Naomi Schiller and Nina Glick-Schiller: Why We Voted To Support the Boycott

[this essay originally appeared on the website of PoLAR: The Political & Legal Anthropology Review]

Two generations of anthropologists, Naomi Schiller and Nina Glick Schiller, have written a statement supporting the boycott in response to Political and Legal Anthropology Review’s fourth emergent conversation about the AAA ballot. APLA and PoLAR do not officially support or oppose the measure. 

People around the world are appalled by the ever-shrinking life opportunities for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, including the prison-camp type limitations on education, healthcare, mobility, and opportunity.13103359_1734057706870696_8096789545168256388_n

The AAA boycott gives us, as anthropologists, an opportunity to take action against one arm of the Israeli state. While it is true that states have many faces and a range of institutional structures, Israeli universities—as one face of the Israeli state—have contributed institutionally to the dehumanization of both Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians struggling to survive in the remaining bits of Palestinian territory. This boycott is not a boycott of individual anthropologists, but of institutions. Academic boycott is an instrument to highlight the complicity of Israeli universities as institutions that control hiring and firing, grant or deny resources to students and faculty, and provide multiple platforms for legitimating Israeli policies of annihilation, including ongoing seizure of Palestinian land and the destruction of Palestinian homes.

Israeli universities generally do not provide space to question the brutality or legitimacy of Israel’s occupation, nor do they offer equal opportunity for Palestinians. In a recent article on Somatosphere, US-based anthropologist Michele Rivkin-Fish cites as a reason to oppose the boycott the existence of an anthropology class in a Israeli nursing school, which she writes, “may be the single experience in which students are asked to think critically” about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. In fact, Rivkin-Fish’s example strengthens the case for the boycott. The boycott is correct to focus on Israeli universities where the existing status quo creates few possibilities to question the occupation.

Those who oppose the boycott speak of the need to protect Israeli scholars who do raise criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Rivkin-Fish calls for actions that “strengthen the work of Israelis, our colleagues, who face threats and intimidation by their government and nationalist compatriots.” However, we wonder why no concern is shown for the threats and intimidation faced by our Palestinian scholars and students, whose very lives are under attack. The boycott, in fact, provides us with a tool to support our Palestinian as well as Israeli colleagues. Joining the worldwide campaign to pressure Israel to comply with international law provides the necessary space for people within and outside Israel to demand justice for Palestinians and critique the repression that the Israeli government increasingly directs against all who oppose its dehumanizing policies. The AAA boycott can lend support for and encourage those speaking out against Israeli policies within Israeli universities to know that they are not alone. There is an international campaign behind them.

As American Jews inspired by Jewish traditions of social justice we believe that now more than ever we must challenge the spurious claim that criticism of the Israeli government and its institutions is an act that threatens Jewish lives, dignity, or the ability of Jews to flourish, either as individuals or as a community. It is only by opposing Netanyahu and multiple Israeli leaders’ openly racist narratives directed at Palestinians and all Arabs that we can challenge the ideologies on which anti-Semitism is based. So, let’s be clear. The academic boycott is not anti-Semitic.

We have dear friends who tell us that they can support the ends but not the means of boycotting Israeli academic institutions. They forget that a similar mantra has been used to undermine every struggle where people are called upon to take action. An academic boycott is one tactic and it may be imperfect. Yet to undercut the initiative negates the global nature of this struggle and its successes. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement initiated by more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations and supported by academics around the world has finally made the question of Palestine a topic of academic concern.

As anthropologists we have very few ways of wielding power in struggles for a more just relationship between Palestine and Israel. A boycott of Israeli institutions is not just an expression of sentiment, important as such expressions can be. A boycott is significant because it is something we can do as anthropologists that has consequence. Let’s use this instrument of change to put the focus back where it belongs: on Palestinians, whose voices are always marginalized in these debates. The boycott is a way for anthropologists, acting through their own professional association, to stand in solidarity with Palestinians and to stand against the massive and relentless U.S. support that underwrites Israel’s abuses.