve a pro-boycott resolution, it would become the largest academic association to do so.

The rationale for such boycotts is straightforward: Israeli universities and other institutions function as key components in a system that has denied fundamental rights to Palestinians.  Students and faculty who protest Israeli policies are subjected to surveillance or retaliation, while Palestinian students routinely face discrimination.  Furthermore, Israeli academic institutions have remained silent about military occupation and new settlements.

Another reason we should support the boycott against Israeli academic institutions is because we are an American Anthropological Association.  Most of our organization’s members are US citizens and taxpayers, and our government has been complicit.  Since 1949, Israel has received more than $120 billion in foreign aid, far more than any other country.  In the last fiscal year, Israel received more than $3 billion in US foreign military financing.  To the extent that the AAA is an American institution, we should support the boycott.

Finally, the boycott is in keeping with the AAA’s commitment to human rights.  In 1999, the members of Association adopted the Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights, which states:

As a professional organization of anthropologists, the AAA has long been, and should continue to be, concerned whenever human difference is made the basis for a denial of basic human rights. . .The AAA founds its approach on anthropological principles of respect for concrete human differences. . .its working definition builds on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR),  and other treaties which bring basic human rights within the parameters of international. . . law and practice.

As we engage in this roundtable discussion, I hope that we can keep our Association’s commitment to human rights in mind.

Nadia Abu El-Haj [prepared remarks — may differ from video]

As the Anthropology Task Force Report on Israel/Palestine documented in detail, there is at present no academic freedom for Palestinian universities: campuses are raided on a regular basis, students arrested on campuses, permits and visas denied—to Gaza students who want to study in the West Bank, to foreign scholars wanting to come teach at Palestinian universities, to Palestinian scholars and students trying to go abroad. Meanwhile, but a few miles away, faculty and students at Israeli universities continue with the daily life of scholarship, teaching and research as if nothing is amiss. There are substantive reasons for calling attention to educational institutions in Israel and Palestine.

Not only are Israeli universities complicit in maintaining the Israeli regime. Just as important, the effects of destroying education are long term and the world needs to pay attention to the ways in which the Israeli regime is systematically targeting Palestinian educational institutions. But I would not underestimate the symbolic value of the academic boycott either. Since the end of apartheid, critics have argued that academic research went on largely unhindered and so the academic boycott was “merely” symbolic. As anthropologists, however, we know that the symbolic does not carry the weight of the “merely.” It has powerful material effects.

I want to begin my comments today by recalling the anti-apartheid movement, and the parameters of its academic and cultural boycott.

The African National Congress started calling for a boycott of the South African economy and its educational institutions in 1958. It was a long time before that movement took global hold, especially in the U.S. But once it did, it became a powerful tool against the apartheid regime. What were the demands of the cultural and academic the boycott? I will not rehearse all of them here. Instead, I point to a few key provisions that were substantially different from the demands put forward by BDS. I do so because so much of the argument against today’s call for an academic boycott seems to either misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent the Palestinian strategy.

As explained in an article published in 1995, the academic boycott of South Africa was intended “to isolate scholars in South Africa by depriving them of the formal and informal sources of information needed to further their research and the conduits through which they could bring their own work to the attention of the international community”[2]. How was that to be achieved? Not only did the boycott ask that international scholars not travel to South African academic institutions (which is a key provision of the BDS call). It demanded that they not invite South African scholars to their universities; that they refuse to publish South African manuscripts (as books, in journals); that international scholars refuse to collaborate with South African scholars on research projects; that international conferences—such as this one—bar South African scholars from attending; and that academic institutions abroad refuse to recognize South African degrees. Exceptions could be made to these rules: the ANC could grant permission for specific individuals to attend conferences, for example, on the basis of what was effectively a political litmus test. But exceptions such decisions were.

Let us be clear: those were demands that made no distinction between individual scholars and the institutions in which they worked. Palestine’s BDS has made a very different choice. Under its provisions, we can—and do—invite Israeli scholars to our institutions. While we are asked not to publish in Israeli journals or publishing houses, Israelis can publish their scholarship abroad. Research collaboration can continue. And Israeli scholars can even use funds from their own institutions to attend conferences elsewhere. In other words, there is no demand here that Israeli scholars boycott their own universities. Only that they respect the call for others to do so. This is a boycott call that has bent over backwards to protect the academic freedom of Israeli academics. And let us be clear: It has bent over backwards to protect the academic freedom of those who already have it, even in the face of a reality in which but a few miles away Palestinian scholars enjoy no such privilege.

So where do we go from here? How might we best think about the disagreement between those of us calling upon the American Anthropological Association to sign onto the boycott and those who have proposed an alternative, anti-boycott resolution? I will leave you with a few thoughts that speak to some of the political and ethical choices we face as we decide whether to vote in support of the academic boycott.

