[this essay originally appeared on Savage Minds]
by Ghassan Hage
From the 15th of April and until the end of May members of the American Anthropological Association will be voting on whether to endorse the proposal to boycott Israeli academic institutions as part of offering to support the Palestinians’ call for a Boycotts, Sanctions and Divestments (BDS) movement against the state of Israel. I have voted in support of the resolution. As the vote has been an occasion whereby AAA has initiated and encouraged a more public discussion of the pros and cons of the BDS movement, I wish to share my understanding of the nature of the opposition between those who are for and against BDS and why I personally, as a AAA member, support it.
To be sure, almost all of the anthropologists who are against the Boycott begin by stating their opposition to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories or the treatment of Palestinians inside the state of Israel. So the debate is not, nor one expects it to be, a simple debate between ‘critics and supporters of the state of Israel’. Yet, the difference between the two camps is quite pronounced and it begins to emerge in the very way those opposed to BDS declare their objection and opposition to the Occupation. In their very starting point there is a regressive attempt at shifting the grounds of the debate away from where the supporters of BDS have located it.
The starting point of those who support BDS is not that all those who do not agree with them are supporters of the occupation. It is that for a long time now there has been a groundswell of people critical of the occupation (inside Israel sometimes even more than outside of Israel). But this has not had any influence whatsoever on the occupation. Indeed the road to the settlements is paved with people deploring or being opposed to one aspect or another of the occupation, people calling for dialogue, deploring Israeli war crimes and even genocide, and calling for Israeli accountability or for investigations, etc… The BDS supporters’ argument is: so, given how useless all this sometimes quite radical ‘position taking’ has been, can we start something that has a slightly, even if minimally, coercive effect on the state of Israel rather than just something that is merely voicing a ‘critique’. Israel creates facts on the ground in its colonization and what is needed is an opposition that is not a mere opinion but one that also strives to create a fact on the ground. It is by looking at what is available in terms of peaceful and democratic strategies that can have such a factual effect that the idea of a boycott came into being. So to oppose BDS by calling for the very things that BDS is trying to supersede because proven ineffective, such as more critique or calls for dialogue, is disingenuous to say the least. It is considered an implicit call for the continuation of the status quo. The same goes for mistaking the boycott for a ‘statement of extreme condemnation’ instead of seeing it for what it is: a strategically appropriate, and above all practical, technique of protest against a social force that might be vulnerable to such a technique. In this regard the people who exclaim ‘why don’t you boycott China, etc…’ fail to see how nonsensical such a position is. It is like saying that if you are opposed to both the British Prime Minister and the President of Syria and are calling for the democratic removal of the British Prime Minister, you are a hypocrite if you don’t also call for the democratic removal of the President of Syria. ‘Calling for democratic removal’ like ‘calling for a boycott’ works in one place and not in another.
There is no doubt that we the supporters of BDS have a more acute sense of the quantitative and qualitative degree of injustice and suffering that is being meted on Palestinians in Israel and the territories. For the opponents of BDS in the words of Marc Edelman writing for PoLAR, the outrage of BDS activists is excessive, ‘outsized’ as he put it, in that Palestinian suffering is comparatively not so great compared to that of others. According to him ‘in the spectrum of violator (ie, violators of human rights) states worldwide, Israel only attains middling status’. BDS people do not have such a relaxed view of what is happening in Israel/Palestine either quantitatively or qualitatively. They expect that most anthropologists would agree with them that thinking comparatively about, and ranking, states according to how much they ‘violate human rights’ is a homogenizing mode of thinking that mystifies the difference between forms of violation and erases the specific ugliness of colonial settler situations. Most anthropologists, especially those who are located in settler colonial settings themselves, are well aware that colonial injury goes way beyond the common understanding of ‘human right violations and abuse’: it includes appropriation and extraction of land and resources, ethnocidal politics that cannot be accounted for by counting the number of people killed, politicide (see Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling about this) that eviscerates a whole culture. And then there is the racialised violence that is also a very specific form of violence which impact is an equally specific and incomparably damaging shattering of the psyche. Not being able to experience affectively the urgency of the need to address what is happening in Palestine is nothing short of a professional failing.
There are also some who think that boycotting universities is not appropriate because one needs to maintain the autonomy of academic life from political processes. Wherever one is located in the world today, this is a rather fantasmic belief in this day and age where states and neo-liberal capitalist logic have eaten their way through university autonomy almost to the point of saturation. But it particularly lacks validity in a colonial context where the very nature of a university as an open democratic space is itself dependent on the very colonial violence that disallows and violently suppresses the possible existence of such an open space among those it colonises. Paradoxically, in a colonial-settler society, even the space from which one can be ‘pro-indigenous’ is dependent on the colonial violence that allows such a space to exist. As it happens, in Israel’s universities, the very idea of being pro-indigenous is quasi impossible, expressed only by a negligible minority. What there is instead is an academic indifference and obliviousness to the deadly, remorseless and excessive colonial violence directed at the Palestnians and their universities, the very violence that makes such indifference possible in the Israeli universities: so much for autonomy.
There is always a critique that one can and should address to any form of political action, which by definition has and will be found to have many weaknesses. But there are critiques aimed at enhancing a political practice and others aimed at paralyzing it. It is very easy to use some idealized, beautiful and full-proof conception of action to shelter from the imperfections of any actual struggle since the latter is guaranteed to be found always already wanting. It is possible to tell oneself: ‘I am not going to do anything since no action meets my unbelievably pure criteria of what needs to be done’. I don’t think it is coincidental that such an attitude ends up working to support the status quo. For those of us who do feel the urgency of dealing with Palestinian question this is not enough and we hope that most of my colleagues share our sense of urgency.