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The silence of the boycotting anthropologists

A US academic association based its decision to censure Israel on lies and distortions

I have always been fascinated by the field of anthropology . Who wouldn’t be, given that the discipline is based on the “study of man” [used in its non sexist sense of “person” of course]. And the world loves the field too. Just look at all the movies, novels and journalistic articles which have accompanied anthropology over the last hundred years. In fact, I was so interested in this discipline that in the third year of medical residency (and I was certainly busy enough then) I actually took an undergraduate course in physical anthropology and boy did I ever enjoy that .

But sadly, for some inexplicable reason, the profession, or least a large group of the members of its American professional and academic organization, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) has gone badly astray. Oddly, given the number of rogue states and serial human rights abusers in the world it has suddenly turned its critical gaze on to the world’s very worst human rights miscreant, Israel. You would think that this benighted country’s behaviour was on a par with or even far worse that of China (see Tibet and Xianjiang), Russia (see the Ukraine and Chechnya), ISIS not to speak of the United Stated and Canada for their shameful racist treatment of people of colour and aboriginal predecessors.

For some reason the AAA has now “decided” to put a BDS motion against Israel to a vote. Although the association leadership has crowed this process as “open and democratic” and it has been carefully packaged as such, the procedure has clearly not been so kosher.

Space does not allow me to go into detail here about what is so wrong with their process, but suffice it to say that the “report” commissioned by the AAA is so full of distortions, half-truths and academic double talk that many outside observers (and even apparently quite a few within the organization I have heard) wonder what has taken hold of the AAA’s weltanschauung.

After reading this mendacious account, I (from Ben-Gurion University) and three other academic colleagues from the Hebrew University were so shocked that we wrote a closely argued critique and quickly sent it to the organization’s president Prof. Monica Heller who over the past year has so proudly presided over the “democratic process” of what can only be defined as a deliberate campaign of de-legitimization of Israel.

Our letter was only six pages but given the methodological problems of the report alone, not to mention its errors of fact — both omission and commission – it could have been a hundred pages longer. We await a stalwart band of fair minded anthropologists who will critique it page by page, paragraph by paragraph and line by line.

But no matter, it would have been enough (dayenu!) had the leadership responded in any meaningful way to our relatively short critique. But they chose not to, except to disingenuously claim that the report had only “recommended” a vote .
A short excerpt will clarify:

Bearing all this in mind, the Task Force sees the pros and cons of various possible courses of action as follows:

No Action: The gravity of the situation in Israel/Palestine and the widespread concern over this situation among AAA members is such that the Task Force recommends unanimously against inaction.

Censure:…The Task Force unanimously supports a statement of censure or concern but, in view of the gravity of the Palestinian situation and the level of concern felt by many within the Association, this would in our view be an insufficient course of action if it were the only action undertaken.

The report then considers other forms of action, including economic, academic and a targeted boycott of individual faculty and institutions. It only rejects the last of these on various formalistic grounds including lack of resources and incompatibility with AAUP principles,”

In the view of any fair-minded reader this hardly constitutes a neutral recommendation to just to hold a vote.”

With respect to facts a few examples will have to suffice; many of their fall into one of three categories:

1) Exaggerations: A comparison between “Palestinian space” and US policy towards Native Americans: anyone who has been to a native America reservation knows that these have been the settings of real genocide, subjugation and neglect, much more awful than even the worst conditions in the autonomous areas of the West Bank.

2) Distortions: “Israel blocks enough books from coming into Palestine that it has created a situation where books are falling out of Palestinian culture because they are not accessible” – a falsehood simply too astonishing even to attempt to counter

3) Outright fabrications: “The Task Force does want to take note of the fact that the Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews…within the army are more likely to be assigned the tasks of direct, sometimes violent policing of Palestinians, while the more prestigious and sanitized roles of gathering intelligence on Palestinians tend to be reserved to Ashkenazis”. Several Israeli Chiefs of Staff, many of its generals, and all positions in the army have been and are held by so-called “Mizrahim”.

Again all of these “facts” are designed to portray a uniform picture of uninterrupted and systematic oppression and denial of rights, delegitimizing the State of Israel itself, and justifying the resolution which the AAA eventually passed. The preamble of this resolution makes it crystal clear: the plight of the Palestinians is and always has been solely the result of their dispossession by the illegitimate Settler Colonial State.

Once more we were disappointed, perplexed and confused by Prof. Heller’s refusal to specifically address any of these points. Despite our year long correspondence with her, Madame President largely fell back on the lame excuse that her term was now over.

When in response to her helpful suggestion that we turn to her successor Prof. Alysse Waterson, we received an even more laconic response:

Dear Dr. Clarfield,
The AAA Executive Board will study the contents of your letter in its deliberations of the recommendations offered in the Task Force report.

Sincerely yours…

Clearly, despite their fine words, we found no real openness to a thoughtful dialogue with these academic anthropologists. In their world it appears, criticism seems to be a very well constructed and defended one way street.

And as a Jew, Israeli and amateur student of history I cannot end this sad tale without briefly looking back at the annals of anthropology over the last century. Sadly, in many domains it seems to be a wounded discipline both through its support for the racist tendencies of the Eugenics Movement and its early flirtation and then full fledged romance with Nazi “racial science”.

For my part, as a doctor, I have always been ashamed at how easily our noble profession was seduced during the Nazi years. Apparently more than 50 percent of German doctors joined the Party, although there was absolutely no evidence that anything negative happened to the other half that did not. But what I did not know until recently was that fully 80% of the anthropologists had signed up.

I am of course hardly equating the AAA nowadays with the Nazi regime of the 1930s and 40s, although there are clearly some anti-Semites within the organization today. And furthermore, speaking of anti-Semitism, I do not necessarily equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, although again it is clear that many (but not all) of the proponents of the former movement belong to the latter.

Finally, it goes without saying that I do not consider fair criticism of Israeli government policy as verboten in any way . In fact, to this end I and my three fellow letter writers could present a very long list ourselves.

That being said the AAA is shaming itself via shoddy thinking, politically correct posturing and a dangerous flirtation with anti-Semitism. If de-legitimization (as opposed to criticism) of the Jewish national homeland ain’t, I really don’t know what is.

Despite the doleful story so far, this tale does not have to end in tears. As the AAA leadership has taken pains to point out, so far their learned report is just that, a report , albeit to any fair minded person a highly flawed one. It is to be followed by electronic vote of the whole membership as to whether the association wants to boycott the likes of me. And if they do vote to shun Israeli academe, believe me I will have a very hard time explaining this development to my perplexed Israeli Arab students and patients.

Despite the overwhelming support for a boycott voted on at the latest AAA convention last month let us hope that the full AAA membership will actually confound its leaders and study the issue carefully and consider the implications of a BDS vote against Israeli academia. A vote to boycott will help neither Israeli Jews, nor Israeli Arabs nor the Palestinian cause. In the end it will only shame the members of this organization which one would have thought had better, more noble, and above all more critically academic aspirations.

We ended our missive with a heartfelt plea:

“We ask you in the American Anthropological Association to engage with us openly, on the issues themselves, on the manner in which your organization’s report was compiled, on its framing position, on its content. We ask that in a spirit of open dialogue and fairness to your process that you find a way to distribute our views to your membership so that before the final vote is tallied there can truly be both a proper ‘conversation’ and open ‘dialogue’ among academic colleagues.”

Four weeks later we are still awaiting a real response.

About the Author
Dr. A. Mark Clarfield is the Sidonie Hecht Professor of Geriatrics and Vice Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.