The anti-boycott resolution proposed to the membership of the AAA purports to present a more “constructive” alternative strategy. I, by way of contrast, think it proposes nothing more than a continuation of the status quo. But neither my opinion nor theirs is really the point. No matter what we might think of the productivity (or not) of dialogue or the value of offering financial support for more research on Israel/Palestine (some of the provisions of the anti-boycott resolution) that is not what is being asked of us by those suffering the harms of Israels racial regime. Palestinian academics are firmly behind BDS and they are asking us to stand in solidarity with their call to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Like South Africa before it, the Israeli state and its academy has cultural, intellectual and material ties to the West that render boycotts effective in ways they would not be vis-à-vis other regimes. For example, I would be all for boycotting Syrian universities if a darn bit of difference could be made. And I would be all for answering a call to stand in solidarity with Iraqis and Afghans if there were a movement calling for a boycott of U.S. universities—that is, if we lived in a world in which that might have some impact on reining in the imperial violence of the state in which I live. But those are not the questions before us. The question we face is clear: As U.S. academics, that is, as citizens or residents of a country whose “exceptional” relationship with Israel enables its ever spiraling racial violence to continue unchecked, are we going to heed the call of Israeli academics(albeit self-declared critics of the regime) to back their strategy even if it is a strategy that is not supported by those whose rights they claim to be defending? Or are we going heed the call for an academic boycott made by a broad non-violent Palestinian political movement that has lost all faith in the possibility of dialogue or intellectual “bridges” as solutions to the political crisis?

Nothing in the boycott call precludes the possibility for dialogue or building intellectual bridges or scholarly exchange. Our Israeli colleagues can still publish in our journals, come to a conference anywhere in the world, and do research and publish with anthropologists elsewhere, as I mentioned above. Under BDS guidelines they can do so even on Israeli university and government funding. For that matter, the AAA could decide to continue allowing Israeli universities access to their online publications, if that is a decision we make in support of individual anthropologists in the Israeli academy. And BDS is not hiding a deeper truth: An understanding of what an academic boycott should—and should not—entail developed and shifted over the years out of a conversation in which many an academic was involved. It came to focus on institutions not individuals. Yes, there will be a small price that individual Israeli anthropologists will pay. Boycotts are supposed to have an impact, even on those citizens they do not specifically target. That is the point. But I don’t know what it means to be a critic of Israel’s racial regime if one is not willing to bear any price at allfor one’s presumably left-wing politics. Should the defense of privilege really extend that far? (And before anyone gets on their high horse about my being willing to risk the academic privilege of others, many a Palestinian academic in the U.S.—and many other scholars who have written on Israel/Palestine in ways critical of the status quo—have paid and continue to pay a price for their politics, both inside the American academy and beyond. That is the risk one takes.)

Finally, perhaps we should have a little more humility about the world historical importance of our discipline and our scholarship. Do we really need more research on Israel/Palestine before we can decide? Does more anthropological research really promise to facilitate better understanding? Yes, what we do matters—at least we need to believe that to be true. But perhaps it does not matter all that much. The call for a boycott is a political call. It is a call for us to think about something that might matter more than our discipline, our research—and for that matter, our academic careers. I would hope that we would have the ability to stand back and see the bigger picture.

Lisa Rofel

I am sick and tired, sick and tired, of the accusation of anti-Semitism against those of us who support the boycott campaign and I want to speak to that accusation. I support this boycott as a Jew, as someone who grew up as an orthodox religious Jew, and as someone who was taught by my socialist orthodox rabbi that Judaism stands for social justice. It’s–my passionate support of this boycott comes from my belief that Judaism now stands, at least as a representative by Israel, stands for the opposite. And it’s my support for boycott, it’s my call to Judaism, to live up to its promise of social justice. That that’s what we stand for.

It’s taken me a long, long long time to get to this position. I grew up as an ardent supporter of Israel no matter what. We all had that position, what I call “Israel No Matter What It Does.” We were taught that all of these Arabs— we were not allowed to call them Palestinians, we didn’t even use that term— all these Arabs were terrorists. We were taught that they were just Arabs and could go to any of the other Arab countries–why do they need Palestine? Which was in itself a perverted admission that Israel was taking their land. We were taught that they hated Jews, and that this was just part of a long line of anti-Jewish racism that ran all the way from the expulsion from Spain in 1492 all the way to the present. One long line of anti-Semitism.

So it’s taken me a long time to unlearn those ideological messages and to learn what actually, actually is the truth of what’s going on on the ground with the Israeli occupation. and I have to say it’s really, personally extremely painful for me. As a Jew, to change the way you think about Israel as an American Jew is not like deciding to vote Republican instead of Democrat. It’s really about pulling your insides out and rethinking what you thought you were and what you think is going on there. We were taught to identify so closely with Israel in all ways that we conducted our lives as Jews in the United States. It’s been a long unlearning process for me.  And I feel really strongly that we need, as Jews, to support the boycott, certainly as American citizens and certainly as anthropologists.

