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June 10 2016


AAA Boycott Vote Postmortem

By now you have probably heard that the boycott vote failed by an incredibly narrow margin:

In the end an astounding 51% of its 10,000 members participated. The resolution failed by exactly 39 votes: 2,423-2,384 (50.4%-49.6%)—a statistical dead heat.

David Palumbo-Liu, Steven Salaita, Charlotte Silver, and Elizabeth Redden have all written excellent postmortems about the vote. Having read all four, it strikes me that there are three important points to be made: The first is that the AAA is still moving ahead with a statement of censure of the Israeli government and other actions. The second is the role played by outside groups that sought to influence the vote. And the third is the status of the BDS movement after the vote. Read on for my take on each of these three points…

AAA statement of censure and other actions

An email sent out by the AAA after the votes were tallied states that:

AAA members are generally in agreement that serious threats to academic freedom and human rights have been noted in Israel-Palestine as a result of Israeli government policies and practices, and that AAA should respond to these threats.

Elizabeth Redden’s adds more from AAA President Alisse Waterston:

she noted that each of the two formal resolutions put forward at the November business meeting — the one in favor of boycott that proceeded to the full membership vote and one against boycott that was voted down by business meeting attendees — both express concerns about Israeli government policies and practices, including Israel’s occupation of territories captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

“There is disagreement around the academic boycott, but there is a general consensus on the rest,” Waterston said.

I think this is incredibly important. The AAA largely disagreed about the the use of an academic boycott as a tactic but still expressed broad agreement over the injustice of the occupation.

The actions being taken are listed in full on a the AAA website. In addition to the statement of censure of the Israeli government they also include “a letter to relevant authorities in the US government identifying the ways in which US resources and policies contribute to policies in Israel/Palestine that violate academic freedom and disenfranchise Palestinians” and “ways to provide active resource support for Palestinian and Israeli academics as well as visiting scholars in the region.”

Role Played by Outside Groups

One of the most contentious issues raised by these postmortems is the role played by outside groups. Charlotte Silver states that “Gilad Erdan, the Israeli minister of public security and strategic affairs, credited Israeli and US-based lobby groups with the defeat of the resolution.” David Palumbo-Liu elaborates:

And finally, it now seems that even the state of Israel took part in the campaign of this U.S. professional organization. Upon news of the defeat of the resolution, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan declared, “This is a dramatic shift stemming from the intensive publicity work and ground work with members of the association.”

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Steven Salaita’s summarizes:

The organizers of the resolution managed these feats despite a general opposition to boycotts of Israel that includes governors, financiers, university presidents, and heads of state.

I think the tremendous resources mobilized to oppose the boycott are a sign of the effectiveness of the boycott as a tactic (ironically, one of the things that opponents called into question). I also think that the organizers of the boycott deserve tremendous credit for how close the final vote was given such opposition.

Despite the evidence of outside influence, I personally suspect that their total effect upon the vote might not have been that great. While outside forces may have encouraged some people to vote who don’t normally vote, I also think this probably was true of the pro-boycott voters as well. I know it seems strange that the AAA passed the initial resolution by such a large margin (1,040 to 136) and the final vote was so close, but as someone pointed out on Facebook, the wider AAA membership is generally older and more conservative1 than those who attend the meetings.

Still, it would be nice if the AAA would release some more detailed numbers so that we could better understand whether outside groups had outsized influence. Was there an unusual jump in new AAA memberships compared to previous years? How many people joined (or re-joined) just to vote and what the breakdown was of these new (or renewed) voters? Releasing these numbers might assuage concerns about outside influence over the vote.

State of the BDS movement after the vote

It is important to understand that the AAA vote was part of a much wider battle. Elizabeth Redden lists other scholarly associations that have approved Israel boycott resolutions since 2013:

the African Literature Association, the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, the National Women’s Studies Association and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.

This, and other actions taken as part of the wider BDS movement have provoked a backlash. Steven Salaita summarizes some recent developments:

This month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered state agencies under his control to divest themselves of BDS-affiliated organizations and companies, a move that many legal scholars consider to be unconstitutional. Various colleges have sought to conceptualize criticism of Israel as a form of anti-Semitism and thus a type of hate speech. Those in support of BDS, in other words, are not merely in conflict with colleagues; they have run afoul of institutions capable of doing serious harm. Even those who oppose academic boycott should be mindful of the forces now using it as pretext to intervene on campus.

Charlotte Silver adds evidence of some of the intimidation tactics being used against BDS supporters:

The ultranationalist group Im Tirtzu purportedly outed the 22 Israeli academics, though their allegations were based on flimsy evidence.

Im Tirtzu has also called on Israeli universities to fire employees who support the boycott or demonstrate any criticism of Israel.

These are worrying developments and belie the idea that opponents are genuinely interested in “dialog.”


I think the fact that the final vote was so close shows that the AAA was not ready for a full fledged boycott. Nonetheless, the numerous discussions occasioned during the run-up to the vote certainly educated a lot of people about the state of academic freedom in the Middle-East. I know I personally have had some very productive private conversations over this topic. A few years ago it was much harder to have a civil debate about Zionism. In an important sense then, the call for a boycott was itself an important force in fostering dialog. As I sated above, the debate within the AAA was largely over the choice of tactics. Increasingly, everyone agrees that the status-quo is unacceptable.

For those who missed it, earlier I wrote three posts laying out my argument in support of the boycott: here, here, and here.

UPDATE: On June 24, 2016 AAA President Alisse Waterston released a statement stating, in part, that:

AAA has closely monitored membership patterns to assess irregularities, especially year-over-year changes from January 1 to June 1. There has been absolutely no evidence of a spike in either direction regarding membership. AAA has seen a slow but steady increase in membership since 2014 (Jan-June 2014, 1% increase; Jan-June 2015, 1% increase; Jan-June 2016, 1% increase). This consistency has remained.

  1. Almost immediately after posting this article I regretted phrasing things in this way. Many older anthropologists are amongst some of the most radical intellectuals I know. However, even though some leading senior anthropologists supported the boycott, there is a well documented generational shift in attitudes towards Zionism in America and I don’t think that Anthropology is an exception to this. 

