Acknowledging the Palestinian Public Health Crisis: Why Signing onto the Academic Boycott Makes Sense for Medical Anthropologists

[this letter originally appeared on the Somatosphere blog]


Dear fellow medical anthropologists,

We have learned that medical anthropologists are currently under-represented, as compared to other sub-fields, in their support for the AAA academic boycott resolution.[1] We write to ask you to seriously consider joining us in signing on. Let us explain why we see this as an issue over which medical anthropologists should be concerned. Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza face tremendous health challenges that are directly attributable to Israel’s occupation regime.[2] These include permanent disabilities secondary to political violence, high rates of malnutrition, anemia, stunted growth, and acute post-traumatic stress disorder.[3] The systematic demolition of homes and infrastructure has severely impeded access to potable water, sanitation, fuel supplies, and electricity.[4] Amid regular violence, the Israeli separation wall and the checkpoints impede access by patients and caregivers to work, family, sites of worship, and health-care facilities.[5] Poverty rates are high, and almost half of Palestinians are now dependent on food aid, and the operation of basic health services are significantly compromised. A 2012 study published in the Lancet on the Global Burden of Disease demonstrates the health discrepancy for Israelis and Palestinians: Israeli men ranked 9th and Israeli women ranked 12th in the world for life expectancies, while Palestinians ranked 86th for men and 97th for women.[6] A report published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in September 2015 warns that Gaza could become “uninhabitable” by 2020, if current economic trends persist.[7]These conditions constitute a public health emergency.

As medical anthropologists we recognize these causes of high morbidity and mortality to be structural and political, and to raise troubling moral questions.[8] Medical anthropologists have a longstanding commitment to studying how conditions of war, occupation, displacement, and deprivation contribute to social suffering and poor health outcomes.[9] It is well documented that living in settings of political conflict and war compromises both physical wellbeing and mental health.[10] Such is the case in Palestine, and conditions are deteriorating yet further.[11] A UN report notes that socioeconomic conditions are at their lowest point since 1967, with an unemployment rate of 44%, the highest level on record.[12]

In response to such crisis conditions, Palestinian academics have called on their colleagues abroad to boycott, divest, and sanction Israeli state institutions.[13] This call aims to put pressure on Israel to lift its deadly occupation. In responding to this request and supporting the academic boycott, we hope to place this ongoing humanitarian crisis into the realm of political accountability and action, and we urge you as fellow medical anthropologists to think through the issues at hand, acknowledging that universities are the main state institution with which we do business. Palestinian academics and leaders have identified Israeli academic institutions as “a key part of the ideological and institutional scaffolding of Israel’s regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid against the Palestinian people.”[14]For example, in the July-August 2014 assault on Gaza, which killed at least 1,975 Palestinians including at least 459 children, displaced 450,000 people and caused unprecedented destruction of schools, hospitals, and basic infrastructure, Israeli Universities vociferously supported the assault on civilians, and Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University offered participating Israeli soldiers a year of free tuition.[15] Meanwhile, universities and schools in Gaza were offered no protection during the assault and were deliberately targeted. In the summer of 2014, in just 27 days of Israeli shelling, 141 schools were damaged, including 90 UN schools; and the Islamic University in Gaza that serves 70,000 students sustained extensive damage,[16] as did the attack on a branch of Al Quds Open University, which killed 22 people.[17]

Boycotts are painful and we do not take such a stance lightly, yet in this case we feel this is a necessary position of responsibility towards those left medically vulnerable. With Palestinian universities structurally weakened, it is all but impossible for the academics most proximate to the public health crisis to do their work. Skeptical colleagues have expressed concerns that boycotting Israeli universities would lead to less possibility of important dialogue, to the possible discrimination against Israeli colleagues based on nationality, and that Israeli academics would be held “guilty by association.” This is not our intent, but we contend that important dialogue cannot continue without Palestinian participation.[18]

Palestinian civil society’s call for an academic and cultural boycott represents broad-spectrum nonviolent resistance to an occupation, after more than 60 years of (failed) attempts at dialogue and negotiation. Far from being bastions of pro-Palestinian dialogue, Israeli universities are deeply complicit in the training and supporting of Israeli military occupations and in promoting the ideological infrastructure that undergirds the Israeli settler-colonial project. Due to the Israeli military occupation, our Palestinian colleagues are systematically discriminated against for being Palestinian and are denied full participation in academic life and freedom as military assaults render university operations significantly compromised. In contrast, the academic boycott calls on an institutional boycott, not at the level of individuals. Many individual Israeli academics who have mobilized for Palestinian human rights have encouraged boycott, divest, and sanction movements because they hope that this external pressure will give more momentum against the grid-lock that is choking Palestinian life.[19] Further, external pressure on Israeli universities are necessary to enable more open discussions about what the relations between Israelis and Palestinians can look like going forward, to move toward a more peaceful and social justice oriented framework.