I cannot abide by what this Israeli occupation has led to. The task force report on the incredible, what they call “petty bureaucratic cruelty,” in the ways that the Israeli government restricts Palestinian academic freedom is very eloquent. Very eloquent. Even books are hard to get a hold of, let alone the fact that in 2014 Israel took advantage of bombing Gaza to bomb 141 schools, some of them in the West Bank. They’ve closed Birzeit University for a total of nine years over the past fifteen years. Not to mention what they do to Palestinian students in Israeli universities. All of this, in my view, is unconscionable. Unconscionable. We cannot live with this any longer.

Part of the charge of anti-Semitism has to do with the idea that ”why are we picking on Israel?” So that’s a common refrain,  ”why are we picking on Israel?” I’ve thought long and hard about that objection and I feel that there are several answers to that. But the main one is, when people say ”why are you picking on Israel,” they already assume we are talking about a land for Jews only, and completely erasing the presence of Palestinians in that question. This is an internal call for boycott. Internal to the Israeli occupation. There’s no part of Palestine, really, that’s not under Israeli occupation, let alone Palestinians living within the ‘67 borders. This is an internal call, so when you say, ”why pick on Israel,” I want to turn the questions around. Those who object “why pick on Israel?” need to defend the fact that they want to continue a regime of racial hierarchy that spawns racial violence. A regime in which Jews have special rights that others do not have. I want to hear a defense of that regime.

Recently at a conference at UCLA, Saree Makdisi said that he feels much more comfortable being in conversation with Israeli Jews who are quite willing to admit what’s going on the ground but still support a Jewish state. That they’re much more honest than a lot of American Jews who hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. That we live in an ideological bubble in which we refuse to recognize what is actually going on on the ground. Once you recognize what is actually going on on the ground, if you then want to support a Jewish state that is a democracy for Jews only, that is a racial hierarchy, then that’s a position you take.

But this is not about picking on Israel.This is actually the fact that because of US support we have been unable to criticize Israel, unable to make anything happen, and that’s why we have come to this boycott. This is a grassroots, ground up, international campaign to finally, finally make Israel recognize full Palestinian rights, both within the 67 borders, outside— but within the occupation—, and the right of refugees to return. This is a grassroots campaign mainly because of the role the US government has played in supporting whatever it is that Israel does under the name of ”dialogue” since the Oslo Accords. Dialogue has been that way of maintaining the status quo.

Recently — as some of you know, I do research in China – Israel has been becoming very close, the Israeli government, to the Chinese government. They’ve been selling them a lot of weapons. So I want to — I have been trying to start a conversation in China to let them know about this boycott campaign. So I had a small meeting with a few of my intellectual friends who are on the left in China, recently, to discuss how I could start this conversation going in China just to let people know what is actually going on here, which is not getting reported in the Chinese press. And one of those people that interviewed me wanted to publish that interview. But another person, who is on the left in china, then after I left China and came back to the United States, told her not to do that and that they can’t discuss the boycott issue in China. And so now I’m thinking about other ways to do this. But what was so eerie about that is that it really echoes what’s going on in Israel. So they have criminalized speech about boycott. So I found the resonance with China completely telling and eerie.

So I support the boycott. I have come to this position over many years, and I think it’s really clear to all of us that this is the only way to really put international, nonviolent pressure on Israel to end its violation of Palestinian human rights. Thank you.


David Lloyd [prepared remarks – may differ from video]

It is six years almost to the day, and two further violent incursions, since Israel’s Operation Cast Lead rained the firepower of one of the world’s most advanced military forces on the open-air prison of Gaza. Some 1400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed in that act of collective punishment, and at least 23 educational institutions were destroyed or severely damaged. In response to this extraordinarily di
sproportionate offensive, the US congress passed a Senate Resolution in support of Israel that was a tissue of mendacity and half-truths. Only four very courageous representatives dissented. In the summer of 2014, none did.

Appalled at the brutality of Cast Lead and observing the utter closure of the political sphere to any serious criticism of Israel’s policies and practices, a number of US academics concluded that it was time to endorse the Palestinian call for the boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions and invited their colleagues to do likewise. Where the political process is blocked by money, power or influence, we have no option but to activate a civil society movement to educate and change the discourse. The divestment movement did just that in the 1980s when the Reagan administration was committed to “constructive engagement” with South Africa. Now, six years since Cast Lead, several scholarly associations, including the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, together with religious groups and unions, have endorsed that call for boycott, and begun to prove the effectiveness of such a grassroots movement.

