Why I’m Voting for the Boycott Part 3: It’s in the Resolution

This is the third post in a three-post series of personal reflections on the AAA boycott vote. The first post discussed my own childhood Zionist education, while the second post addressed the false claim that the boycott unfairly singles out Israel.

Last November anthropologists attending the AAA business meeting in Denver voted by an astounding 1040-136 to endorse the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, but this was just a resolution to put the boycott to a vote, not an actual endorsement of that boycott by the entire AAA membership. The actual voting is now taking place by electronic ballot. It started on April 15th and lasts until May 31. For this reason it is crucial that all AAA members, whether or not they support the boycott, vote to make their voices heard in this historic decision. Because each update to the AAA website seems to make it even more difficult to navigate, please read this useful guide on how to vote.

It’s in the Resolution

What do we mean by an academic boycott anyway?

What if I told you that the answer can be found in the the boycott resolution?

what if I told you? 

First and foremost, it can’t be emphasized enough that the boycott only applies to institutions, not to individuals. Continue reading

A Moment of Truth: On the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions presents this timely and poignant essay by Mick Taussig, calling us to a moment of truth in the discipline. Addressing concerns about academic freedom in the larger context of the brute terror that the Israeli state inflicts daily upon Palestinians, he asks how History will judge our collective voice on the matter.

Voting is open at the AAA. Don’t be on the wrong side of History.

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A Moment of Truth: On the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Mick Taussig, Class of 1933 Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University

Yesterday an ex-student forwarded me an apparently widely diffused email against the boycott from my friend Michael Fisher. Echoing an argument central to the debate, Michael thinks the boycott is likely to have a deleterious effect on Israeli anthropologists critical of the Israeli state and that it goes against the principle of academic freedom. These are tough issues which everyone I know supporting the boycott takes very seriously.

I myself don’t see why the boycott as defined should hinder critical work by Israeli anthropologists and some have come out in favor of the boycott anyway. I wish to support them as much as I can. Continue reading

Notes on peership: A conclusion

This post follows a few ideas I expressed last year, as I started the second year of my MA in anthropology here at Leuven. It was a moment when most of us in my program returned from our respective field sites; reeling from the intensity of ethnographic fieldwork, dealing with copious amounts of field notes, emotions and reflections, wondering if we have enough for a thesis.

I wrote then of the need for ‘peership’ in classrooms: a sense of ‘taking care of our own’ in educational spaces – ‘a crucial support network that enables many of us to get around.’ We called this endeavor, with seriousness and a lot of jest, ‘Peers and Beers.’ We met every couple of weeks, presented our thoughts, spoke of creative ways to write and think through our notes, shared references, helped develop tables-of-content (for a large part!), and of course drink wonderful Belgian beers. Continue reading

J’Accuse: How Not to Have a Political Debate about BDS

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions presents this essay by Lisa Rofel and Daniel Segal on the debasement of the political debate about the boycott by its most vehement opponents.

Voting on the boycott resolution is open until May 31. #Anthroboycott’s voting instructions are here. Every vote counts!

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J’Accuse: How Not to Have a Political Debate about BDS

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is poised to cast a historic vote on a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The AAA would be the largest academic association to do so.  At the November AAA meeting, those in attendance voted overwhelmingly in favor of boycott: 1040 to 136.  This month, the resolution is out to the full membership for a vote.

Seeking to stop the boycott, opponents have resorted to extreme and, at times, intensely personal attacks. Of most concern, some have sunk to playing “the Nazi card.” In a recent piece in the Huffington Post, Richard Shweder, a professor at the University of Chicago, alleged the resolution was akin to “the Nuremberg laws, when citizenship rights for Jews were degraded.” Douglas Feldman, a professor at the College at Brockport, sent an email accusing boycott supporters —on the basis of no evidence beyond their support for the boycott—of adhering to a “right-wing Nazi fascist ideology.” At an AAA panel last year, Michael Herzfeld, a Harvard professor, claimed that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is equivalent to both the Nazi and authoritarian Communist programs in Weimer Germany.

Continue reading

Are nuances like curry leaves?

The title of this post – and its contents – was inspired by an anecdote I wrote about in an earlier post in my field blog. Before I proceed, I want to recapitulate it.

