Highlights from the AAA Israel-Palestine Task Force’s Final Report

The Task Force on AAA Engagement on Israel-Palestine issued its final report today. It is a long and thorough report, so I won’t attempt to summarize the whole thing. (There is already an “executive summary” in the report itself.) But as someone who has followed the issue for a long time, both through the extensive coverage here on Savage Minds as well as on the blog of the Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, and who is therefore suffering from “BDS fatigue” from the repetitive nature of some of the discussions, I still found much that was new and interesting in this report. Even with regard to topics that I am already somewhat familiar with, the report provides examples from the daily lives of academics working in the region which bring these issues to life. Accordingly, what I have assembled below is a rather idiosyncratic selection of highlights from the report, based on what jumped out at me and got my attention, along with some comments and reflections of my own. I hope it will encourage more people to read the full report.1

Our data are primarily obtained through extensive interviews and during a visit by a Task Force delegation to Israel and Palestine in early May 2015.

This report is a wonderful example of how anthropological methods can be applied to shape policy discussions.

the Israeli system of settler colonialism can be seen as a single unified system stretching from Tel Aviv to Gaza and Ramallah, with different modulations for different spaces and different Arab communities

This framework shapes the first part of the report, which provides an in-depth discussion of these different “modulations” in different regions, such as East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Framing the discussion this way shifts the focus from 1967 to 1948 and the Nakba.

The Task Force is in no position to adjudicate these historiographical debates, but we are concerned by the degree to which the Israeli State, a self-described democracy, suppresses public memory of and debate about Palestinians’ version of their own history, and seeks to curtail open academic debate of these issues. In our view, this is damaging to civil society and to academic freedom. Because Israeli history books give only the official Israeli version of the birth of Israel, many Israelis are unfamiliar with even the word “Nakba.” We were told by Israeli academics that history faculty who try to teach about the Nakba are harassed by students and by right wing groups such as IsraCampus and Israel Academia Monitor, which track faculty speech.

Even in discussing the intellectual framework for the report, the task force already runs up against limitations on freedom of speech in Israeli academic institutions!

In exercising control of Jerusalem, the Israeli state seeks to maintain a demographic “balance” that ensures a Jewish majority of over 70 percent, with the remainder made up of minorities, including Palestinians. The state is constantly changing the legal and geographic landscape to ensure the maintenance of this ratio in a policy the UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian territories has likened to “a form of ethnic cleansing.”

Some of the details about how control is exercised in East Jerusalem, such as the “blue ID” was new to me. The discussion about how these “blue ID” cards fragment Palestinian families was quite depressing. Similarly, the discussion of “micro-settlements” in which individual houses are occupied (as opposed to larger hill-top settlements around the city) is something that non-experts might not be familiar with. This section also covers issues of water, health, nutrition, and military deaths that have been well documented elsewhere.

Israeli Palestinians constitute roughly 20% of Israel’s population. Yet Israeli Palestinians attend university at much lower rates than Israeli Jews.

The inclusion of a linguistic anthropologist on the Task Force shows through in the discussion about how disadvantages facing Arabic speakers in the Israeli school system.

Just as Arabic is marginalized, Israeli military service is heavily privileged at Israel’s universities. As a delegation we visited Israeli university campuses and were struck by the number of students we saw who were Israeli soldiers, carrying their guns on campus. Palestinian students complain that they feel intimidated sitting near armed soldiers in class…

I can’t even imagine…

all students, including Palestinians, must wait until they are twenty-one before they can start a medical degree. This particularly penalizes Palestinian women who have a separate timetable, a marriage timetable, to contend with in the pursuit of their careers

One of the few gender-specific items in the report, but an important observation about how gender is experienced differently by different groups in Israel.

They also complained that Jewish students were often allowed to organize demonstrations without permission while Palestinian students had to get the permission of university authorities to stage any kind of demonstration or event.

Doesn’t surprise me at all, but it is important because academic freedom isn’t just about speech in the classroom.

The Ben Gurion University code of conduct now prohibits advocacy of a boycott of Israel, with dismissal as the penalty.

Those advocating BDS within the AAA would be dismissed from this university if they were faculty there!