May 31 2016


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.

April 29 2016


Why I’m Voting for the Boycott Part 3: It’s in the Resolution

This is the third post in a three-post series of personal reflections on the AAA boycott vote. The first post discussed my own childhood Zionist education, while the second post addressed the false claim that the boycott unfairly singles out Israel.

Last November anthropologists attending the AAA business meeting in Denver voted by an astounding 1040-136 to endorse the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, but this was just a resolution to put the boycott to a vote, not an actual endorsement of that boycott by the entire AAA membership. The actual voting is now taking place by electronic ballot. It started on April 15th and lasts until May 31. For this reason it is crucial that all AAA members, whether or not they support the boycott, vote to make their voices heard in this historic decision. Because each update to the AAA website seems to make it even more difficult to navigate, please read this useful guide on how to vote.

It’s in the Resolution

What do we mean by an academic boycott anyway?

What if I told you that the answer can be found in the the boycott resolution?

what if I told you? 

First and foremost, it can’t be emphasized enough that the boycott only applies to institutions, not to individuals.

Israeli scholars will still be welcome to participate in AAA meetings, use funds from their institutions to attend the meetings, publish in AAA journals, and take part in other AAA activities in their individual capacities. The boycott does not preclude communication and collaboration with individual Israeli scholars. Indeed, one of its goals is to encourage dialogue about human and academic rights in Israel/Palestine grounded in a set of shared principles of justice.

Secondly, AAA members will still be free to “make their own decisions about whether or not to support the boycott in their own professional practice, such as whether to accept Israeli grants, attend conferences in Israel, or publish in Israeli journals.” That’s right, even if the boycott is passed, AAA members are personally free to pretty much do whatever their conscience dictates.

The same isn’t true for the AAA itself, which will not be able to include Israeli institutions in programs such as AnthroGuide, the Departmental Services Program (DSP), the Career Center, and the Graduate School Fair. It also restricts the AAA from accepting advertising from, or selling Anthrosource access to Israeli institutions. Individual Israeli academics, however, would still be able to access Anthrosource by becoming AAA members.

Wait a minute. This sounds like rather weak tea. Why even bother? Is this just about making ourselves feel good without actually doing anything difficult?

Yes, it is largely symbolic, but you’d think that of all people anthropologists would understand the power and importance of symbolic action. Although the boycott is not itself an act of civil disobedience, the political logic that motivates the boycott is similar to other forms of nonviolent protest.

For one thing, while it it may be true that the boycott doesn’t ask much of most AAA members, speaking openly in defense of the BDS movement is certainly not without risk. A recent report documented how “the application of intimidation, spying, and surveillance on US campuses is increasing” in response to the boycott movement.

But more importantly, just as civil disobedience works by exposing the hypocrisy of unjust laws, the boycott challenges the principle of ‘academic freedom’ in order to highlight the gap between such a principle and the lived experience of Palestinian academics. As Palestinian anthropologist Dina Omar put it: “academic freedom is the ability to go to school without being shot.” Israel presents itself as a “shining city upon a hill“:1 open, democratic and free. The boycott, by challenging what it means to have academic freedom under occupation, seeks to expose the truth behind the shiny facade.

Here’s what the boycott resolution says about Palestinian “academic freedom”:

Whereas Israel has obstructed Palestinians’ right to education by destroying Palestinian universities and schools in military strikes; periodically raiding and forcing those institutions to close; preventing Palestinian anthropologists from freely studying their own society; preventing Palestinian archaeologists from accessing, studying, stewarding, or protecting their own cultural heritage; and restricting Palestinians’ movement which limits their ability to attend and work at universities, travel to conferences, and study abroad; and

Whereas the Israeli state and universities systematically deny Palestinian students in Israeli educational institutions rights and resources equal to their Jewish Israeli counterparts; and

Whereas Israeli scholars and students who criticize Israeli state policies and who support the academic boycott of Israeli institutions do so under threat of sanction; and

Whereas Israel routinely harasses and imposes severe restrictions on foreign academics seeking to attend conferences or conduct research in the occupied Palestinian territories, as well as on scholars of Palestinian origin who wish to travel to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories; and

Whereas Israeli academic institutions have been directly and indirectly complicit in the Israeli state’s systematic maintenance of the occupation and denial of basic rights to Palestinians, by providing planning, policy, and technological expertise for furthering Palestinian dispossession;

Read “Israeli Violations of Palestinian Academic Freedom & Access to Education,” or the final report of the AAA Task Force on AAA Engagement on Israel-Palestine (PDF) for more detailed documentation of these claims. (You can read my summary of the Task Force Report here). And, for those seeking a more ethnographic account which gets at the stories behind these depressing facts and figures, you should read anthropologist Kamala Visweswaran’s powerful piece about Palestinian Universities and Everyday Life under Occupation.

OK. OK. I’ve read the resolution, and all the supporting documentation. I get the logic, I really do. But what do you really hope to accomplish? I’m still not sure how this is supposed to change anything.

In the first post in this series I explained that “I supported the boycott resolution because I felt that it would open up a public space that would allow for questioning of . . . deeply ingrained assumptions.” By challenging the legitimacy of Israel’s image as a “shining city upon a hill” the boycott has already made a difference. As the pseudonymous ben Alek wrote on this blog:

Israeli sensitivity to this kind of international criticism is a result of a very long history . . . Israel’s colonial apparatus, both within and beyond the Green Line, depends on securing sufficient assent from world powers. From its inception, Israel has paid a great deal of attention to debates about its actions.

In his post ben Alek documents some of the reactions that the boycott movement has already provoked. For instance, a year ago, “Israeli President Reuven Rivlin held an ’emergency’ meeting… to discuss the academic boycott, which he described as a ‘strategic threat.’”

Ben Alek also makes a point that often gets ignored by those who question the utility of the boycott: our collective silence sends a signal of tacit approval since “The lack of international criticism is crucial also to explaining the settlements and continuing occupation . . . ”

While it is true that a boycott by the AAA on its own wouldn’t count for much, if approved the AAA boycott be part of a larger movement. We would be joining the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS), the American Studies Association (ASA), and a growing list of international institutions and individuals supporting the boycott.