It was late-August, and towards the end of my fieldwork. Sanjay, Pankaj, Jagdish,* and I were having lunch in the NGO’s field office in Dharavi. After we finished lunch – a combination of coriander chicken curry and rice, made by Pankaj – Sanjay said introspectively, “We field staff, who work on the ground level, we are like curry leaves.” He asked us if we knew what he meant by that. I shook my head, no. Pankaj said that it is perhaps so because the field staff, like curry leaves, “adds flavor” to the NGO’s work. Jagdish offered his interpretation: because we (the front-line staff), like curry leaves, are chewed up and spit out once the taste or flavor is gone.

Sanjay smiled, and nodded: “Yes, that’s what I meant! A combination of the two!”

I wrote in the previous post why I found this metaphor so intriguing. It demonstrates the reflexivity of the front-line workers – how they are positioned hierarchically compared to the ‘offices’ – and is also a reflection on the kind of ideas and epistemologies they bring forth in their everyday intervention work in the basti (communities). Continue reading

Why I have voted in support of BDS: Ghassan Hage

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions is pleased to present Ghassan Hage‘s eloquent essay on the urgency of voting for boycott in a desperate situation of settler colonial violence — where calls for more critique of the Israeli occupation and dialogue are simply not enough, and where the Israeli academy’s existence is dependent on that colonial violence. As he puts it, “It is possible to tell oneself: ‘I am not going to do anything since no action meets my unbelievably pure criteria of what needs to be done’. I don’t think it is coincidental that such an attitude ends up working to support the status quo. For those of us who do feel the urgency of dealing with Palestinian question this is not enough and we hope that most of my colleagues share our sense of urgency.

Voting is open until May 31. Follow these instructions to vote for #anthroboycott.

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Why I have voted in support of BDS

From the 15th of April and until the end of May members of the American Anthropological Association will be voting on whether to endorse the proposal to boycott Israeli academic institutions as part of offering to support the Palestnians’ call for a Boycotts, Sanctions and Divestments (BDS) movement against the state of Israel. I have voted in support of the resolution. As the vote has been an occasion whereby AAA has initiated and encouraged a more public discussion of the pros and cons of the BDS movement, I wish to share my understanding of the nature of the opposition between those who are for and against BDS and why I personally, as a AAA member, support it.

To be sure, almost all of the anthropologists who are against the Boycott begin by stating their opposition to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories or the treatment of Palestinians inside the state of Israel. So the debate is not, nor one expects it to be, a simple debate between ‘critics and supporters of the state of Israel’. Yet, the difference between the two camps is quite pronounced and it begins to emerge in the very way those opposed to BDS declare their objection and opposition to the Occupation. In their very starting point there is a regressive attempt at shifting the grounds of the debate away from where the supporters of BDS have located it. Continue reading

Decolonizing Anthropology

Decolonizing Anthropology is a new series on Savage Minds edited by Carole McGranahan and Uzma Z. Rizvi. Welcome.

Just about 25 years ago Faye Harrison poignantly asked if “an authentic anthropology can emerge from the critical intellectual traditions and counter-hegemonic struggles of Third World peoples? Can a genuine study of humankind arise from dialogues, debates, and reconciliation amongst various non-Western and Western intellectuals — both those with formal credentials and those with other socially meaningful and appreciated qualifications?” (1991:1). In launching this series, we acknowledge the key role that Black anthropologists have played in thinking through how and why to decolonize anthropology, from the 1987 Association of Black Anthropologists’ roundtable at the AAAs that preceded the 1991 volume on Decolonizing Anthropology edited by Faye Harrison, to the World Anthropologies Network, to Jafari Sinclaire Allen and Ryan Cecil Jobson’s essay out this very month in Current Anthropology on “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties.”

Decolonizing Anthropology Harrison

These questions continue to haunt anthropology and all those striving to bring some resolution to these issues. It has become increasingly important to also recognize the ways in which those questions have changed, and how the separation between Western and NonWestern is less about locality and geography, but rather an epistemic question related to the colonial histories of anthropology. Decolonization then has multiple facets to its approach: it is philosophical, methodological, and praxis-oriented, particularly within the fields of anthropology. Here at Savage Minds, we have decided to take these questions on again in a different public, and work through a series of dialogues, debates and possibly even reconciliation. Continue reading

Why I’m Voting for the Boycott Part 2: SQUIRREL!