The distinction American academics tend to make between issues of academic freedom and those of social justice was not as salient to the Palestinian academics we interviewed because they experience their difficulties as academics as a symptom of their social and political subordination as Palestinians. An example of this scenario was provided by Ala Aladh who cannot conduct fieldwork in Jerusalem because of checkpoints (he has a West Bank ID). He reported that he is not considered an academic; he is considered a Palestinian. What matters is not whether he is a highly trained scholar, but whether he is Palestinian. “We are not academics, we are Palestinians. We are discriminated against in total, not as academics.”

The section on academic freedom in the West Bank is one of the best parts of an all around excellent report.

A large number of Al-Quds University and Birzeit University students are or have been in prison. We were told that 45 Birzeit University students are currently in jail; three more were added in the month prior to our visit. The Israeli military is legally empowered to place Palestinians, including students, in “administrative detention,” a holdover from British colonial law, with no charge for a period of six months. Detention can then be renewed indefinitely in six-month increments. Prisoners have no right to visitations, no entitlement to due process, and no access to their families. One student said he had been told on the last day of his six-month detention that he was going to be released, only to have his sentence extended another six months on the following day. He was ultimately incarcerated for a total of two and a half years.

How can you talk about academic freedom when you don’t even have the right to due process?

Currently, diplomas from Al-Quds University are not recognized in Israel.

That is because they are trying to get them to abandoned its Jerusalem campuses.

The semester we visited Al-Quds University, it was enjoying a normal 16-week semester, although typically the semester lasts only 12 weeks due to student strikes and Israeli tear gassing.

They have charts for this! It is so predictable that they work it into their syllabi…

Palestinian archaeologists have great difficulty sending radiocarbon samples out of the West Bank due to the fact that all materials leaving the West Bank must go through Israel and Israeli customs. It is also difficult to get mail in and out of East Jerusalem. International collaborators do help get materials out of Palestine.

Another fascinating aspect of the report is the special emphasis given to archaeology: both Palestinian and Israeli. Of course, when you think about it, archaeology has a special role in the shaping of national discourses in Israel. (They point out that archaeology has been “used to justify the demolition of Palestinian houses and villages.”) Thus, while the report notes that “the Israeli Anthropology Association adopted a resolution condemning the Occupation” Archaeology is a separate organization in Israel.

the majority of Israeli work in the West Bank is unpublished. It resides in “gray literature” that is archived by the SOA and difficult to access. We find this lack of dissemination of information from numerous West Bank Israeli projects disturbing. Archaeological excavation is in a sense, the scientific, systematic destruction of the archaeological record. One cannot re-excavate an area that has been excavated before. Thus the results of archaeological research must be disseminated to the profession for that knowledge to be built upon.

The report does not conclude with a specific set of policy recommendations, it does list a number of “guiding principles” that should be used in thinking about any AAA action:

  • A commitment to human rights.
  • A commitment to advocate on behalf of minorities, disadvantaged groups, and indigenous groups.
  • A commitment to the peoples whom we study.
  • A critical awareness of American complicity.
  • A fiduciary obligation to the Association.

Given the data they present and the guidelines the propose, I think I am not amis in seeing the report as strongly implying that the AAA should endorse some form of BDS. I think most readers will come to the same conclusion. If you are still on the fence, I suggest you look both at the links listed at the top of this post and this FAQ on the academic boycott website.

  1. In quoting from the report I have removed citations to make it easier to read. Please see the original report for the citations and bibliography. Here is a direct link to the PDF of the final report. 

5 thoughts on “Highlights from the AAA Israel-Palestine Task Force’s Final Report

  1. The Task Force report is surprisingly silent about the repeated Palestinian terrorist attack on Israeli civilians (several happened in the last few days). That is why the checkpoints are there. The report is incredibly one-sided as so is the argument that Israel is a settler colonial state. For some reason only “Western-derived” states are so labelled. What about China in Tibet: it looks like a settler colonial state to me and a brutal one at that. But the AAA would never (!) boycott Chinese universities. Too much is at stakes for too many members of the association….Hypocrisy and double standards!