Thus concludes my brief series of posts on why I voted for the boycott. I know that these arguments may not be enough to convince everyone, but my goal has only been to explain why I personally find them persuasive. I haven’t addressed many of the common objections to the boycott which, in my last post I called “squirrels.” I don’t, for instance, see any evidence in the boycott resolution that any of this is motivated by antisemitism. But if you are still on the fence you might want to read two articles that do take the time to patiently respond to such objections: Dialogue vs. BDS? Responding to arguments against an academic boycott of Israel, and Myths and Facts About the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions. If even these posts fail to move you, I hope that you will still take the time to make your voice heard by voting before the end of May.

  1. This isn’t meant to be a direct quote so much as a paradigmatic example of the kind of exceptionalism embodied in much Israeli discourse. It is also the logic underlying Israeli Pinkwashing

April 18 2016


Why I’m Voting for the Boycott Part 2: SQUIRREL!

*This is the second of a series of posts I am writing on the topic of the AAA boycott vote. You can read the previous post here. And now the third post is up as well.**

Last November anthropologists attending the AAA business meeting in Denver voted by an astounding 1040-136 to endorse the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, but this was just a resolution to put the boycott to a vote, not an actual endorsement of that boycott by the entire AAA membership. The actual voting is now taking place by electronic ballot. It started on April 15th and lasts until May 31. For this reason it is crucial that all AAA members, whether or not they support the boycott, vote to make their voices heard in this historic decision. Because each update to the AAA website seems to make it even more difficult to navigate, please read this useful guide on how to vote.


A running joke in the 2009 movie Up is that the otherwise intelligent talking dog gets distracted by squirrels, forgetting everything it was saying whenever it sees one.



Opponents of the AAA resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions attempt to similarly distract progressive academics by shouting “Tibet!” or “Saudi Arabia!” whenever the topic of Palestine comes up. Judging from the posts on my Facebook timeline, it seems that academics aren’t much better at ignoring these distractions than the squirrel loving dog in Up.

But is this even an argument? Just think for a moment about how this logic would work if applied to other topics: Why are you brushing your teeth when your feet are still dirty? Why are you reading that book on Russia when there are books on Nigeria to be read? Why are you fighting against the gender pay gap among white collar workers when there are women workers working for next to nothing in Bangladesh? Why are you fighting for indigenous people’s rights in Canada when there are children dying of malnutrition in Haiti? While it is somewhat true that we necessarily prioritize our actions, we are not limited to taking one and only one form of political action at a time. Nor do we prioritize which action to take by weighing up all the various causes in the world and ranking them from least to worse. Progressive academics are often engaged in multiple struggles simultaneously (regular readers of this blog know about my concern with India’s DNTs and indigenous rights in Taiwan) and often engage in those struggles for a wide variety of reasons other than the gravity of the wrongs being committed.

But what really galls me about this line of reasoning is how selectively it is applied. It is only applied as an argument against challenges to the occupation, never as a reason for challenging those policies that help maintain the occupation. Where are these objections when reading headlines about how “Israel Receives More Than Half of US Global Military Aid“? (Which amounts to “American taxpayers giving Israel $10.2 million per day.) If peace in the Middle East is really such a low level problem, why are we giving them such outsized military support? Shouldn’t anyone genuinely committed to a world view in which political action ought to be allocated according to a ranked list of global issues be thus motivated to protest these extraordinary expenditures? Except they are not motivated by any such a belief system. It is just a diversion tactic. As the Middle East Monitor put it:

in reality, Israel is ‘singled out’, but for diplomatic protection and impunity, military partnerships and aid, preferential trade deals, and institutional and governmental cooperation.

Lost in all of this (deliberately so) is the fact that there is actually a very good argument to be made for boycotting Israel as opposed to every single other country whose policies we find objectionable: Palestinian peace activists have called for a boycott. That’s right, the BDS movement was called for by “a clear majority of Palestinian civil society“:

The BDS call was endorsed by over 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions and movements. The signatories represent the refugees, Palestinians in the OPT, and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

This is enormously important to me for two reasons. For one thing, I don’t think boycotts can be effective if they are imposed top-down by outside groups. Boycotts are most effective when they work in support of, and in coordination with, grassroots movements, as was the case with the South Africa boycott which was called for by the African National Congress. Oh, and speaking of South Africa, does this sound familiar?

Why is South Africa so harshly condemned while completely different standards apply to black Africa? Despite human rights violations in Zaire, President Bush applauds Mr. Muboto for his contribution in the Angola talks, while mentioning the atrocities in South Africa.

The second reason why I believe the involvement of Palestinian civil society organizations is crucially important is in response to those who claim it is just a “feel-good” gesture that serves no purpose other than to sooth our own egos. But nothing could be further from the truth. Although it is impossible to tell what the long-term consequences will be (just as it is hard to tell how important the South African boycott was for the eventual overthrow of Apartheid), it is the tactic that was chosen by Palestinians and we are doing it to support them in their struggle.

This raises another important question, one that critics rarely bother to answer: what else could the Palestinians do? As Corey Robin put it:

The Palestinians have tried four decades of armed revolt, three decades of peace negotiations, two intifadas, and seven decades of waiting. They have taken up BDS as a non-violent tactic, precisely the sort of thing that liberal-minded critics have been calling upon them to do for years (where is the Palestinian Gandhi and all that). So now you say BDS is bad too. Fine. What would you have the Palestinians—and their international supporters—do instead?

In short, I believe that the boycott movement is one of the best tools available to Palestinians, and I believe the fact that they have called upon their allies to endorse this tactic is sufficient reason to do so. Assuming you support their cause, that is. Obviously not everyone does – but the concern-trolling criticisms addressed above are always made by people who claim to support Palestinians in their struggle.