In the furious responses to these endorsements, with their resort to authoritarianism, intimidation and spurious legal threats, what the boycott actually calls for has often been misrepresented, sometimes maliciously. But you will know, whether you have read the ASA’s statements or those of PACBI itself, or those produced by AAA’s boycott proponents, that what is called for is a boycott of institutions whose complicity in Israel’s regime of discrimination, occupation and dispossession is a matter of well-documented record. Complicity is not a vague charge, but a description of the operative involvement of Israeli institutions of all kinds but not excluding its universities, in the maintenance and furthering of occupation, dispossession and discrimination. Universities do not get a free pass in the name of an academic freedom they neither respect nor uphold when it comes to Palestinian scholars and students.

Nonetheless, the boycott does not call for, and does not espouse, the boycott of individual faculty in Israel or anywhere else. Not only does it not prevent intellectual and scholarly exchanges, it positively encourages them. Indeed, since the movement for academic boycott has gained visibility, public discussion and debate about an issue that was too long the “third rail” of academia as of politics has become not only possible, but even normal. Is it this discussion that Israel and its supporters see as such an existential threat?

In the short time that I have, I do not wish to defend the boycott movement. A non-violent, human-rights based movement for freedom, equality and justice, one that opposes a regime of exceptional and systemic inequity, exclusion, dispossession and brazen colonial expansion, needs no defense. But I do want to say what I think this movement actually represents.

The call for BDS, issued by the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society movements in 2005, takes seriously the fundamental moral and political principle that rights cannot be doled out in full to some and only partially to others on the basis of ethnicity, religion or other ascriptions of identity. Accordingly, it seeks the recognition of the human and civil rights of all Palestinians, those in the occupied and blockaded West Bank and Gaza, those within Israel, and those in exile in the diaspora. The furious outcry that insists that to turn to the time-honored strategy of boycott infringes on the academic freedoms of Israeli scholars serves to disguise what should be the glaring outrage, that the freedoms of Palestinians—and not only their academic freedoms—are daily violated to maintain the privileges of one ethno-religious group.   More insidiously, on account of this simple and surely unexceptional demand to be considered fully human and therefore deserving of rights, BDS has been accused of covertly intending the “destruction of the state of Israel”, with all the connotations of genocide or expulsion that that phrase more or less openly invokes. But if a state cannot exist without the denial of those rights—as even liberal Zionists now admit—then surely it is for that state to justify itself, and not the movement that pursues those rights.

But it is no secret that what BDS seeks is no more—and no less—than Israel’s transformation. It asks Israel actually to be what it pretends to be, a normal democracy, a state of and for its entire people, and a state that respects its obligations under international law and human rights norms. It does not ask anyone to leave or to accept less than equal rights. It asks only that Jewish citizens of Israel be willing to live on equal terms with non-Jewish citizens, with the Palestinian citizens of the state, whether Muslim, Christian, or secular, and to live in a land that belongs to all its citizens, free of legalized racial discrimination. That would be real belonging, not colonial settlement.

This is an invitation, not a threat. It is an invitation to Israelis, and to all people, to realize the emancipatory potential embedded in every struggle for justice and in every act of local or international solidarity with those struggles. It is an invitation to free oneself from the painful contradiction of advocating democracy and defending and supporting oppression. It is an invitation to step out of the meshes of a colonial Zionist project that has become a nightmare, ever more rigid and repressive, and to embrace the possibilities and the risks that true democracy entails. It is, for us all, an invitation to bring home the lessons of the Palestinian struggle for the right to education, freedom and justice and to fight for them here also.

Settler colonialism is a system of differential privilege. We should recall that for a peace process to begin, white South Africans had to stand down from their exclusionary racial privileges. In Northern Ireland too, Protestants had to relinquish their monopoly on rule in order for the peace process to begin. Some have called these the costs of peace making. Perhaps it would be better to think of them as the gifts peace brings to those willing to contemplate cohabitation in a just society based on real equality. Furthermore, in my experience, to receive that gift has already been an intellectual as well as a political lesson: over and over again, working in and with the boycott movement has confirmed something that one already knew, if only as a supposition: activism is not only the extension of thinking into the world, but the reciprocal transformation of thought by an active engagement with the world. A movement like BDS, that is growing and adapting even in the face of increasingly ugly efforts to repress it and all it stands for, obliges invention and creativity. It becomes, as I have witnessed again and again, and am witnessing once more here at AAA, the crucible for new thinking about ends and outcomes, possibilities and potentialities. Unlike Zionism, it is not becoming ossified and rigid, but continues to reach beyond itself, to critique its suppositions, to imagine what it could be, not only for Palestinians but for all of us, to live otherwise. Such for me is the full meaning of the boycott.