An Open Letter to American Anthropologist

[this letter originally appeared as part of an exchange in Anthropology News]

Nadia Abu El-Haj
Susan Slyomovics

The recent issue of the American Anthropologist included a section presenting nine views on anthropology in Israel. The persons asked to respond to three questions about Israeli anthropology included “all living past heads of the Israel [sic] Anthropological Association,” a group whom Virginia Dominguez herself characterizes as Jewish, nearly all Ashkenazi, nearly all men, and nearly all faculty in leading research universities. Despite acknowledging the extreme narrowness of this demographic distribution, Dominguez, the editor of the special subsection, concludes that she “thought (and still firmly believe[s]) that the range of views and accounts in such a grouping [past heads of the IAA] had the best chance of capturing the diversity of views and understandings in the practice of anthropology in Israel (as well as some constancies and commonalities).”

There is absolutely nothing representative about this collection of views, however. In privileging the insights of past presidents of the IAA, the journal skewed the “sample”—such as it is—in significant ways. It tilted those authorized to assess Israeli anthropology towards an older generation of Israeli anthropologists who wield power and influence not just within the discipline, but also in Israeli society writ large.   Seven out of nine of them invoked that authority in a politically opportunistic way: Rather than just answer questions about the discipline in Israel, they voiced their opposition to a boycott of Israeli academic institutions currently being voted on by members of the AAA.

By selecting this group of respondents, “On Anthropology in Israel” fails to fulfill its own stated goal of representing a diversity of views. It excluded the perspectives of Palestinian anthropologists in Israel who have never been elected to the discipline’s leadership, scholars whose analyses are patently critical to any assessment of the field, not to mention the legitimacy of the boycott.  More generally, it excluded a younger generation of anthropologists who are not just far more demographically diverse —with (more) Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews beginning to enter the field—but who are also, as a group, far more radical politically. In effect then, the American Anthropologist’s editorial decision skewed the sample away from those members of the Israeli anthropological community most likely to be more critical of the discipline’s imbalances of power. And it excluded Israeli anthropologists who, in opposition to their own disciplinary leadership, have demanded that discussion of the boycott be allowed to continue, many of whom support BDS in its call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions (see Sept 2014, June 2015, and April 2016). In other words, this editorial decision suppressed evidence of dissent within the anthropological community in Israel. Given that the American Anthropological Association has been engaged in a sustained discussion of Israel/Palestine over the past several years, and given that we are in the middle of a vote on a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, we find this an unfathomable, and an unacceptable, editorial choice.

There is an even more fundamental question here. Why would the American Anthropologist publish an entire subsection on anthropology in Israel in the middle of a boycott vote? (If, as the editors have argued, they initially believed the vote would be over by the time of publication, a confusion we find hard to understand, once it became clear that was not the case, why did they not pull the section from the current issue?) Airing a putatively neutral scholarly conversation about the past and present of Israeli anthropology in the midst of the vote implicitly reframes the debate in a critical way:  Is Israeli anthropology today an ethically good, politically critical field of study? If it is, should it not be supported rather than boycotted? Those are terms within which anthropologists who oppose the boycott have sought to rephrase the debate and that is the framework that the journal’s curated section accepts, endorses even, by its mere presence in the American Anthropologist at this moment in time.

If the American Anthropologist had wanted to stay neutral on the boycott vote there were other choices its editors could have made. Most obviously, we repeat, they should not have published this collection of essays, at least not in its current form and certainly not at this moment in time.  At the very least, once the essays were received, they should have been edited to delete all references to the boycott, which was not part of the remit of a scholarly assessment of the field.  But the AA took neither of these two simple, obvious steps. In stark contrast to the work of the members of the AAA Task Force, who interviewed a wide variety of anthropology practitioners before producing their far more representative report, the American Anthropologist allowed itself to become the mouthpiece of an Israeli anthropological leadership that is, by and large, staunch in its opposition to the boycott.  In handing that leadership an official platform from which to speak their opposition, the AA has authorized the anti-boycott call. In effect if not intent, this was a political act.

Nadia Abu El-Haj is professor of anthropology at Barnard College, Columbia University, and co-director of the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia. Her publications include Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society and The Genealogical Science: The Politics of Epistemology and the Search for Jewish Origins.

Susan Slyomovics is professor of anthropology and near eastern languages and cultures at UCLA. Her publications include How to Accept German Reparations, and The Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village, and as co-editor, Anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa: Into the New Millennium.