In this post I have still not addressed one issue about the use of a boycott as a tactic which I think deserves serious discussion: the targeting of academic institutions by the boycott. While many of the most common objections to a specifically academic boycott have been covered in posts like Dialogue vs. BDS? Responding to arguments against an academic boycott of Israel and Myths and Facts About the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, I think more can be said on the topic, so that will be the focus of my next post.

April 15 2016


Why I’m Voting for the Boycott Part 1: David vs. Goliath

UPDATE: The second post in this series is now up. And now the third post as well.

Last November anthropologists attending the AAA business meeting in Denver voted by an astounding 1040-136 to endorse the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, but this was just a resolution to put the boycott to a vote, not an actual endorsement of that boycott by the entire AAA membership. The actual voting takes place by electronic ballot starting today, April 15th, and lasts until May 31. For this reason it is crucial that all AAA members, whether or not they support the boycott, vote to make their voices heard in this historic decision.

While we have been posting extensively about the boycott here on Savage Minds, so far none of the full-time contributors have expressed their personal opinions on the matter. Over the next few weeks I hope to do just that, starting with a post about my own experience growing up as a Reform Jew in New York City. I have at least two more posts planned as well, including one on boycotts as a political strategy and another in which I try to round-up and summarize some of the writing which I have found most persuasive on the topic.

What follows is a very personal statement and intentionally avoids most of the issues that have already been discussed elsewhere. For those wanting more information I recommend looking through our own archives on the subject, or exploring the blog maintained by Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, as well as the anti-boycott blog. But, above all, I recommend you read this post on “Myths and Facts About the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions,” Dialogue vs. BDS, and the Report on Israel/Palestine (PDF) prepared by the AAA task force.

David vs. Goliath

I was raised as a Reform Jew in New York City in the eighties and the Judaism we were taught at Hebrew School was little more than Zionist propaganda. As Lisa Goldman recently put it,

for Jewish-Americans, more so than ever for Jews in Israel, Zionism is a crucial element of their identity. The most important element is neither God nor religion but the Holocaust, with its heavy legacy of trans-generational trauma. The lesson of the genocide, many believe, is that Jews need a safe haven. A state of one’s own.

During my weekly Hebrew school classes, as well as related weekend activities and camps, we almost never discussed Jewish religion, ethics, or philosophy.1 Instead, we were taught to think of ourselves as victims of historical persecution stretching back to the dawn of time. We were taught the importance of maintaining our ethnic identity in the face of this persecution.

David and Goliath “David and Goliath” by Erik Bragalyan

Even as young children, we were encouraged to think of ourselves as little David’s standing up to Goliath. The holidays we celebrated were similarly built around such David and Goliath narratives: Purim celebrates the story of Esther who triumphed over the evil Mordecai Haman,2 and Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of the Maccabees over the forces of Antiochus.

Only as we got older did we learn of stories in which the Jews failed to triumph against overwhelming odds: the Spanish Inquisition, Eastern European pogroms, and, of course, the Holocaust. Yet even when learning about war and genocide, there was always the promise of a new David emerging that might once and for all put an end to such historical defeats: muscular Jewish nationalism. The Warsaw Uprising may not have succeeded, but the Six Day War and the raid on Entebbe were another story. Israel’s success meant that Jewish children could sleep peacefully at night. It also meant that Isreal was all that was standing between us and the abyss.

I never went on any of the trips to Israel organized by the school, but we watched films about the wonders of life on the kibbutz. (We were, of course, carefully warned away from socialism with stories about the horrors of collective family life.) I also helped raise money to plant trees in Israel. We were told that the Arabs had not cared for the land properly, turning it into a desert; the implication being that they did not deserve the land because they had been poor caretakers. Such stories of neglect by indigenous inhabitants will be familiar to scholars of all forms of settler colonialism. (I have since heard ethnic Chinese say much the same thing about indigenous Taiwanese.) At the time, however, it evoked a powerful image of Palestine as a desert which was only able to bloom once the rightful owners had returned.

When I was twelve they took us on a weekend retreat where we watched the movie Ticket to Heaven about a man who gets “brainwashed” by a cult and has to be “deprogrammed” by his parents. But unlike that film, unlearning Zionism was not a simple process involving being locked in a room with a professional “deprogrammer.” It took years of reading, questioning, and talking to people who actually knew something about life under the occupation. Thanks to patient friends in college and graduate school, I began to question the simple narrative by which the Holocaust served to legitimize colonialism. I learned about the Nakba by which “led to the expulsion and displacement of the Palestinian Arab population.” I learned how life in Gaza was like living in a giant prison. I began to question the logic of the two state solution. I learned about the rise of right wing extremism in Israeli politics. And slowly, bit by bit, the stories I had learned as a child began to unravel a the seams, creating space for a much more complex story to take its place.

Even as I began to question my Zionism, however, certain habits and reflexes of thought still remained. I would find myself instinctively grasping at straws to support claims I had already come to realize were unsupportable. Recently I encountered similar reflexes while teaching here in Taiwan. We are starting to get exchange students from China and during one lecture, after I said something mildly critical of China, one of these students spoke up to challenge what I said. I was actually quite happy about this because Taiwanese students are usually so passive in class that actually getting challenged by a student felt refreshing. But after the lecture the student came up to me and introduced herself. She said that she actually agrees with what I had said about China and that she’d come to Taiwan precisely to get exposed to more critical views, but that defending China’s honor had become a reflex for her so she’d spoken up without thinking. Nationalism works upon is in very deep ways which talk of “imagined communities” often fails to grasp.

Zionist reflexes are not unique to Jewish kids from NY. They seem to exist at a more general level in European and American public discourse as well. I see non-Jewish politicians, media personalities, and even academics reflexively defending Israel, portraying anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism, unquestioningly accepting the necessity of a two-state solution, and refusing to engage in any way with Palestinian political aspirations. It is as if the slightest break in our collective resolve would open the door to the ultimate evil. “Never again” means you are either “with us or against us” and the failure to be “with us” is too horrible to contemplate.