For us, answering the call of our Palestinian colleagues is the best tactic in a difficult and deeply troubling situation. There is an aphorism that “Action without knowledge is futile, as is knowledge without action.” Our training as medical anthropologists conditions us to see the connection between socio-political inequalities and social suffering. Israeli institutions are implicated in supporting and perpetuating Israel’s systematic denial of Palestinian rights. We see holding them accountable as part of a necessary strategy to enable Palestinian academics to equally participate in the production of knowledge and exchange of ideas that are so crucial to attend to the tremendous health challenges in the region.

Sherine Hamdy, Brown University

Shirley Lindenbaum, CUNY Graduate Center (Emerita)

Julie Livingston, New York University

Margaret Lock, McGill University (Emerita)

Eileen Moyer, University of Amsterdam

Vinh-Kim Nguyen, University of Montréal

Elizabeth Roberts, University of Michigan

Michael Montoya, University of California, Irvine

Kristin Peterson, University of California Irvine

Miriam Ticktin, New School for Social Research



[1] Please read more at and for more background on the conflict, see Middle East Research and Information Project. “The Occupied Territories / Jerusalem”. 
2013 [cited 4 July 2013]; Available from:

[2] Batniji R, Rabaia Y, Nguyen-Gillham V, Giacaman R, Sarraj E, Punamaki RL, et al. Health as human security in the occupied Palestinian territory. Lancet. 2009; 373(9669): 1133-43

[3] Movement and Access Restrictions in the West Bank: Uncertainty and Inefficiency in the Palestinian Economy, May 9, 2007. eaa!OpenDocument

[4] Israeli Committee against Home Demolitions. “Demolishing Homes, Demolishing Peace.” April 2012.

[5] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA). The 
Humanitarian Impact of the Barrier East Jerusalem; 2012.

[6] Salomon JA, Wang H, Freeman MK, Vos T, Flaxman AD, Lopez AD, et al. Healthy life 
expectancy for 187 countries, 1990-2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden Disease 
Study 2010. Lancet. 2012; 380(9859): 2144-62.

[7] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Report on UNCTAD assistance to the Palestinian people: Developments in the economy of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Trade and Development Board Sixty-second session Geneva, 14–25 September 2015.  Item 10 (b) of the provisional agenda., see also United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA). Five 
Years of Blockade: The Humanitarian Situation in the Gaza Strip; 2012. 
and S. R. Gaza Strip: The political economy of de-development. Washington, D.C.; 1995.

[8] Kleinman, Arthur, Veena Das, and Margaret M. Lock. Social suffering. Univ of California Press, 1997.

[9] Das, Veena, Arthur Kleinman, Margaret M. Lock, Mamphela Ramphele, and Pamela Reynolds, eds. Remaking a world: Violence, social suffering, and recovery. Univ of California Press, 2001.

[10] Singer, Merrill. The war machine and global health: a critical medical anthropological examination of the human costs of armed conflict and the international violence industry. Rowman & Littlefield, 2010;

[11] Batniji R, Rabaia Y, Nguyen-Gillham V, Giacaman R, Sarraj E, Punamaki RL, et al. 
Health as human security in the occupied Palestinian territory. Lancet. 2009; 373(9669): 1133- 
43, and Mataria A, Giacaman R, Stefanini A, Naidoo N, Kowal P, Chatterji S. The quality of life 
of Palestinians living in chronic conflict: assessment and determinants. The European journal of health economics : HEPAC : health economics in prevention and care. 2009; 10(1): 93-101. 
and UN Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory. Gaza in 2020: a liveable place?; 
August 2012.

[12] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Report on UNCTAD assistance to the Palestinian people: Developments in the economy of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Trade and Development Board Sixty-second session Geneva, 14–25 September 2015.  Item 10 (b) of the provisional agenda.

[13] See

[14] See the following report




[18] See the endorsement by Jewish Voice for Peace here

[19] See this open letter from Israeli colleagues in support of the academic boycott of their institutions

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