by Ahmed Kanna
This essay is part of a series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip
What lessons does the short history of #AnthroBoycott hold for our organizing efforts in the future and what’s our place in the larger Trumpian moment? That the boycott of Israeli academic institutions almost passed the general membership vote of the AAA in the spring of last year is a testament to the effectiveness of what even a small, committed group of activists can accomplish. The tiny margin of our loss should always be seen in the larger and intensely hostile context in which our organizing efforts took place. A number of malign factors confronted our efforts, among them that our discipline remains under the hegemony of a Cold War liberalism and, as many have observed, is yet to be fully de-colonized; the support of the “full might of the Israel lobby” enjoyed by our opponents; and their relentless attempts to distract from the basic issues of colonialism, racism, and occupation which are fundamental to any understanding of Israel – Palestine.
Events since have only confirmed the correct strategy of pursuing an association boycott. The AAA leadership’s decision to offer a mere censure of the Israeli state was met, predictably, with a yawn of indifference from that quarter. As an October 2016 statement on the #AnthroBoycott website correctly states: “The record is now clearer than ever: for Israeli officials, boycotts are to be taken seriously, while mere statements of censure are not. Meanwhile, Israeli violations of human rights, attacks on academic freedom, and misuse of archaeology have continued unabated, underscoring the need for more effective action.”
The expressions of solidarity by the #AnthroBoycott collective with #BLM and indigenous groups working for indigenous sovereignty, for example the #NoDAPL resistance movement, represent a good political strategy going forward. The current moment of emboldened white supremacy and an increasingly rapacious and violent capitalism makes intersectionality and anti-racism even more urgent at the center of our organizing principles and strategy.
One of the less discussed aspects of the Israeli occupation regime and the role of its US patron is the fact that they are capitalist class projects. Especially since the 2000 Intifada, the occupation has been the mechanism for the consolidation of an ascendant Israeli capitalist class, especially in sectors such as food and transport, so-called humanitarian aid, currency arbitrage, and of course, the military – industrial complex of which Israeli universities are an integral part. Capitalism of course is always and everywhere riven by contradictions, and the occupation is no exception. As economist Shir Hever has shown, it is simultaneously ever more entrenched and unsustainable. According to Hever, by 2011 the occupation was consuming approximately $9 bn, or a whopping nine percent, of the total budget of the Israeli state. He predicts that by the year 2038, factoring in current rates in the growth of the settler population, that the occupation would eat half the Israeli state’s budget. Hever doesn’t think this will happen, it’s completely unsustainable. Why then is the occupation so seemingly immovable? Because of European (“humanitarian”) and especially US (military) aid, but also because the aforementioned Israeli capitalist class entrenches its power through material inducements to and hegemonizing of wider Israeli society. This obscures the economic irrationality of the settler project while infusing the occupation within broader Israeli society: it is the rare Israeli who is unconnected to the occupation, whether personally as a settler, through family relations, or by profiting off it. What I glean from Hever’s argument – nothing really new, but it is helpful to be on solid economic ground – is that the occupation probably won’t end through internal Israeli pressure, let alone through the farcical peace process, whatever is left of it under the tender ministrations our baby president. Pressure will have to come from without, through boycotts for example. In our educational work highlighting these facts and contexts, and in our organizing work within our associations, networks, unions, neigborhoods, etc., #AnthroBoycott and the larger BDS coalition clearly are helping add to the pressure that makes the current status quo even more unsustainable.
The question of how specifically #AnthroBoycott might relate to broader movement organizing in the current moment is a worthwhile one. Whether we see ourselves as part of an anti-capitalist struggle or not, #AnthroBoycott must inevitably grapple with the power (and contradictions) of capital and specifically the movement in the direction of anti-capitalism occurring both in the United States and internationally. In terms of social movement organizing this means thinking through the problem of how diverse anti-capitalist (or potentially anti-capitalist) currents might articulate with each other, and more importantly, beyond activist circles to the layers of everyday people moving into progressive and radical politics. I conceptualize this as an intersectional socialism which takes seriously the building of socialist capacities and independent proletarian and precariat self-management across lines of identity. The most prominent among today’s anti-capitalist currents, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and the post-Bernie Sanders social democratic trend, are grappling with this very problem and drawing, as Marxist organizers say, “certain (i.e., socialist) conclusions.”
All of the reformist trends today and going back to Occupy, while distinct from each other, are overlapping. Anthropologists working in and through the academy and academic associations such as the AAA are located within already constituted structures with their own potentialities to assist, but usually, if the history of American academe holds any lessons, to limit any reformist let alone revolutionary impulses (both the work of Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar, and that of David Price, are important in this connection. Also, anthropologists, like all other people, are not simply defined by their institutional location. We are for the most part members of the working class and precariat, or heading there if the status quo of capitalist society remains unchallenged in any significant way. A majority of us work as adjuncts and all of us who teach at universities do so, by definition, in apparatuses of the US state and capital (again, see Deeb and Winegar; Price). As everyday people, regardless of our location, we are also living in a moment in which the hegemonic edifice of capitalism, in the US and elsewhere, is being shaken. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor said of the January 21st anti-inauguration protests, “there are literally millions of people in this country who are now questioning everything.”
But the fact that these currents are overlapping, let alone whether they adopt a sufficiently “revolutionary” or “right-minded” rhetoric, does not mean that they will effectively challenge power. As Salar Mohandesi writes, these movements are still farraginous. What they have lacked to date is meaningful articulation, tending instead either toward moral appeals or to leaderless, spontaneist forms of activism, or both. Although it might include them, the work of articulation goes beyond moral appeals and toward organizing diverse overlapping trends along lines both of shared interest and visions for a radically different and better society. This will be a complicated process, marked by tensions, but it is unavoidable. All of our currents need a common language and common spaces that respect differences while uniting around common interests. This doesn’t mean reducing the diversity of oppressions under capitalism to one or a few demographic categories. As anthropologists, we’re already good at thinking more imaginatively and expansively about what the term “shared interests” means, but thinking of these as material interests, rather than more abstractly as appeals to moral conscience, to being right-minded and so on, is crucial. Pointing out the ways that the US – Israeli special relationship is not only cruel to everyday Palestinians (along with increasing inequality and poverty among Israelis), but that it exacerbates poverty, racism, and lack of meaningful healthcare or education in the United States, affecting all poor, marginalized, and precarious people across identity categories, that it makes fighting against these harder, is one way I imagine that this would look. We might also orient to the most progressive labor organizers and organizations within academia and without, for example, the adjunct union movement, the ILWU, and others. The Trump years will in many ways be even more barbaric than the usual US status quo, but they also reveal that barbarism much more openly. More and more millions of everyday people will question “literally everything,” including the costs of US empire and wars.
Ahmed Kanna teaches anthropology and international studies at the University of the Pacific. He is currently working on an ethnography of socialist organizing in California’s Bay Area.