At a very basic level I supported the boycott resolution because I felt that it would open up a public space that would allow for questioning of these deeply ingrained assumptions. I don’t expect those people on Facebook who write “Disgusting” every time I post about the boycott to change their minds, but my public support of the boycott, and of the BDS movement more generally, has already sparked dozens of conversations with people who are genuinely curious and open-minded. In this sense the boycott resolution and the resulting discussion have already done a lot of the work I hoped they would, but I still think AAA members should vote for the boycott. In my next post I will try to explain one reason why I think an actual boycott, and not just this discussion about the boycott resolution, is still important.

  1. My brother went to a different Reform Hebrew school and had a very different experience, one that did indeed involve interesting discussions of ethics and philosophy. 
  2. Thanks to reader “yogi” for the correction. I obviously wasn’t paying enough attention in Hebrew school! (Or just have a lousy memory…) 

March 14 2016


Filming Empathy – Part 1

In their essay “Whatever Happened to Empathy?” Hollan and Throop1 cite the ambivalence that Franz Boas felt about the usefulness of the concept for ethnography:

On the one hand, Boas seemed to champion empathy when acknowledging that the ‘‘needs of anthropological research have led many investigators to adapt themselves as thoroughly as may be to the ways of thinking of foreign tribes and peoples . . .” And yet, on the other hand, Boas remained decidedly suspicious of such empathetically based approximations of other lifeworlds, given his views on . . . the problems inherent in inferring similarities based on observed likenesses in outwardly perceptible behaviors and effects.

Another way of putting this might be to say that a little empathy aids in interpretive understanding, but too much empathy gets in the way of rational explanation. Maybe this is the case. I certainly think that studies of nonhuman animals tend to suffer from either a total lack of empathy or a surfeit of anthropologizing that refuses to recognize difference. I’m less certain how important it is to insist on recognizing difference when dealing with other humans. Talal Asad famously criticized Ernest Gellner for his insistence on difference in his article on “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology” in the book Writing Culture. In that essay Asad points out that the refusal of empathy insisted upon by Gellner takes place in the context of a history of unequal power relationships between the two sides. But to the extent that we take “the culture concept” seriously, surely we must be wary of the potential of empathy to erase the differences we wish to explain?

Maybe not. At least, not in situations where the lack of empathy has precluded the possibility of explanation in the first place. I think that, even among anthropologists, there are groups of people or certain behaviors that many of us unthinkingly write off as irrational. In such cases empathy is a vital first step towards explanation because without it we would not even consider the group or behavior in question capable of explanation. Empathy breaks down the barrier that makes anthropology otherwise impossible. In such cases I think the fears that empathy might preclude explanation are unfounded.

In his book Transcultural Cinema, David MacDougall argues that film is uniquely suited to developing an empathetic bond. This happens, says MacDougall, because of the ways in which “my body which perceives the body of another person, and discovers in that other body a miraculous prolongation of my own intentions, a familiar way of dealing with the world.” Thus, “filming others celebrates the common experience of consciousness, including the very differences between us.” To be honest, I am skeptical that film is somehow uniquely posed to do this, after all there is some evidence that reading fiction can make you more empathetic. Nonetheless, I think it is true that some films do this very well, and perhaps do it in a way that is different from how written texts might accomplish the same goal. Following MacDougall we might say that novels achieve this feat by giving us a view of the subjects interiority, while film does so by exploring their physicality.

Regardless of whether such an argument holds water, I will take up this discussion in a future posts (or possibly multiple posts depending on how much I end up having to say on the topic) that will look at specific films and how they deal with empathy. In doing so I will not necessarily deal with “ethnographic film” or even limit myself to “documentary film” but will instead look at films that deal with empathy in particularly interesting ways. I want to focus on films that seek to provoke empathy for subjects which most viewers have no interest in empathizing with. I think that such films should be of interest to anthropologists precisely because our work often seeks to cut against the grain in this fashion and we can perhaps learn something about the methods and limits of building empathy from such films.

  1. I’d like to thank Jason Throop for having left this helpful comment on a blog post by guest blogger Lindsay Bell. 

January 29 2016


Freddy’s Hair

Freddy Lim with Long Hair Freddy Lim Campaign Photo

A week before historic elections which swept Taiwan’s ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) out of power, KMT candidate Lin Yu-fang (林郁方) asked voters not vote for Freddy Lim (林昶佐, pictured above), asserting that he has “hair that is longer than a woman’s and is mentally abnormal.”1

Short hair for men in Taiwan was heavily regulated during the Martial Law era which ran from shortly after the KMT took over Taiwan after World War II until 1987.

During the martial law period in Taiwan, hair length for males was controlled and long hair could get you in trouble if you walked down the street sporting it. Naturally, control of hair length in the schools was an important component of shaping the students, and disciplining them to accept authoritarian control.

It was only in 2005 that schools finally eased restrictions on hair length for boys.

Cop with Long Hair Former police officer Yeh Chi-yuan, second from right, at a press conference. Photo: Yao Yueh-hung, Taipei Times

Barely a month before the Election the Taiwan Police Union had issued a statement in support of a police officer who was fired for having long hair. The union supported the officer’s claim that their firing violated the Gender Equality in Employment Act. The officer said that “although he is biologically male, he does not identify with either gender and firing him for not meeting the male-specific grooming standard is discriminatory.”

Of course, such battles over long hair for men are not unique to Taiwan. When he was 17 David Bowie was interviewed for the BBC about the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men:

Its possible that the whole thing was a publicity stunt for a young singer, but the musical Hair came out a few years later, reflecting the strong association of long hair with counterculture. Despite some surface similarities, however, the symbolism of long hair on men in Taiwan has to be understood in light of Taiwan’s unique post-war history. (One could perhaps look back even further – to the queue worn by men during the Qing dynasty – but I’m not sure how relevant that is for understanding the present situation.)

During the Martial Law era, the KMT (whose leadership was made up of recent migrants who had arrived in Taiwan from China after the end of the Civil War) sought to legitimate their rule over Taiwan by promoting Chinese nationalism, claiming that the government in Taipei was the true government of all of China. In promoting this nationalist vision the KMT kept Taiwan on war footing, with military advisors in the schools and mandatory military training for male students. As such, military style haircuts were part of maintaining strict military discipline.

