Nadia Abu El-Haj’s Presentation at the 2015 American Anthropological Association Convention in Denver

Nadia Abu El-Haj, professor of Anthropology at Barnard College, Columbia University, presented this paper as part of a round table included in the program of the 2015 American Anthropological Association Convention in Denver.

What is being asked of us by those suffering the harms of Israel’s racial regime?

Damage at the Islamic University of Gaza on August 2, 2014 in Gaza City after it was hit in an overnight Israeli strike. AFP/Getty Images (Source: The Independent 2 August 2014)

As the Anthropology Task Force Report on Israel/Palestine documented in detail [1], there is at present no academic freedom for Palestinian universities: campuses are raided on a regular basis, students arrested on campuses, permits and visas denied—to Gaza students who want to study in the West Bank, to foreign scholars wanting to come teach at Palestinian universities, to Palestinian scholars and students trying to go abroad. Meanwhile, but a few miles away, faculty and students at Israeli universities continue with the daily life of scholarship, teaching and research as if nothing is amiss. There are substantive reasons for calling attention to educational institutions in Israel and Palestine.

Not only are Israeli universities complicit in maintaining the Israeli regime. Just as important, the effects of destroying education are long term and the world needs to pay attention to the ways in which the Israeli regime is systematically targeting Palestinian educational institutions. But I would not underestimate the symbolic value of the academic boycott either. Since the end of apartheid, critics have argued that academic research went on largely unhindered and so the academic boycott was “merely” symbolic. As anthropologists, however, we know that the symbolic does not carry the weight of the “merely.” It has powerful material effects.

I want to begin my comments today by recalling the anti-apartheid movement, and the parameters of its academic and cultural boycott.

The African National Congress started calling for a boycott of the South African economy and its educational institutions in 1958. It was a long time before that movement took global hold, especially in the U.S. But once it did, it became a powerful tool against the apartheid regime. What were the demands of the cultural and academic the boycott? I will not rehearse all of them here. Instead, I point to a few key provisions that were substantially different from the demands put forward by BDS. I do so because so much of the argument against today’s call for an academic boycott seems to either misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent the Palestinian strategy.

As explained in an article published in 1995, the academic boycott of South Africa was intended “to isolate scholars in South Africa by depriving them of the formal and informal sources of information needed to further their research and the conduits through which they could bring their own work to the attention of the international community”[2]. How was that to be achieved? Not only did the boycott ask that international scholars not travel to South African academic institutions (which is a key provision of the BDS call). It demanded that they not invite South African scholars to their universities; that they refuse to publish South African manuscripts (as books, in journals); that international scholars refuse to collaborate with South African scholars on research projects; that international conferences—such as this one—bar South African scholars from attending; and that academic institutions abroad refuse to recognize South African degrees. Exceptions could be made to these rules: the ANC could grant permission for specific individuals to attend conferences, for example, on the basis of what was effectively a political litmus test. But exceptions such decisions were.

Let us be clear: those were demands that made no distinction between individual scholars and the institutions in which they worked. Palestine’s BDS has made a very different choice. Under its provisions, we can—and do—invite Israeli scholars to our institutions. While we are asked not to publish in Israeli journals or publishing houses, Israelis can publish their scholarship abroad. Research collaboration can continue. And Israeli scholars can even use funds from their own institutions to attend conferences elsewhere. In other words, there is no demand here that Israeli scholars boycott their own universities. Only that they respect the call for others to do so. This is a boycott call that has bent over backwards to protect the academic freedom of Israeli academics. And let us be clear: It has bent over backwards to protect the academic freedom of those who already have it, even in the face of a reality in which but a few miles away Palestinian scholars enjoy no such privilege.

So where do we go from here? How might we best think about the disagreement between those of us calling upon the American Anthropological Association to sign onto the boycott and those who have proposed an alternative, anti-boycott resolution? I will leave you with a few thoughts that speak to some of the political and ethical choices we face as we decide whether to vote in support of the academic boycott.

The anti-boycott resolution proposed to the membership of the AAA purports to present a more “constructive” alternative strategy. I, by way of contrast, think it proposes nothing more than a continuation of the status quo. But neither my opinion nor theirs is really the point. No matter what we might think of the productivity (or not) of dialogue or the value of offering financial support for more research on Israel/Palestine (some of the provisions of the anti-boycott resolution) that is not what is being asked of us by those suffering the harms of Israels racial regime. Palestinian academics are firmly behind BDS and they are asking us to stand in solidarity with their call to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Like South Africa before it, the Israeli state and its academy has cultural, intellectual and material ties to the West that render boycotts effective in ways they would not be vis-à-vis other regimes. For example, I would be all for boycotting Syrian universities if a darn bit of difference could be made. And I would be all for answering a call to stand in solidarity with Iraqis and Afghans if there were a movement calling for a boycott of U.S. universities—that is, if we lived in a world in which that might have some impact on reining in the imperial violence of the state in which I live. But those are not the questions before us. The question we face is clear: As U.S. academics, that is, as citizens or residents of a country whose “exceptional” relationship with Israel enables its ever spiraling racial violence to continue unchecked, are we going to heed the call of Israeli academics (albeit self-declared critics of the regime) to back their strategy even if it is a strategy that is not supported by those whose rights they claim to be defending? Or are we going heed the call for an academic boycott made by a broad non-violent Palestinian political movement that has lost all faith in the possibility of dialogue or intellectual “bridges” as solutions to the political crisis?

Nothing in the boycott call precludes the possibility for dialogue or building intellectual bridges or scholarly exchange. Our Israeli colleagues can still publish in our journals, come to a conference anywhere in the world, and do research and publish with anthropologists elsewhere, as I mentioned above. Under BDS guidelines they can do so even on Israeli university and government funding. For that matter, the AAA could decide to continue allowing Israeli universities access to their online publications, if that is a decision we make in support of individual anthropologists in the Israeli academy. And BDS is not hiding a deeper truth: An understanding of what an academic boycott should—and should not—entail developed and shifted over the years out of a conversation in which many an academic was involved. It came to focus on institutions not individuals. Yes, there will be a small price that individual Israeli anthropologists will pay. Boycotts are supposed to have an impact, even on those citizens they do not specifically target. That is the point. But I don’t know what it means to be a critic of Israel’s racial regime if one is not willing to bear any price at all for one’s presumably left-wing politics. Should the defense of privilege really extend that far? (And before anyone gets on their high horse about my being willing to risk the academic privilege of others, many a Palestinian academic in the U.S.—and many other scholars who have written on Israel/Palestine in ways critical of the status quo—have paid and continue to pay a price for their politics, both inside the American academy and beyond. That is the risk one takes.)

Finally, perhaps we should have a little more humility about the world historical importance of our discipline and our scholarship. Do we really need more research on Israel/Palestine before we can decide? Does more anthropological research really promise to facilitate better understanding? Yes, what we do matters—at least we need to believe that to be true. But perhaps it does not matter all that much. The call for a boycott is a political call. It is a call for us to think about something that might matter more than our discipline, our research—and for that matter, our academic careers. I would hope that we would have the ability to stand back and see the bigger picture.


[2] “The academic boycott of South Africa: symbolic gesture or effective agent of change,” F. W Lancaster and L. Haricombe, Perspectives on the Professions, 1995.


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