Israel BDS — Why I Signed…Reluctantly

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions is pleased to present this thoughtful reflection on the boycott by James Ferguson. The American Anthropological Association will be voting on a pro-boycott resolution (Resolution #2) at its annual business meeting at 6:15 pm on Friday, November 20. His essay joins others on this blog, by scholars such as Partha Chatterjee, Talal Asad, Rosemary Sayigh, and Bryan BoydWe urge all anthropologists to look at the facts of the boycott and VOTE YES on #2 if attending the meeting.

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Israel BDS – Why I Signed…Reluctantly

James Ferguson

I did not come easily to the decision to sign the petition supporting an academic boycott of Israeli universities.  My experience has been that academic boycotts can easily do more harm than good.  They harbor the risk of creating divisions between scholars working on the outside (for whom grand denunciations come easily, and often without cost) and those on the inside (at least some of whom may be progressive intellectuals of courage and commitment, working under the most challenging of circumstances, who may resent rather than welcome attacks on the institutions that support them).  There are also, it must be said, risks of hypocrisy, when American scholars righteously denounce foreign universities while saying little about their own comparatively lavishly-funded institutions, which are of course dripping with their own forms of complicity with militarism and imperialism.

In a complex situation, however — one, moreover, of which I personally have only very imperfect and limited knowledge — I feel obliged to give great weight to the views of those more knowledgeable than myself.  This is, after all, the most basic sort of trust that we rely upon as a scholarly community.  And it seems clear to me that the members of our intellectual community whom I judge to have the most knowledge and the best understanding, both of the Israel/Palestine situation in general and of the political role played by Israeli academic institutions, are in strong support of the resolution.  This is not just a question of a list of names, but a set of convincing arguments that has been assembled by an impressive assembly of scholars, many of whom I know to be not only fine researchers, but fair-minded persons of honest character and good judgment.

We are right to pause and discuss over this complex issue, and not to blithely assume that a repugnance for Israel’s policies simply or automatically warrants a boycott of its academic institutions.  And, in truth, I would be happier if the boycott were more closely aimed at specific practices of specific institutions (certainly, this would be desirable if our goal is to help transform Israeli institutions and not just to declare our opposition to the regime in the abstract).  But my assessment, in the end, after reviewing the arguments on both sides (and, as I have noted, giving special weight to the judgments of the scholars of the region whose work I know and admire, within anthropology and beyond) is that the boycott will find its fundamental meaning not within the academy, but beyond it.  In this light, we might see anthropologists’ support for the BDS movement both as a kind of public declaration that we have taken notice of the illegal and immoral conduct of the Israeli state and the institutions that support it, and as a small gesture of solidarity with those who have suffered most from that conduct.  That is reason enough for me.

3 thoughts on “Israel BDS — Why I Signed…Reluctantly

  1. Why I Strongly Oppose the Boycott Resolution:

    I have several reasons to oppose this resolution and here they are:

    1) While it claims to be about boycotting Israeli universities only, it is in fact a boycott of Individual scholars, e.g., it discourages AAA members from writing reference and tenure review letters for them; 2) Universities do not make or influence government policies; 3) This resolution does not set clear goals for when the boycott might be rescinded; 4) BDS leaders (Barghouty in Palestine; European BDS leaders; Students for Justice in Palestine, the two authors of the AAA boycott resolution) are not really (!) aiming at forcing Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders but wish to destroy Israel as a Jewish state and transform it into an Arab-dominated one (ruled most likely by Hamas and or Fatah), where Jews will inevitably become a discriminated minority, just as they are right now in most of the Middle Eastern states; for that reason most of the prominent BDS activists are not at all interested in any form of dialogue with Israeli moderates; 5) The AAA Task Force report is incredibly one-sided and says nothing about Israel’s legitimate security concerns; 5) For most AAA members who never visited Israel or done research there, voting in favor of this resolution is an easy /”feel good” gesture with no serious consequences for their own careers; 6) However, this action will undoubtedly negatively affect important archaeological and bio. anthropological as well as some ethnological research in Israel/Palestine, since it would be close to impossible to conduct it without some degree of cooperation with Israeli universities and/or Israeli government.

    If the resolution passes, I intend to cancel my membership in the AAA.
    A boycott of my Israeli colleagues and their universities = a boycott of myself.
    If it comes to that, “Je suis an Israeli anthropologist” too….

  2. Despite the comments posted here, supporters of the boycott have made it quite clear that an academic boycott would be a boycott of institutions and not individuals. See: http://savageminds.org/2015/11/03/myths-and-facts-about-the-boycott-of-israeli-academic-institutions/

    Also, contrary to the comment made by Khan, Ferguson is correct in stating that the overwhelming majority of anthropologists working in this part of the world support a boycott because they have seen first hand the systematic oppression of Palestinian human rights. The AAA Taskforce only confirmed what these scholars have known intimately.

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