We can perhaps also find the importance of maintaining short hair in Confucianism which was promoted by the government as a kind of state religion. The birthday of Confucius is still an important state holiday (also known as Teacher’s Day), during which the president attends ceremonies at the Confucius temple in Taipei. Confucian patriarchy served the KMT by treating the nation as a family unit and each institution within the nation as a synecdoche of the national family. This can still be seen in Taiwanese schools where students refer to classmates as younger or elder brothers and sisters. The state had a vested interest in preserving the national patriarchal family structure and thus sees gender-bending long hair as a threat.

After the lifting of Martial Law in 1987 much of this changed. The state shifted strategy, and many of these practices were no longer essential to the maintenance of legitimacy, which became grounded more in Taiwan’s vision of itself as a multicultural and tolerant democracy. At the same time, as a result of stagnant wages and a increased sense of precarity among Taiwan’s middle classes, there is still a faction of Taiwanese society nostalgic for the law and order of the Martial Law era. These generational differences came to a head in the Sunflower Student Movement two years ago, and Taiwanese campaign ads played up these differences in the run-up to the elections.2

The first, by the KMT, captures the sentiments of those who long for the rapid economic growth and strong Confucian values of the 1960s [Note: turn on CC for English subtitles]:

The second, by the Democratic Progressive Party (民主進步黨 DPP), tries to capture the spirit of the Sunflower Movement.

As the lead singer of Chthonic, “arguably the biggest death metal band in Asia,”3 Freddy embodied many of the generational tensions represented by these videos. Here he is with his stage makeup:

Chthonic live, 27.11.2013, Hamburg Chthonic live, 27.11.2013, Hamburg, by Ben Foitzik, benrocks.de

Importantly, Freddy did not run as a DPP candidate. Instead, he helped create the New Power Party (時代力量 NPP). The NPP calls itself a “third force” and aims to attract new political voices, such as those mobilized during the Sunflower Student movement, many of which have felt alienated from traditional party politics.

Because Freddy ran in the Taipei district where I live the following anti-Freddy flier was placed in my mailbox the week before the election:

Anti-Freddy Poster Anti-Freddy Poster. Photo by Kerim Friedman

It attempts to link Freddy to ending the death penalty and legalized drugs and prostitution. The evidence for Freddy’s support of these policies presented in the flier is rather tenuous, largely relying on statements from friends and known associates. Nonetheless, the moral panic associated with a long haired rock musician is risible, especially when compared with emerging norms in Northern Europe and parts of North America. But Freddy’s alt-culture identity was a central part of his appeal to younger voters and so it will be interesting to see how the NPP is able to hold on to its renegade status as it assumes its new role as junior member in Taiwan’s new ruling coalition.

  1. Although he later clarified that Lim’s long hair was not the reason he called him abnormal. 
  2. Thanks to Ben Goren for bringing these two videos to my attention. 
  3. It seems the proper term for this style of music is “black metal” not “death metal.” If you read French, you might want to look at this article about the black metal scene in Taiwan

December 14 2015


Hunting as an Indigenous Right on Taiwan: A Call to Action

[The following is an invited post by Scott Simon. Scott is Professor in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada. Having conducted research in Taiwan for nearly two decades, he specializes in indigenous rights, hunting life-ways, and human-animal relations. His most recent book is Sadyaq Balae! L’autochtonie formosane dans tous ses états.]

Photo by 林秀玉 (Loking) 2015 Photo by 林秀玉 (Loking) 2015

In mid-December 2015, indigenous social activists protested across Taiwan with urban demonstrations and lighting of solidarity bonfires in rural communities. They were angry about the case of Tama Talum (Wang Guang-lu), a 56-year-old Bunun man slated to begin a 3.5 year prison sentence on December 15. In July 2013, at the request of his 92-year-old mother who wanted to eat traditional country food, he had hunted one Reeve’s muntjac (a small deer) and Formosan serow (a mountain goat).1 He was arrested and convicted in a Taitung court for illegal weapons possession and poaching. On October 29, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled against his appeal. Tama Talum’s case merits international attention for humanitarian reasons, but also because it reveals deeper human rights issues.

Taiwan’s indigenous peoples (known as Austronesians to anthropologists) have traditionally lived from horticulture and hunting. There are now 546,218 indigenous people in 16 officially recognized tribes. They have an active social movement, a quota of 6 indigenous legislators, a cabinet-level Council of Indigenous Peoples, and their collective rights are enshrined in the Constitution. Systematic violation of their right to hunt, however, remains a concern.

Indigenous Hunting as a Human Right

Indigenous hunting rights are recognized in international customary law, including International Labour Organization Convention 169, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Convention on Biological Diversity, Article 8j of which recognizes the value of indigenous practices and knowledge to wildlife conservation.

Taiwan’s 2005 Basic Law on Indigenous Peoples states clearly in Article 19 that:

Indigenous persons may undertake the following non-profit seeking activities in indigenous peoples’ regions: 1) Hunting wild animals; 2) Collecting wild plants and fungus; 3) Collecting minerals, rocks and soils; 4) Utilizing water resources. The above activities can only be conducted for traditional culture, ritual or self-consumption.

The sticking point is that this law is a Basic Law. In order to be implemented, all relevant laws must be revised. Currently, all hunting in National Parks (nearly 9% of Taiwan) remains illegal. The 1989 Wildlife Conservation Act bans trapping (the most common practice) entirely. Revisions permit hunting only for collective ceremonies upon application of a permit. The Statute for Controlling Firearms, Ammunition and Weapons has been revised to permit indigenous people to possess home-made rifles. Tama Talum was convicted because he did not use a “handmade” rifle and his hunt was not part of collective ritual. This ignores the provision for self-consumption in the Basic Law.

