American Anthropological Association boycott of Israel will be to its detriment - opinion

by Asaf Romirowsky
July 30, 2023
Read the original post in The Jerusalem Post.

In a widely predicted move, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) has now joined the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in adopting a boycott of Israeli universities. It represents a turning point in the discipline of anthropology and a milestone in the fall of American academia as a whole.

The resolution, which was adopted by a large margin of its members, prohibits Israeli universities from advertising in AAA journals and participating in other organizational activities. It does not, however,  prevent Israeli anthropologists from presenting at AAA meetings or publishing papers in AAA journals. 

But despite disclaimers, the resolution will certainly act as a blacklist and litmus test for Israeli and Jewish anthropologists in the context of university departments, and in classrooms, where anti-Israeli animus has already reached high levels.

That is the resolution’s unstated rationale: the creation of a false consensus that will isolate Israel, vilify its supporters, and thereby contribute to the cause of peace in the Middle East. 

But the resolution itself makes it clear what kind of peace anthropologists have in mind. It states that “The Israeli state operates an apartheid regime from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, including the internationally recognized state of Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank,” and that “Israeli academic institutions are complicit in the Israeli state’s regime of oppression against Palestinians… including by providing research and development of military and surveillance technologies used against Palestinians.” 

From this perspective, the only logical outcome is either a “one-state solution,” where Israel as a sovereign state is dissolved and somehow melded with the Palestinians, an outcome desired by no one except foreign academics; or where Israel is actually destroyed and replaced entirely by “Palestine.” 

Anthropology was once a discipline which tried to understand culture, both local manifestations with individual characteristics and as a broader concept of beliefs and practices. In recent decades, however, it has deliberately transformed itself into a discipline that purports to study power, in the process arrogating to itself the final word regarding forms of “justice” (environmental, social, restorative, historical, and more). Studying the panoply of the human experience is passé if not retrograde. 

So, too, with academic Middle East studies, which has too often put “Israel/Palestine” at its center of concerns, frequently as the paramount political, if not moral, issue in the world.

Unconsciously, a wide swathe of Middle East studies, represented by MESA, has a worldview where Israel is the little satan to America’s great satan, reshaping history into a simplistic post-colonial morality play, where imperialism was invented by Britain and taken over by the US.

This is victimography, a narrative that has been deliberately and dramatically discarded by almost all the societies in the Middle East, with the notable exception of the Palestinians. 

The consequences of these approaches have been tendentious pedagogy in college classrooms and K-12 (from kindergarten to 12th grade) classrooms, which use resources created by academic Middle East studies specialists:

Zionism is cast as a bizarre and evil movement, rather than another national liberation movement; Israel is an imposition and aberration, rather than the national realization of an indigenous population; and the Palestinians are hapless victims, whose frequent resort to violence is either elided or cheered. 

At one level, the AAA and MESA resolutions represent the politicization of academia, where professors demand that their institutions adopt their politics in place of the often contradictory and always messy politics of the region. Professors know better; a passive-aggressive attitude that has alienated Americans on a wide swathe of issues. 

But on another level, the AAA and MESA resolutions, for all their self-proclaimed morality, are the death cries of disciplines devoted to self-destruction. One result of MESA’s Israel boycott resolution was the abandonment of the organization by institutional members who could not countenance paying for discrimination on the basis of national, religious, and ethnic origins, or the attendant bad publicity. Individuals have also voted with their feet, with some reports suggesting a significant drop in membership. 

The AAA will experience the same results that MESA has

AAA should expect the same results. Not surprisingly, the number of Middle East studies and Anthropology degrees awarded in American universities continues to decline. Those who choose to remain in the professions are either true believers or experts at keeping their mouths shut. The reputational harm to the humanities and social sciences will worsen and intellectual diversity, already vanishing on campuses, will suffer another grievous blow.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Organizations such as ours, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) takes pains to welcome all viewpoints, while refusing to vilify any state or society. Anthropologists need similar alternatives.

Until then, scholars and the public should look on with deep dismay at the AAA decision, and keep the organization and the profession as a whole under a microscope for the abuses that will result from this decision. 

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