*This is the second of a series of posts I am writing on the topic of the AAA boycott vote. You can read the previous post here. And now the third post is up as well.**

Last November anthropologists attending the AAA business meeting in Denver voted by an astounding 1040-136 to endorse the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, but this was just a resolution to put the boycott to a vote, not an actual endorsement of that boycott by the entire AAA membership. The actual voting is now taking place by electronic ballot. It started on April 15th and lasts until May 31. For this reason it is crucial that all AAA members, whether or not they support the boycott, vote to make their voices heard in this historic decision. Because each update to the AAA website seems to make it even more difficult to navigate, please read this useful guide on how to vote.

Squirrel!

A running joke in the 2009 movie Up is that the otherwise intelligent talking dog gets distracted by squirrels, forgetting everything it was saying whenever it sees one. Continue reading

On the margins of politics

I am going slightly out of depths with this post, traversing into the territory of yet-to-be-formed thoughts, which could either be speculations or reflections; responses, or idiosyncratic musings. Part of it emerges with the experience I’ve had so far working ethnographically, and from my previous research encounters and readings; but the other part is deeply contemplative, troubling even. Here, I wish to work with another concept that can be read along with ‘subalternity’ as I discussed in the last post – that of ‘margins.’

Therefore, I would like the reader to be aware of the tentative nature of the thoughts expressed in this post, and the assumptions that guide them, and the delicate nature of the interventions that I make.

I began to think of margins more concertedly after I attended a lecture by Pnina Werbner recently, where she spoke about political revolution in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements in 2011, and the aesthetics of effervescence and despair. She spoke of how such movements needed to be backed by politics so as to materialize the changes that guide them in the first place. Despite apparent failures, she argued that such movements do have an impression on the world: narratives, strategies, and so forth, which steer and shape protest politics in the world. While I am in agreement with her argument, I do think one element that was left relatively under-theorized – and one I think is crucial – is that of the margins of such politics. Continue reading

Why I’m Voting for the Boycott Part 1: David vs. Goliath

UPDATE: The second post in this series is now up. And now the third post as well.

Last November anthropologists attending the AAA business meeting in Denver voted by an astounding 1040-136 to endorse the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, but this was just a resolution to put the boycott to a vote, not an actual endorsement of that boycott by the entire AAA membership. The actual voting takes place by electronic ballot starting today, April 15th, and lasts until May 31. For this reason it is crucial that all AAA members, whether or not they support the boycott, vote to make their voices heard in this historic decision.

While we have been posting extensively about the boycott here on Savage Minds, so far none of the full-time contributors have expressed their personal opinions on the matter. Over the next few weeks I hope to do just that, starting with a post about my own experience growing up as a Reform Jew in New York City. I have at least two more posts planned as well, including one on boycotts as a political strategy and another in which I try to round-up and summarize some of the writing which I have found most persuasive on the topic.

What follows is a very personal statement and intentionally avoids most of the issues that have already been discussed elsewhere. For those wanting more information I recommend looking through our own archives on the subject, or exploring the blog maintained by Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, as well as the anti-boycott blog. But, above all, I recommend you read this post on “Myths and Facts About the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions,” Dialogue vs. BDS, and the Report on Israel/Palestine (PDF) prepared by the AAA task force.

David vs. Goliath

I was raised as a Reform Jew in New York City in the eighties and the Judaism we were taught at Hebrew School was little more than Zionist propaganda. As Lisa Goldman recently put it,

for Jewish-Americans, more so than ever for Jews in Israel, Zionism is a crucial element of their identity. The most important element is neither God nor religion but the Holocaust, with its heavy legacy of trans-generational trauma. The lesson of the genocide, many believe, is that Jews need a safe haven. A state of one’s own.

During my weekly Hebrew school classes, as well as related weekend activities and camps, we almost never discussed Jewish religion, ethics, or philosophy.1 Instead, we were taught to think of ourselves as victims of historical persecution stretching back to the dawn of time. We were taught the importance of maintaining our ethnic identity in the face of this persecution.

David and Goliath
“David and Goliath” by Erik Bragalyan

Even as young children, we were encouraged to think of ourselves as little David’s standing up to Goliath. The holidays we celebrated were similarly built around such David and Goliath narratives: Purim celebrates the story of Esther who triumphed over the evil Mordecai Haman,2 and Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of the Maccabees over the forces of Antiochus.