Indigenous Hunting as Life Practice

For indigenous people, hunting is not about killing animals, but rather about sociality and identity. For many young men, hunting is an important coming-of-age ritual and an opportunity for intergenerational transmission of knowledge. Hunting involves dangerous ordeals in ancestral forests, as well as sharing of meat with family and friends. It is spiritual form of communication with ancestors and mountain spirits. Some parents expect prospective sons-in-law to demonstrate their abilities by providing game. Each tribe in Taiwan has traditional legal institutions to regulate hunting. Hunters claim that their institutions successfully conserve wildlife, pointing to the continuing existence of animals as living evidence. Hunting and trapping are part of a larger embodied knowledge of forest animals and plants that would be lost forever if these practices ceased. The forests do not exist outside of human activity. They have been shaped by generations of hunters in ways conducive to animal well-being.

Taiwan’s current legal framework does not take indigenous hunting rights seriously. It condemns indigenous hunters to use “homemade” rifles that can be dangerous to the hunters and their companions. It forbids trapping entirely, even though this is the most common hunting practice. Current definitions of “culture” include only public rituals and ceremonies approved by local governments, without consideration of daily culture or subsistence needs. It does not provide provisions for the implementation and enforcement of indigenous-led hunting management.

This legal framework is also insufficient for conservation. Because indigenous people must hunt clandestinely, it is impossible for them to create effective management regimes. There are few incentives to evict other intruders (including non-indigenous poachers) from traditional territories now under exclusive state jurisdiction. Without sustainable hunting, knowledge and practices important to conservation will be lost; and fewer people will maintain a vested interest in nurturing wildlife habitat. This is a lose-lose situation for hunters and animals alike.

For now, Tama Talum’s sentence should be suspended or pardoned. Taiwan must immediately revise all relevant laws in accordance with the Basic Law. Only then can hunters reaffirm their role as stewards of the forests and establish institutions for effective management of hunting. These are important steps in indigenous rights. Since biodiversity loss is a worldwide crisis, this would also be a gift to the entire planet.

Take Action

Please help us show international support for Talum’s case by signing this petition.

Thank you!

For more information, see:

  1. Both species are classified as of “least concern” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. 

November 07 2015


Jennifer Jackson’s Wonderful Description of Linguistic Anthropology

Jennifer Jackson passed away in May of this year at the young age of 39. Here is an excerpt from the obituary that ran on Anthropology News:

We mourn the loss of her brilliant mind, quick smile and mischievous humor. She was known for incisive scholarship on politics and social justice. She wove a keen artistic sense for poetics into her ethnographic observations, as evident in her 2013 book Political Oratory and Cartooning: An Ethnography of Democratic Processes in Madagascar. Her eye-opening insights into the language of American politics were featured in national media. Jennifer served the American Anthropological Association, first on the Executive Board’s student seat then the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s Executive Board.

There will be a memorial in her honor at the AAA in Denver. I didn’t know her personally, but here in Taiwan we are honoring her by reading her ethnography. It is a great book and well worth reading for many reasons, but I especially loved her description of the discipline of linguistic anthropology in the introduction (pp. xxiii-xxv). (It’s a long quote, but I couldn’t see anything in it that I would want to cut.)

what we do as linguistic anthropologists, in particular as ethnographers of speaking/communication/communicative interaction/ social interaction or all of its variants. We generally leave behind the classroom, the textbooks, the grande no-fat no-whip soy lattes, the complacent gaze at familiarity that comes from being completely “at home” in a place, and we head for places that look, feel, sound, smell different. Even if this is within our same home country, the subtle suddenly appears more obvious. We engage deeply and over a long period of time with people in their everyday lives in order to observe language in its context of action. We yearn to know how people use words, gestures, grunts, and even silence and to what effect; what they think and say about those acts and the people who do them; and how this all changes over time, space, or other context. These everyday micro-practices – little acts of talking, writing speeches, drawing cartoons, talking about doing these things, interacting with one another at the dinner table, buying rice at the marketplace – may appear as stand-alone practices by separate individuals; however, each of these tells us something about patterns of social life over time and across populations. The patterns are what is key. Each choice in word, tone, prosody, order, the way someone might recall or reenact a story, hearkens to those patterns. These are ways of doing things that are shared among communities of speakers, point to something beyond the speech act itself, and they generally sit just below the threshold of awareness. But they are there, very much there, and they “mean” something out there in the world they reflect and shape. In fact, this is generally where meaning in language is located, some-where other than the linguistic act itself. Syntax no longer means just word order in a sentence but an index of social discrimination. Phonemes are no longer minimal units of sound but sound patterns that point to a river or mountain that creates just enough physical distance between speakers to account for an accent or dialect difference. And out of this difference grows evaluations about who says what and how. Each of these individual moments in the everyday reflects these patterns while also tugging on them just a bit, sometimes a lot, to the extent that either they reinforce situations and the social roles in them, or they change. And we have to be there, long enough and with a steady handle on the social, historical, and political forces that prevail, to reckon with the ways in which these patterned micro-practices come together as shared, tacit understandings of ways of doing and being that combine to shape macro -orders, such as institutions, laws, belief systems, and language itself. It is a constant trip between the everyday and the over-the-long-term, from the individual speech to the institutionalization of, say, class hierarchies, the reproduction of some standard of speaking across multiple contexts over time – in other words what happens right here and now with some larger issue or institution out there we might otherwise think of as a black box, a “they,” the work of some invisible hand. We bring the practice of words into abstract social categories and constructs such as colonialism, gender, the state, and civil society, to activate them, unpack-ing and reframing them not as things but as existing insomuch as they manifest through practice. We make these connections between micro-practices and macro-institutional orders so that nothing gets away without an explanation of its creation, its shape, its reproduction, its growth, its death through social change. For all of these reasons linguistic anthropology, particularly through its ethnography, to my mind, is both methodologically and theoretically grounded to go after both realms of human activity – from chunks of the obvious to the grains of the subtle – and to show their connection and the ways in which they articulate with various social, cultural, and political dynamics. It heads straight for the voices of the everyday to see the ways in which their talk and talk about talk coalesce otherwise disparate signs to produce new signs that look like, point to, and symbolize grander, momentous frameworks for organizing experience. And we locate the character and movement of power embodied, the power to create, to constrain, to convince, to erase as predicated on this continual discursive production and reproduction of signs culminating in the semiosocial matrix in which we all live. In a sense, we show our readers how the rabbit got put in the hat in the first place, exposing the location of the seeming illusiveness of power as embedded in the semiotic practice of social actors. Doing things this way, that is, reading social phenomena as founded in practice and ideologies about those practices and the people who do them, allows us not only to describe what is going on across a broader scale of social life, but to show to what end and what is at stake that things are the way they are.

