A Letter to the AA Regarding its World Anthropology Section on Israel

[Savage Minds welcomes the following invited post by Matan Kaminer. Matan is a doctoral candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is working on his dissertation, an ethnographic exploration of the conjunction between settler colonialism and global migration on the farms of Israel’s Arabah region, where the majority of the workforce is made up of migrants from Northeast Thailand (Isaan). He has been active in the Israeli conscientious objectors’ movement, in national and municipal politics and in migrant solidarity work in Israel for the past fifteen years.]

The Spring 2016 issue of American Anthropologist carried a World Anthropology section on Israel. Unlike previous installments, this issue featured a series of written interviews with former and current heads of the Israeli Anthropological Association, many of which used the opportunity to weigh in against the academic boycott of Israeli universities. Matan Kaminer, a young Israeli anthropologist, wrote the following response, which was rejected for publication by Anthropology News. It is reproduced here verbatim.

I am grateful to American Anthropologist’s feature of my own corner of the academic globe, Israel, for drawing my attention to the important ongoing project called World Anthropology. Going through recent back issues, I see that the section has usually followed a uniform pattern: a long text written by a senior figure in the scene being discussed, followed by responses that seem to me – without being overly familiar with the milieux – especially tailored to engage a variety of viewpoints. The approach is particularly well-adapted to capturing the complex structure of disciplinary hegemonies. In contexts ranging from Argentina to East Asia, perspectives are advanced by scholars differently placed in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, career stage and employment status, in a dialogue that highlights the linkages between positionality and theoretico-political stances.

The evident felicity of this scheme makes it all the more surprising that section editor Virginia Dominguez declined to use it when turning the spotlight to anthropology in Israel. Surprisingly, the Winter 2016 edition of World Anthropology employs a closed question-and-answer format; more startling yet is the editor’s decision to address her survey only to past and present heads of the Israeli Anthropological Association (IAA). Dominguez chose to append a foreword to this section, asserting that the usual format would be “especially difficult and problematic in general, even before the discussion within the AAA about whether to boycott or otherwise impose sanctions on Israeli universities.” But she furnishes neither description of the difficulties and problems involved nor justification for her chosen method of resolving them. As a result, a polyphony of relevant voices, both hegemonic and subaltern, is replaced with a succession of voices explicitly limited to those who have held hegemonic positions within the field, albeit at different points in time.

Things could have been done differently. There is no lack of critical voices addressed to Israeli anthropology from within the discipline or from its periphery. In their response to the section, Nadia Abu el-Haj and Susan Slyomovics point out that while many of the respondents used their space to mount critiques of the academic boycott of Israel, those Israeli anthropologists who are critical of the Israeli Anthropological Association’s decision to oppose the boycott receive no hearing. This is perhaps the most obvious exclusion at a time in which the AAA membership is debating the academic boycott, but it is not necessarily the most important one. As several of the respondents point out, Israeli anthropologists have usually been Ashkenazi Jews (indeed, many were born in English-speaking countries, a privileged group within this privileged group), while the people they study have historically been Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews. The identities of the respondents, as Dominguez acknowledges, follow this same skewed pattern.

Recognizing the existence of the issue, however, does not in itself do much to forward a solution. The respondents are not quick to recognize their own responsibility as leaders of the field or to suggest ways the situation might be ameliorated. Once again, this is not for lack of relevant perspectives. Yehuda Goodman and Joseph Loss have theorized the orientation of Israeli anthropology towards Mizrahi Jews in “The Other as Brother: Nation-Building and Ethnic Ambivalence in Early Jewish-Israeli Anthropology,” a piece not discussed anywhere in the section. The charges raised by Smadar Lavie against what she pointedly calls “apartheid” in Israeli anthropology casts an even harsher light on the internal conflicts of the local discipline, but Lavie and her critique are also conspicuously absent from the discussion.

Finally, less obvious than issues of personal identity and political views but closely related, and important in and of themselves, are the perspectives of those on the occupational periphery of the field. This includes all those without a tenure-track job at a research university: graduate students (like myself), adjuncts, post-docs, and all those who teach in Israel’s rapidly expanding college system. Those without tenure cannot but be acutely aware of our own precarious status in an Israeli academia that is experiencing a long-term unemployment crisis. This crisis, like the similar crisis in the US, disproportionately affects younger researchers, women and those belonging to other oppressed groups. Yet this reality barely registers in the replies of the respondents, who have all been tenured for a long time.

Dominguez specifically asked her interlocutors about the challenges to anthropological work, but their answers do not address the public climate of repression of political dissent, specifically through threats to livelihood. Here again, tenured professors are more or less free to express their opposition to the occupation, as most of the respondents happily do. Perhaps they are not fully aware that expressing similar views, or doing “controversial” research, make the already Herculean task of finding a tenure-track job that much harder for junior academics. Outright support for the academic boycott – which most of them go out of their way to condemn – is widely considered to be “career suicide”. Thus, the silencing of Mizrahi and Palestinian voices, of the voices of precarious academic workers and of voices supporting the boycott are all related results of Dominguez’ editorial decision.

As an aside, it is interesting to note a contrast with the South African case, of which I was made aware by reading the previous installment of the World Anthropology feature. In the 1980s, the professional association of South African anthropologists condemned apartheid, even going so far as to bar supporters of the regime from joining their organization. The academic boycott of South Africa “was supported by a significant number of South African social anthropologists, whose view was generally that ‘we will welcome any foreign visitor who is not permitted [by the state] to visit.’” Compare this with the testimony of Amalia Sa’ar, former head of the IAA, who explains that until recently, “despite my personal anti-occupation stance and my growing despair at Israel’s human rights violations and ravaging institutional racism, I worried that an official anti-occupation declaration would antagonize not only some fellow anthropologists but also many of those within Israel with whom I wish to engage as part of doing anthropology.” Sa’ar changed her mind and voted to condemn the occupation together with the majority of the IAA’s membership in 2015. While welcome in itself, this condemnation was immediately instrumentalized in a twinned condemnation of the boycott as hurtful to “moderate segments in Israeli society, including academics.” In a paradoxical turn, the IAA’s membership argued that it should not be a target of censure due to its oppositional stance – while at the same time implicitly demonstrating that such an oppositional stance would only be taken as a result of the threat of censure.

To return to my primary point: powerful forces are working to silence and efface the various subalterns of the Israeli anthropological field, including those who reject the IAA’s political approach; Mizrahim, Palestinians and other subordinated identity groups; and precarious academic workers of various stripes. Whatever the intentions behind the editorial decisions which structured the World Anthropology section on Israel, these decisions have served to amplify the power of these repressive forces, making it that much harder for the subaltern to speak.

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