Only as we got older did we learn of stories in which the Jews failed to triumph against overwhelming odds: the Spanish Inquisition, Eastern European pogroms, and, of course, the Holocaust. Yet even when learning about war and genocide, there was always the promise of a new David emerging that might once and for all put an end to such historical defeats: muscular Jewish nationalism. The Warsaw Uprising may not have succeeded, but the Six Day War and the raid on Entebbe were another story. Israel’s success meant that Jewish children could sleep peacefully at night. It also meant that Isreal was all that was standing between us and the abyss.

I never went on any of the trips to Israel organized by the school, but we watched films about the wonders of life on the kibbutz. (We were, of course, carefully warned away from socialism with stories about the horrors of collective family life.) I also helped raise money to plant trees in Israel. We were told that the Arabs had not cared for the land properly, turning it into a desert; the implication being that they did not deserve the land because they had been poor caretakers. Such stories of neglect by indigenous inhabitants will be familiar to scholars of all forms of settler colonialism. (I have since heard ethnic Chinese say much the same thing about indigenous Taiwanese.) At the time, however, it evoked a powerful image of Palestine as a desert which was only able to bloom once the rightful owners had returned.

When I was twelve they took us on a weekend retreat where we watched the movie Ticket to Heaven about a man who gets “brainwashed” by a cult and has to be “deprogrammed” by his parents. But unlike that film, unlearning Zionism was not a simple process involving being locked in a room with a professional “deprogrammer.” It took years of reading, questioning, and talking to people who actually knew something about life under the occupation. Thanks to patient friends in college and graduate school, I began to question the simple narrative by which the Holocaust served to legitimize colonialism. I learned about the Nakba by which “led to the expulsion and displacement of the Palestinian Arab population.” I learned how life in Gaza was like living in a giant prison. I began to question the logic of the two state solution. I learned about the rise of right wing extremism in Israeli politics. And slowly, bit by bit, the stories I had learned as a child began to unravel a the seams, creating space for a much more complex story to take its place.

Even as I began to question my Zionism, however, certain habits and reflexes of thought still remained. I would find myself instinctively grasping at straws to support claims I had already come to realize were unsupportable. Recently I encountered similar reflexes while teaching here in Taiwan. We are starting to get exchange students from China and during one lecture, after I said something mildly critical of China, one of these students spoke up to challenge what I said. I was actually quite happy about this because Taiwanese students are usually so passive in class that actually getting challenged by a student felt refreshing. But after the lecture the student came up to me and introduced herself. She said that she actually agrees with what I had said about China and that she’d come to Taiwan precisely to get exposed to more critical views, but that defending China’s honor had become a reflex for her so she’d spoken up without thinking. Nationalism works upon is in very deep ways which talk of “imagined communities” often fails to grasp.

Zionist reflexes are not unique to Jewish kids from NY. They seem to exist at a more general level in European and American public discourse as well. I see non-Jewish politicians, media personalities, and even academics reflexively defending Israel, portraying anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism, unquestioningly accepting the necessity of a two-state solution, and refusing to engage in any way with Palestinian political aspirations. It is as if the slightest break in our collective resolve would open the door to the ultimate evil. “Never again” means you are either “with us or against us” and the failure to be “with us” is too horrible to contemplate.

At a very basic level I supported the boycott resolution because I felt that it would open up a public space that would allow for questioning of these deeply ingrained assumptions. I don’t expect those people on Facebook who write “Disgusting” every time I post about the boycott to change their minds, but my public support of the boycott, and of the BDS movement more generally, has already sparked dozens of conversations with people who are genuinely curious and open-minded. In this sense the boycott resolution and the resulting discussion have already done a lot of the work I hoped they would, but I still think AAA members should vote for the boycott. In my next post I will try to explain one reason why I think an actual boycott, and not just this discussion about the boycott resolution, is still important.


  1. My brother went to a different Reform Hebrew school and had a very different experience, one that did indeed involve interesting discussions of ethics and philosophy. 
  2. Thanks to reader “yogi” for the correction. I obviously wasn’t paying enough attention in Hebrew school! (Or just have a lousy memory…) 

Tools We Use: Aeon Timeline 2

There are a lot of things in life that can be solved with a good timeline. While most people tend to think of them as a specialized way of visualizing data, or something they learned about in elementary school, I love them. I think all my major research projects have involved creating timelines — they provide a level of organization to any project that is valuable. This could be just keeping track of when you interviewed who, or it could be to keep track of a complex case study. It could just be to keep track of when your exam papers are due. Basically, since you exist in time, the visual display of time will always be useful.

