Israeli academics have savaged the American Anthropological Association’s task force report on engagement with Israel/Palestine for “flaws [which] should have been obvious to any trained anthropologist”.
The report, dated 1 October 2015, was produced in response to a petition from more than 600 AAA members asking the association to engage with the issues surrounding the conflict in Israel and Palestine. It considered a range of possible actions, including academic boycotts of all or selected Israeli universities. On 23 November, over 1,400 members attending the AAA’s annual meeting in Denver voted overwhelmingly to put a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions on the organization’s spring ballot in April.
Mark Clarfield, director of the Medical School for International Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and three colleagues from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have written to Alisse Waterston, AAA president, and Monica Heller, the former president. They argue that the association had sought “background information…[solely from] websites and documents supporting BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement] and boycotts of Israel” and point to what they see as “exaggerations, distortions and outright fabrications”.
They also suggest that the AAA report has adopted “an astonishingly condescending stance”, in that “nowhere are Palestinians credited with the agency they actually have and the way in which they exercise it: the choice of many to perform or approve of violence against civilians as a tactic of conflict”.
Professor Clarfield and his colleagues have personally, they go on, “always believed it our duty to advance peace between us and our Arab neighbours and fellow citizens. We have never denied Palestinian suffering, nor our moral obligation to do what is in our power to alleviate it. We, and many others like us, have always campaigned to end the occupation of the territories we seized in 1967 within the framework of a peace settlement.” The institutions the AAA was now voting on whether to boycott were “in the forefront of creating and preserving Israel’s moral conscience…It is because of the inherent freedom and political and social criticism arising from these institutions that many of the real blemishes on Israel’s human rights record are known.”
“Anthropology is threatened by its roots in colonialism,” the letter points out. In calling for an academic boycott of Israel, AAA members were performing what anthropologists could recognise as “a collective symbolic action, a ritual designed…to cleanse the community of the pollution by which it is perpetually threatened”. Yet, in “weakening us, and Israeli academia, the bastion of debate and free thought in Israel, [the] association has helped perpetuate the very evils you claim you wish to fight”. What was needed instead, before the final vote for the boycott takes place in April, is “a proper conversation and open dialogue among academic colleagues”.
The only reaction to the letter was a brief response from Professor Waterston saying that “The AAA executive board will study the contents of your letter in its deliberations of the recommendations offered in the task force report.”