Anthropologists and Women’s Studies faculty should study societies not boycott them

In the 1890s, author Emile Zola revealed the truth about a decade-long French political scandal; garnering such public support that justice finally prevailed. In his letter “J’Accuse,” Zola explained how the French Army and government had lied and covered up their wrongs by blaming Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish Army captain, when, in truth, a high-ranking officer had sold France’s secrets allowing Germany to win an earlier war. Thanks to Zola, Dreyfus was exonerated and later made a general, but for 12 years he battled for his life and anti-Semitic violence swept France and Europe because it was obvious that national leaders had no use for ethics that didn’t suit their politics.

We are facing a similar lapse in integrity regarding Palestinian/Israeli relations. Recent events compel me to confront many of my fellow academicians, particularly, the American Anthropological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association, with my own “J’Accuse”.

On Friday, Nov 20, one-eighth of AAA’s membership, 1040 anthropologists voted to send to the full membership for a full vote; and only 35% of the voting membership (or 653 members) NWSA voted on November 25th for a resolution to support Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, calling for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction of Israeli institutions of higher education.

AAA and NWSA are professional societies of academics who have signed onto this ill-conceived boycott in spite of their own statements of purpose. In the case of AAA that purpose is to “advance the science that studies humankind in all its aspects” and to “disseminat[e] anthropological knowledge to solve human problems” ; and in the case of Women’s Studies that purpose is to “actively supporting and promoting feminist education, and supporting feminists involved in that effort at every educational level and in every educational setting…actively pursue a just world in which all persons can develop to their fullest potential – one free from ideologies, systems of privilege or structures that oppress or exploit some for the advantage of others.” From anthropologists as well as Women’s Studies specialists I would expect insight, patience, and wisdom to help SOLVE the Middle Eastern crisis, not inflame it. I would expect support of feminist scholars for Middle Eastern countries such as Israel who have embraced feminist visions as a central part of their culture as well as their governance.

BDS blames Israel for all violations of Palestinian human rights, yet overlooks Palestinian leaders who themselves inflict the most egregious abuses on their own people including their overwhelming misogyny, treating women as property, abusing and harming gays and lesbians and attacking transgender people. BDS ignores the voices of Palestinian-Arab human rights advocates silenced by threat, outright violence, or death when they speak against atrocities carried out by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

The ideological adherents of the BDS in the NWSA and AAA ignore the facts that life expectancy of the Palestinians in the West Bank in 2015 is 76 years compared to the rest of the Arab world at 71 years and the world average at 70 years. They ignore that in 2015, the infant mortality rate in the West Bank and Gaza was 13 per 1,000 live births compared to 27 per 1,000 live births in the rest of the Arab states and 36.58 per 1,000 in the world. One of the reasons is Palestinian mothers in West Bank and Gaza get medical treatment at Israeli facilities. Even the leadership of Hamas and the PA send their families to Israel for treatment. Likewise, the literacy rate for people aged 15 and above in the West Bank and Gaza was 96.5 percent in 2015. These statistics ought to be something encouraged and saluted by the NWSA and AAA. They are ignored.

BDS does nothing for impoverished Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, while harming the growing Palestinian middle class, which is slowly growly through contact with Israel’s economy, education system and other aspects of daily life, opportunities they never dreamed possible while under the control of Jordan and Egypt. According to Bassem Eid, founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, fully 92,000 Arabs from the West Bank go to work in Israel each day.

In 2014, “Al-Hayat Al-Jadida”, the official newspaper of the Palestinian Authority, lauded Israeli employers.

Whenever Palestinian workers have the opportunity to work for Israeli employers, they are quick to quit their jobs with their Palestinian employers – for reasons having to do with salaries and other rights….The salaries of workers employed by Palestinians amount to less than half the salaries of those who work for Israeli employers.

The [Israeli] work conditions are very good, and include transportation, medical insurance and pensions. These things do not exist with Palestinian employers….Muhammad Al-Hinnawi, a construction worker, says: ‘I receive a daily salary of 70 shekels, without pension, and I have no other choice.’ By contrast, Thaer Al-Louzi, who used to work for an Israeli concrete factory, said: ‘I received a salary of 140 shekels a day. Now, after I was injured, I receive a salary through the insurance.’

BDS’ agenda is entirely one sided, demanding Israel make all the concessions, which every academic should realize is a disastrous approach to foreign relations. BDS does nothing to open dialogue or create a livable peace.
Now, the AAA is at a pivotal moment, both for anthropology and for education. In March 2016, AAA’s BDS resolution will be presented to its full membership of 8,000 for a vote. It is too late for the NWSA, whose vote ended on November 25th when they turned away from the roots of their own field.

AAA anthropologists will have to decide. Are they academics whose job it is study societies and people, to research and think critically about human nature; to teach our youth how to develop informed views and solve human problems? Or are they simply social activists, driven by ideology, which hold strong opinions without substantiating them? Women’s Studies scholars and teachers now need to decide whether or not they will repudiate their national organization.

So, like Zola:

I accuse members of NWSA and AAA, schooled anthropologists and women’s studies specialists, of ignoring human rights abuses perpetrated by Palestinian leaders on Palestinian people.

I accuse members of NWSA and AAA of being oblivious of the history of the Arab world, including the movements and motivations of key organizations such as Hamas, Palestinian Authority, and Islamic Jihad and their treatment of women, gays and lesbians and transgender persons.

I accuse NWSA and AAA of violating their own articles of incorporation and by-laws, and the guiding principles of their respective fields, rendering their academic disciplines a shambles.

I accuse NWSA and AAA of substituting ideology, based on unfounded ideas, in place of social scientific inquiry.

I accuse NWSA and AAA of corrupting the skill of critical thinking and teaching by embracing fallacies of argument.

I accuse NWSA and AAA of permitting a small, radical group to commandeer their professional societies.

I accuse the majority of NWSA and AAA members (who have not voted at all) of being silent accomplices, instead of speaking up when colleagues use anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and anti-Jewish language.

Finally, I accuse NWSA and AAA members who have served as BDS social activists on campuses of creating a hate-filled climate that endangers our students and teaches them shallow ways of thinking, learning, and working with other people.

I can only hope that the majority of NWSA and AAA members are men and women of good sense and character, people who know that dialogue, mutual effort, negotiation, and building trust – essential people skills for which anthropology and women’s studies used to stand – are the only real tools for building a livable peace between Palestinian Arabs and Israelis. In short, anthropologists and women’s studies faculty should study societies, not boycott them.

Samuel M. Edelman is an emeritus professor, currently teaching Israel Studies at the University of Miami and the executive director of the Academic Council for Israel.

About the Author
Dr. Samuel M. Edelman is the executive director of the Academic Council for Israel and an adjunct professor of Zionism and Israel Studies at the University of Miami. He has served as the executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is also a CSU Chico emeritus professor of Jewish, Israel and Holocaust Studies as well as Rhetoric and Communication Studies. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona and an MA and BA from Pennsylvania State University, University Park Campus.
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