I’ve personally always been fascinated by the history of anthropology, and how telling stories about our past enables or disables certain futures for our discipline. At some point about ten years ago, I began a history of anthropology timeline and blogged about it on Savage Minds. I kept working on it, and did another post in 2010.

Since then my timeline has grown and now contains over 600 events! And in the course of doing this work, I’ve shifted between different software. After a decade of looking for Mac software to create timelines, I’ve found — and stuck with — Aeon Timeline. Continue reading

The anthropologist as a curious subaltern? Thoughts on precarity and publics

The title of this post is meant to provoke. Or so I hoped, when I first thought of it one night as I was cooking (a very thought-inspiring activity, I must say). I was replaying a conversation in my head that I had with a visual anthropologist from Macau, who was trained in Berlin. Our conversation traced the postcolonial critique of anthropology, as well as difficulties of translating anthropological works for the public. The reason he calls himself a ‘visual anthropologist,’ he said with a laugh, is because the term gives him legitimacy in academic circles (he also gets invited to screen his films at various festivals). I think that, perhaps, doing so gives him room to be more eclectic than what a category would allow.

I wondered: why, when, and how do we call ourselves anthropologists? Of course, there are academic conventions, and institutional structures. But there’s also a sense of belonging to a professional community, a global tribe, if one is pushing the cliché. In undergraduate and graduate programs, we’re initiated into the history of the discipline, into understanding seminal moments (Writing Culture is still fresh in my mind from a course from last year), as well as into the ‘field.’ We are privy to the workings of the discipline; we see how our peers, teachers and institutions (the AAA, for instance) have responded to political questions like institutional boycotts, or Black Lives Matter (not to mention scandals within anthropology – the Yanomamo being another ‘seminal’ moment in pedagogy).

Yet, we are asked, perhaps more so than any other discipline, what anthropology’s relevance to the world is? Very often, it is a question asked in classrooms – both, by students new to anthropology and by those who’ve been here for a while. I do note a crucial difference between asking, ‘How can we be relevant?’ and ‘Are we relevant?’ Both, of course, operate in a similar rhetorical level. But the latter can be particularly challenging.

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Israeli Anthropologists Support the Boycott

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions is pleased to share this letter we received from 22 Israeli anthropologists endorsing the boycott. As anthropologists critical of state power, who object to Israel’s gross violations of international law and crimes against humanity committed in their names, they urge members of the American Anthropological Association to support them and their Palestinian colleagues in putting pressure on the Israeli state by boycotting the academic institutions which are complicit in these violations and crimes. Due to the increasing atmosphere of intimidation and threats against boycott supporters in Israel, they have all signed anonymously as a collective.

Voting on the resolution is open from April 15-May 31. To join AAA or renew your membership, click here.

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We, the undersigned anthropologists, Israelis and citizens of Israel:

  • endorse the vote from the 2015 AAA Business Meeting in favor of an academic boycott of Israeli institutions,
  • urge our colleagues in the AAA to vote in favor of the resolution for Academic Boycott,
  • reject spurious arguments that blame boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) measures for the rise of the Israeli right, and that the AAA academic boycott is targeting Israeli anthropologists and moderates.

We, the undersigned anthropologists, Israelis and citizens of Israel, concerned about the devastating continuation of colonial dispossession in Israel/Palestine, applaud the courageous stance of members at the 2015 business meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) who, overwhelmingly, by 88%, voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions—a decision that must be ratified in a final electronic membership vote April 15 to May 31. We urge our colleagues in the AAA to vote in favor of this resolution. We believe that an academic boycott puts pressure on the Israeli government to advance our common goal of a just peace for all the inhabitants of this land. Continue reading

On front-lines and ethnography

My previous post was about how ethnography, for me, is a way of being grounded in particular contexts, of getting one’s feet muddied with the nuances and contradictions of everyday life, and building something concrete out of it.

The term ‘front-line’ encapsulates that grounding for me. In this post, I want to demonstrate what the term signifies about the work done by the front-line workers in Dharavi themselves, and then conclude by reflecting on what it means to do ethnography in such front-lines (or, alternatively, front-line ethnography). Continue reading