  2. Sergei: Your argument for inaction closely mirrors opponents of the South Africa boycott (who argued that Africans in other countries were treated worse than under apartheid [1]) and opponents of U.S. Civil Rights (who argued that African-Americans under Jim Crow lived better than Africans [2]). It is the last argument of those who refuse to face the actual evils being perpetrated by apartheid regimes. Boycotts are not and have never been a comparative tool. Nobody ranked beverage companies before the AAA decided to boycott Coca-Cola or hotel chains before we began boycotting Hilton. That said, if you do have a convenient ranking of all the human right abuses in the world, in order of where they merit action from the AAA, I’d love to see it!

    If you would like to propose a boycott (or any other action) of another case of grave human rights violations, we will of course listen to the case on its own merits. All we ask is that people do the same here, rather than applying a double-standard to BDS that they would never apply to any other boycott call. When the five members of the task force – chosen specifically because they knew little about Palestine-Israel before – did so, they saw the need for action. We think the AAA membership is likely to agree.

    [1] e.g. http://www.csmonitor.com/1989/1012/ekri.html
    [2] e.g. https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1964&dat=19651031&id=u4syAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ZbcFAAAAIBAJ&pg=4291,7598936&hl=en

  3. Isaiah:

    We know that least one member of the AAA Task force (Gusterson) had signed a BDS petition prior to joining the Task Force. If this is called unbiased, I wonder how unbiased the Task Force really was. Moreover, your response ignored my point about Palestinian terrorism and the killing of Israeli civilians (old women and kids including), which is going on right now. The Task Force knew little about the Israel/Palestine situation before their trip there and their report shows that they still understand little. It they speak with such authority! Since they had decided that Israel was a settler colonial state, there is only one serious recommendation they could make: boycott Israel academic institutions, which de facto means boycott individual Iraeli academics.This was not even a demand made during the South Africa boycott. There is something about Israel that just makes left-wing academics’ blood boil….

  4. Sergei:

    You need to get your facts right: South African anti-apartheid activists did, in fact, call for a boycott not only of academic institutions, but also of individual scholars. By contrast, the BDS calls for a boycott only of institutions, not individuals, (Incidentally, organizations like the American Studies Association demonstrate that there is a significant difference, as they have cut all ties with Israeli academic institutions while still welcoming Israeli individuals to their conferences and publications.) Perhaps you are referring not to the more general call to boycott South African apartheid, but to the AAA’s inadequate action on the issue. I don’t know about you, but I am embarrassed by the fact that our association failed to actively fight South African apartheid and regard it as a black mark on an otherwise fairly good record of supporting human rights at home and abroad. I hope it is not a mistake we repeat this time around.

    I am also not entirely sure what your point about the recent uptick in violence is. From October 1-12, four Israelis Jews have been killed and 67 injured in a series of lone-wolf attacks, while (conspicuously absent from your comment) 24 Palestinians have been killed and over 1300 injured (yes, including women and children too), as Israeli military forces increasingly use live fire against Palestinian civilians, in contravention of international law [1]. Surely you are not suggesting that this somehow justifies the systematic discrimination and violence against Palestinians that is documented in the Task Force report?

    BDS seeks to end systematic discrimination against Palestinians – including by Israeli academic institutions and archaeological projects – using established and effective nonviolent means. Anyone who would truly like to see the current wave of violence end should have no problem endorsing a nonviolent movement that demands basic human rights for all who call Palestine/Israel home.

    Finally, your accusations of bias at the Task Force ring hollow. As the report highlights, the Task Force did not go into this project assuming Israel was a colonial state. Instead, top scholars in our discipline – all but one of whom had zero prior research experience in the region – applied the tools of ethnography and, on the basis of their research, concluded that Israeli policy towards Palestinians is best analyzed in a colonial framework, that Israeli academic institutions are directly complicit in these colonial practices, and that archaeological practices are a key technology of such policies. I fully agree with you, however, that these conclusions imply the need for the AAA to endorse Palestinians’ call for BDS.

    [1] http://mondoweiss.net/2015/10/widespread-palestinian-demonstrators

  5. Israeli academic instituions are simply not complicit with the occupation (ang the vague term “complicit” should be problematized in itself).

    In fact, Israeli universites are important sites where criticism of the occupation have been emerging and debated.

    The TFIP report acknowledge precisely all that.

    Further, the report contains many clear arguments against the academic boycott — and suggests better alternatives in trying to end the occupations and advance peace and justice in Israel/Palestine.

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