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.


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.

As for academic freedom, to my mind the boycott would actually strengthen it, emerging as it does from all that is praiseworthy in US anthropology with its concern, especially since the war in Vietnam, with colonialism and state coercion. Academic freedom remains a mindless mantra unless exercised against oppression and censorship. To me the boycott is the most effective way anthropologists in the USA can draw attention to the terror exercised daily by the Israeli state against Palestinians, with, be it noted, the connivance of the US government, Congress and mainstream media. As regards the latter, consider the amazement and consternation that Bernie Sanders’ recent remarks have caused in the US despite their mildness.

As for the terror, the AAA Task Force on this issue of Palestine/ Israel, sedate and measured as it is, provides the evidence if such be needed. Imagine! Our very own AAA!

You don’t have to be a literary critic to discern in that report the wide-eyed disbelief and shock at the calculated sadism that employs a maze of conflicting laws to demolish Palestine homes and Palestinian lives and then in mock disbelief wonder why these people retaliate.

Why, indeed?

To that add the brutal policing, torture, check-points, apartheid pass-system, and the unstoppable advance of walls and settlements as the new normal. Thinking of my own relatives who ended up in Auschwitz it is all too reminiscent of 1930s Germany, putting us now in a “moment of truth” situation as to what we should do, how will we vote, how will History judge us now that we anthropologists are actually able to weigh in? It is every inch a moral decision.

Work by radical Israeli anthropologists is welcome, indeed, but infinitely more of an impact will be achieved by a US-inspired academic boycott because that exerts a dramatic effect here where the crucial support for the Israeli state exists; crucial and blind.

With a boycott a crack appears in the hegemony. The taboo is tweaked. Precisely because it is a disturbing act carried out by a normally staid and quiescent bunch of people (meaning anthropologists), whose job-description centers on careful analysis of the human condition removed from the politicians and the media, the boycott invites, nay, impels critical reflection in many sectors of society as to the wisdom of further US support for a runaway regime. A boycott like this one shocks people into reconsideration. And if an academic boycott can seem morally fraught, then how much more so is the regime against which, in this case, the boycott takes aim?