Lila Abu-Lughod: Should We Act on Israel/Palestine, or Not?

[this essay originally appeared in Anthropology News]

abu-lughodI hope people will read the Task Force Report on Israel/Palestine. It represents hundreds of hours of labor by our colleagues. It reflects what is special about our discipline and why most of us are proud to be anthropologists. Based on close listening, careful observation, wide reading, and a search to find the right analytical framework, it fairly presents the situation about which we all now must make a decision. The comparative perspective these anthropologists brought to the task and their acknowledgment of both anthropology’s historic complicity and courage with regard to past and present colonial and neocolonial injustices, shape the report. Those who want to know more should consult the ethnographic work of so many colleagues who have done fieldwork in Palestinian communities (e.g. Lori Allen 2013; Amahl Bishara 2012; Ilana Feldman2008; Rhoda Kanaaneh 2008; Nicola Perugini 2015; Julie Peteet 2005; Susan Slyomovics 1998; and work surveyed by Khaled Furani and Dan Rabinowitz 2011).

The question for us now is: Should we act, or not? A lot of red herrings have been thrown onto the trail to distract us from the basic question of how we might want to meet our ethical and political responsibilities in the face of this unjust—and for many Palestinians, including our academic colleagues—unbearable situation.

Those who have spoken against boycott as the way forward generally acknowledge the situation, and deplore it. Most have not been held up, as I have, at the border and questioned about attending a conference at Birzeit University. Most have not been refused entry to the country, as the distinguished Noam Chomsky has, on his way to a lecture. Most have not followed the stages of the “via dolorosa” of trying to get security clearance and a permit from the West Bank to get to the American consulate in Jerusalem to apply for a visa to accept an invitation to a conference at an American university (mine). Most have not been denied permission to leave Gaza to accept a Fulbright fellowship to study in the United States. Most have not had a job offer revoked at Tel Aviv University because colleagues read an article you wrote that analyzed the way the concept of ethnicity in Israeli social science obfuscates national, racial, and political difference, as happened to a Palestinian Israeli colleague. Most have not been spat at on their campuses and assaulted in their offices, or stopped by security as they entered their own campuses, as have Palestinian colleagues (still a tiny minority) in Israeli universities. Most have not been barred from access to their universities by tanks and soldiers or had tear gas thrown into their classrooms, as happens to our colleagues from Birzeit and al-Quds universities. As Mahmood Mamdani once put it, do we want academic freedom only for those who already have it? Or for those who don’t?

Some have argued that Israeli anthropologists have not been complicit. This is a complex matter, of course. Silence can be a form of complicity, as we all know. Private dialogues leave the basic structures of power and—in this case, legalized—inequality in place. But anthropologists have too sophisticated an understanding of the power/knowledge nexus to expect scholarship to be free from its political and intellectual contexts. None of us stands outside, though it is usually only with hindsight that we see clearly how our categories, interests, and scholarship have been shaped by these contexts.

The way Israeli Bedouinology—a topic of particular interest to me—reinforced the deliberate policies of religious and ethnic segmentation imposed under the military government in the first twenty years of the state is clear (see for example Sa’di 2013). The way it helped justify the dispossession of the Naqab Bedouin of their land through their portrayal as nomadic, unrooted, and culturally barbaric (focusing on blood revenge, filiacide and sororicide, endogamy and cousin marriage, etc.), has been noted (Nasasra et al. 2014). The oddly neutral title of an ethnography of Palestinian women living in hamlets that were offshoots of a village in “Samaria” that were finally joined to it once the Israelis occupied the West Bank in 1967, begs for attention (Ginat 1982). Samaria is a loaded term that makes systematic erasure of Palestinian names for the territory facts on the ground in a Zionist sacred landscape (see El-Haj 2001; Benvenisti 2002). The study had the generalizing title Women in Muslim Rural Society: Status and Role in Family and Community and was written by a former Deputy Advisor for Arab Affairs to the Prime Minister’s office who had helped administer the village. The involvement of other Arabists andsympathetic anthropologists in the military government and a government administration that are tied to intelligence has become increasingly well known in the last decade (see for example, Eyal 2006; Hazan 2012; Hertzog et al. 2009; Abuhav 2015). It is not a crime for scholars to work for the government or military. But to ignore the way this embedded location shapes research and writing is no longer accepted scholarly practice in our discipline.

The point is, should we quibble or say we need to study the situation further? Or should we act? For me, the boycott of Israeli academic institutions is the least we can do, and I hope that it will do good. The resolution carefully distinguishes individuals from institutions. A boycott will barely compromise Israeli anthropologists’ ability to do their work or participate in our discipline and the Association.

It will, however, affect them in two important ways, both of which are positive. It will push them and their colleagues and friends in the US to think even harder about what else they might do about the relative privilege in which they work as academics and live as human beings. How could they help Palestinian colleagues achieve equality and dignity, not to mention helping other Palestinians?

It will also strengthen their hand and further empower them to speak up as critics of the forms of injustice, brutality, and discrimination against Palestinians they know to exist. It is they who will be in the best position to explain to defensive or puzzled administrators, colleagues, and politicians why we have turned to this peaceful but public instrument of the boycott, as a last resort. It is they who can best explain why it is that so many moral and thoughtful people feel they must answer this desperate call for solidarity from their Palestinian colleagues. They can expose and oppose the conditions under which Palestinian academics and others have to operate, with closures, arrests, checkpoints, harassment, and isolation marking their everyday lives. They can explain what it might take to bring the boycott to an end—doing the right thing politically and morally, as Israelis.

If Israeli anthropologists are concerned about the violations of Palestinians’ human rights and the harsh conditions under which their Palestinian counterparts have to function, not to mention the silencing of dissenting voices in their own universities, then the boycott gives them a mandate to speak. It also creates the conditions for their voices to be heard.

Boycotts are primarily educational. A call for boycott of Israeli academic institutions enables rigorous discussion of what actually goes on in Israel/Palestine. A boycott forces reflection on the question of why reasonable, concerned and principled anthropologists, as fellow academics, might call for such a thing. What is going on in Israeli academic institutions and what is the Israeli state doing that could provoke such a move? The Task Force Report gives some of the background. The arguments, testimonies, and ethnographies of the anthropologists who have worked in the region provide more specific and compelling reasons. As scholars we can try to use the moral weight of the boycott to educate each other. The positive steps the AAA executive committee has announced it is considering, no matter what the vote, are good signs of what open discussion and careful study can produce. A boycott would create conditions for even closer study and strengthen the public will to do something serious to change this miserable situation.


Lila Abu-Lughod is the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia U. Her ethnographic work has focused on Egypt but she also works closely with students and colleagues doing anthropological research in Palestine/Israel. Her books include Veiled Sentiments; Writing Women’s Worlds; Dramas of Nationhood; Do Muslim Women Need Saving?; and Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory (co-edited with A.H. Sa’di).