How We Came So Close, and Why Victory is in Sight

by Daniel Segal

This essay is part of a series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip

More than ever, the world needs to find potent, non-violent means to achieve social justice and peace in Palestine-Israel.  And more than ever, those of us who are citizens of the U.S. state must oppose our government’s enabling of the Israeli state’s oppression of our Palestinian sisters and brothers.

There are three clear reasons, moreover, why BDS is crucial for these two tightly linked pursuits.  First, BDS is the form of support that Palestinian civil society groups have asked for from global allies, particularly allies in the U.S.  Second, means of this sort, including cultural and academic boycotts, played a nontrivial role in helping to end apartheid in South Africa—as both Nelson Mandala and Desmond Tutu have told us.  And third and finally, there is no other alternative.  BDS is, in short, the last best chance to support the efforts and struggles of Palestinians against Israeli state apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

We in the American Anthropological Association came close to doing the right thing.  We came very close to passing a carefully crafted resolution in support of an institutional boycott of Israeli universities.  Very close.  What does that mean?  Why did we do so well?  And why did we miss the prize, if only by less than 1% of the 4807 votes cast?  

First, that we came so close demonstrates that nearly half of the members who cast ballots see that radical, non-violent change is needed, if there is to be a future with social justice and peace for all persons in the region.  That almost-majority reflects an extraordinary level of awareness and knowledge about the region among AAA members, notwithstanding the massive amount of misinformation given to the US public by our government and by all major news outlets, from Fox News to the New York Times.  

But what about the other, just barely larger, portion of AAA voters?  My own analysis is that this disappointing result has both an admirable and a pernicious source.  The admirable source is a deep commitment to academic freedom within the membership.  That commitment should and did set a very high bar for adopting any form of academic boycott.  But it should be a high bar, rather than an absolute bar.  And thus, to the many AAA members who voted against the BDS motion on this admirable basis, I say this: I disagree with your vote, but I respect it.  And at this juncture—as we reopen this issue—I urge you to take the time to get a better, and a more robustly ethnographic, understanding of the lives of Palestinians living under the Israeli state’s regime system of apartheid and ethnic cleansing.  Please make an effort, in short, to put yourself in dialogue with Palestinians, Palestinian-Americans, and Palestinian civil society groups pursuing non-violent change.  The more you do, and the more you listen to their voices, the more likely you will be to see that even as you maintain your strong and admirable commitment to academic freedom, Palestine-Israel is the atypical case where the cause of justice and peace needs an academic boycott—as in fact does the cause of academic freedom.  Why even the cause of academic freedom?  Because Israeli universities discriminate against non-Jews in Israel-Palestine and are complicitous in the Israeli state’s practices of apartheid and ethnic cleansing.     

A second source of opposition to the AAA’s boycott motion—a much smaller source, I am confident—is, by contrast, a pernicious one.  This second source is the view that an exclusively Jewish Israel is somehow exempt from ideals of equal respect for all human beings—and this second source is thus in conflict with the very anthropology the AAA affirms.  This second source is, as well, the view that Jewish lives matter, but Palestinian lives do not; and this second source is, finally, also the failure to grasp that the great lesson of the Shoah, “never again,” must mean “never again to any human being”—rather than “never again to us Jews.”  These pernicious views have no place in anthropology, and I am confident that they will not be sufficient to defeat the boycott resolution a second time.

Daniel A. Segal is the Jean M. Pitzer Professor of Anthropology and Professor of History at Pitzer College of the Claremont Colleges, and a past Convenor of the AAA Section Assembly, as well as a past Secretary of the AAA, and a proud member of the academic advisory councils of both Jewish Voice for Peace and Open Hillel.