Are Palestinian Scholars Our Colleagues? Boycott and the Material Limits of Friendship

[this essay originally appeared on Savage Minds]

Alireza Doostdar

doostdar20alirezaThe debate over the AAA motion to boycott Israeli academic institutions has centered on questions of justice and academic freedom. Proponents of boycott argue that the exhaustively-documented injustices that Israel metes out on the Palestinian people, which includes systematic denial of their academic freedom, warrants a boycott of Israeli institutions complicit in the state’s crimes. Opponents argue that even though Israel may be oppressing the Palestinians, this should not be cause for curtailing the academic freedom of Israelis, which they see as amounting to unjust collective punishment.

Implicit in these arguments are a set of unexamined attitudes toward collegiality and reciprocity. Briefly, I want to argue that the decision whether or not to support boycott turns on whether one is able to imagine Palestinian scholars as colleagues and friends. This imagination is a product not just of our individual cognitive capacities, but of specific material conditions.

At a very basic level, the motion to boycott Israeli institutions is an explicit response to a call by Palestinian civil society (including academics) to exert nonviolent pressure on the Israeli regime to end the occupation. Whether or not we consider Palestinians to be our colleagues has a direct bearing on whether we think we should respond to this call, and indeed, whether we have the capacity to hear the call at all.

One of the reasons I became an anthropologist is Munir Fasheh, a Christian Palestinian educator born in Jerusalem whose home was expropriated by Israelis when his family was expelled from his land. When I was a college student, I read an article by Munir that dramatically altered my view of academic life, setting me on a course away from engineering (my undergraduate field) toward education, and eventually anthropology. I later met Munir and we became friends. He is one of the most beautiful and remarkable souls I know. Another Palestinian friend of mine is a very talented anthropologist living in the West Bank with his two children. His wife, an architect, works in Jerusalem. The two have different kinds of IDs (a product of the elaborate Israeli system of apartheid), and so only the wife can access Jerusalem, which means they cannot live together and are forced to maintain two households.

When I think about boycott, I think of Munir and my anthropologist colleague and the many debts I owe them as friends.

The question of boycott is fundamentally about reciprocity. I mean this in two interrelated senses. On the one hand, there are the structures of reciprocity that constitute our academic practice – everything from peer-review to letters of recommendation. When we feel compelled by professional obligations and sense the warmth of collegiality and friendship, we are in effect feeling the pushes and pulls of these structures of reciprocity. On the other hand, there are material relations without which our work as academics would be impossible. These are also constituted by structures of exchange, not so much in the sense of academic circulation of ideas, as in terms of funding, institutional relations, ties to government and industry, and so on. The fact that we enjoy collegial relationships of a certain sort, that we are able to exchange “gifts” with our colleagues, has to do largely with these material determinations. But what this means is that our inability to establish collegial connections with some scholars may be similarly predetermined.

To get very concrete: That we have Israeli colleagues but not Palestinian ones is a product of material limits. The shape of these limitations is very complicated, but it includes brute structures of violence and constraint: Palestinian universities are bombed or are regularly raided, they have Israeli-imposed financial restrictions, academics are harassed or jailed, and movement is systematically curtailed. All of this occurs with the direct material support of the United States.

The injustices that Palestinian academics suffer are partly enabled by the fact that they are not, in any real sense, our colleagues. We do not cite them. We do not exchange ideas with them. We do not read their books or articles. For all we care, they might not exist. But this is not because Palestinian academics are not intelligent. It is because certain material relations make it near impossible for them to work, and when they do produce excellent scholarship, it makes it impossible for us to see it. We are directly implicated in these material relations. Boycott is supposed to help change this.

On the flip side, the reason it is painful to boycott Israeli institutions is that we have colleagues, in a real sense, who depend on these institutions for their work. But again, the fact that Israeli anthropologists are our colleagues has to do not just with the fact that they are good scholars, but that certain material relations bring us together and make collegiality possible. Boycott is supposed to exert pressure on these relationships.

The boycott movement is aimed at altering our structures of reciprocity: making it possible for us to be colleagues with people with whom we are not colleagues now, people whom we have trouble acknowledging as friends in distress (and in whose oppression we are complicit), by exerting pressure on the collegial relationships we already do have.

It strikes me that the opponents of boycott often ask: Why boycott Israel and not Syria, Russia, Iran, and so on? This is a revealing question not only for the usual reasons, but also for its selection of offenders: The ones whose academics are not our colleagues. We have an easier and less painful time imagining Syrians, Russians, and Iranians as boycottable because they are for all intents and purposes already set apart from us by the material economy that structures our relations.

For those of us who are situated in American universities and are considering whether to vote in favor of boycott, it may be useful to engage in a simple thought experiment: How many Palestinian scholars based in Palestine can we name as our colleagues and friends?