Why Jewish Anthropologists Should Support the Boycott

by Les Field

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

In June 2017 the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza will pass the fifty year mark, and the “two-state solution,” an illusion that for years has received life support mainly from US politicians, seems to have lost its valence even in the United States. One year ago, the AAA resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions was defeated by the narrowest of margins. As a Jewish anthropologist, I have supported and continue to support BDS and the academic boycott of Israeli institutions because BDS is a non-violent and politically sophisticated path to expressing and acting upon critical analysis of the Occupation and the project of Israeli settler colonialism in Palestine.  I hope Jewish colleagues in anthropology will confront the Zionist backgrounds many if not most of them experienced as children and as adults, and ask themselves the most challenging questions they can. My grandmother always said “Its not easy to be a Jew,” and from my very different perspective, this is still the case.

Growing up Zionist, I would argue, has for many American Jews had a far more profoundly impacting role in shaping lives than growing up in a Democratic, Republican, or even Communist household. If you grew up like I did, Israel was present at every breakfast and every dinner, and not just in the little blue and white metal boxes from the Jewish National Fund that sat on the table waiting to get filled with spare change.  My grandmother, a four foot tall woman from Pinsk, Belarus whose stunted growth was due to nutritional deficiencies suffered during her World War I childhood, was a life member of the Hadassah Hospital and a ferociously vocal Zionist. My father, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, may not have believed in God, but he certainly fervently believed in and fund-raised for Israel.  Every meal was the occasion for discussion of events taking place in the Middle East, opportunities for us children to reinforce their growing affiliation and identification with Israel, which was additionally enacted in bi-weekly Hebrew school classes where we learned the language in order to prepare us–as we were openly told–for eventual aliyah, immigration to Israel.  My grandmother sent me to Israel as a 13-year old, to facilitate that process.

How can and does a person come to think independently and critically under such circumstances? The pathway towards a critical re-examination of a Zionist upbringing no doubt varies a great deal; in my case that path began and has unfolded as a graduate student beginning to embark on fieldwork projects in Latin America.  In Nicaragua in 1980, I saw with my own eyes the hospitals and neighborhoods that had been destroyed during the last days of the Somoza dictatorship with advanced weaponry provided by Israel, the last country to provide bombs to the dictator. How to square the evidence in front of me with how I’d been brought up, how I had learned that Israel and the Jewish people were in possession of a higher moral code?  The path became a wider one throughout the 1980s as Israel became a principal ally of and weapons provider to the Contras, to the anti-Semitic Argentine military especially during the Falklands War, and to the Guatemalan generals waging a genocidal campaign against that country’s indigenous people.  

In this century, I have witnessed the Israeli military and weapons industry’s role as a principal player in Colombia’s civil conflict, a firm ally of the ultra-right wing para-militaries and of the Colombian government’s rural warfare against indigenous peoples and impoverished farmers.  Inevitably, my path led me back to the Middle East, to forging relationships with Palestinian individuals and the Palestinian people in the Occupied West Bank, some forty-one years after I’d been a Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall.

For Jewish anthropologists who grew up in intensively ideological Zionist families such as my own, critical re-examination of our upbringing and the worldviews it shapes must be an ongoing process. It’s a frightening process because of its potential to alienate ourselves from our families, and to create animosities in our most intimate and private personal spaces. If one chooses to take one’s critical and independent thinking even further, to support BDS, to work as an activist and a scholar to research and analyze Zionist ideology, Israeli settler colonialism since before 1948, and the technologies of the Occupation, one risks public humiliation and scorn from the Jewish community where one lives and beyond.  By showing our solidarity with one another and with our non-Jewish colleagues working to advance BDS we can strengthen our resolve and maintain the extraordinary focus and energy that this movement requires into the uncertain future.

Les Field is Professor of Anthropology at University of New Mexico