October 06 2015


Highlights from the AAA Israel-Palestine Task Force’s Final Report

The Task Force on AAA Engagement on Israel-Palestine issued its final report today. It is a long and thorough report, so I won’t attempt to summarize the whole thing. (There is already an “executive summary” in the report itself.) But as someone who has followed the issue for a long time, both through the extensive coverage here on Savage Minds as well as on the blog of the Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, and who is therefore suffering from “BDS fatigue” from the repetitive nature of some of the discussions, I still found much that was new and interesting in this report. Even with regard to topics that I am already somewhat familiar with, the report provides examples from the daily lives of academics working in the region which bring these issues to life. Accordingly, what I have assembled below is a rather idiosyncratic selection of highlights from the report, based on what jumped out at me and got my attention, along with some comments and reflections of my own. I hope it will encourage more people to read the full report.1

Our data are primarily obtained through extensive interviews and during a visit by a Task Force delegation to Israel and Palestine in early May 2015.

This report is a wonderful example of how anthropological methods can be applied to shape policy discussions.

the Israeli system of settler colonialism can be seen as a single unified system stretching from Tel Aviv to Gaza and Ramallah, with different modulations for different spaces and different Arab communities

This framework shapes the first part of the report, which provides an in-depth discussion of these different “modulations” in different regions, such as East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Framing the discussion this way shifts the focus from 1967 to 1948 and the Nakba.

The Task Force is in no position to adjudicate these historiographical debates, but we are concerned by the degree to which the Israeli State, a self-described democracy, suppresses public memory of and debate about Palestinians’ version of their own history, and seeks to curtail open academic debate of these issues. In our view, this is damaging to civil society and to academic freedom. Because Israeli history books give only the official Israeli version of the birth of Israel, many Israelis are unfamiliar with even the word “Nakba.” We were told by Israeli academics that history faculty who try to teach about the Nakba are harassed by students and by right wing groups such as IsraCampus and Israel Academia Monitor, which track faculty speech.

Even in discussing the intellectual framework for the report, the task force already runs up against limitations on freedom of speech in Israeli academic institutions!

In exercising control of Jerusalem, the Israeli state seeks to maintain a demographic “balance” that ensures a Jewish majority of over 70 percent, with the remainder made up of minorities, including Palestinians. The state is constantly changing the legal and geographic landscape to ensure the maintenance of this ratio in a policy the UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian territories has likened to “a form of ethnic cleansing.”

Some of the details about how control is exercised in East Jerusalem, such as the “blue ID” was new to me. The discussion about how these “blue ID” cards fragment Palestinian families was quite depressing. Similarly, the discussion of “micro-settlements” in which individual houses are occupied (as opposed to larger hill-top settlements around the city) is something that non-experts might not be familiar with. This section also covers issues of water, health, nutrition, and military deaths that have been well documented elsewhere.

Israeli Palestinians constitute roughly 20% of Israel’s population. Yet Israeli Palestinians attend university at much lower rates than Israeli Jews.

The inclusion of a linguistic anthropologist on the Task Force shows through in the discussion about how disadvantages facing Arabic speakers in the Israeli school system.

Just as Arabic is marginalized, Israeli military service is heavily privileged at Israel’s universities. As a delegation we visited Israeli university campuses and were struck by the number of students we saw who were Israeli soldiers, carrying their guns on campus. Palestinian students complain that they feel intimidated sitting near armed soldiers in class…

I can’t even imagine…

all students, including Palestinians, must wait until they are twenty-one before they can start a medical degree. This particularly penalizes Palestinian women who have a separate timetable, a marriage timetable, to contend with in the pursuit of their careers

One of the few gender-specific items in the report, but an important observation about how gender is experienced differently by different groups in Israel.

They also complained that Jewish students were often allowed to organize demonstrations without permission while Palestinian students had to get the permission of university authorities to stage any kind of demonstration or event.

Doesn’t surprise me at all, but it is important because academic freedom isn’t just about speech in the classroom.

The Ben Gurion University code of conduct now prohibits advocacy of a boycott of Israel, with dismissal as the penalty.

Those advocating BDS within the AAA would be dismissed from this university if they were faculty there!

The distinction American academics tend to make between issues of academic freedom and those of social justice was not as salient to the Palestinian academics we interviewed because they experience their difficulties as academics as a symptom of their social and political subordination as Palestinians. An example of this scenario was provided by Ala Aladh who cannot conduct fieldwork in Jerusalem because of checkpoints (he has a West Bank ID). He reported that he is not considered an academic; he is considered a Palestinian. What matters is not whether he is a highly trained scholar, but whether he is Palestinian. “We are not academics, we are Palestinians. We are discriminated against in total, not as academics.”

The section on academic freedom in the West Bank is one of the best parts of an all around excellent report.

A large number of Al-Quds University and Birzeit University students are or have been in prison. We were told that 45 Birzeit University students are currently in jail; three more were added in the month prior to our visit. The Israeli military is legally empowered to place Palestinians, including students, in “administrative detention,” a holdover from British colonial law, with no charge for a period of six months. Detention can then be renewed indefinitely in six-month increments. Prisoners have no right to visitations, no entitlement to due process, and no access to their families. One student said he had been told on the last day of his six-month detention that he was going to be released, only to have his sentence extended another six months on the following day. He was ultimately incarcerated for a total of two and a half years.

How can you talk about academic freedom when you don’t even have the right to due process?

Currently, diplomas from Al-Quds University are not recognized in Israel.

That is because they are trying to get them to abandoned its Jerusalem campuses.

The semester we visited Al-Quds University, it was enjoying a normal 16-week semester, although typically the semester lasts only 12 weeks due to student strikes and Israeli tear gassing.

They have charts for this! It is so predictable that they work it into their syllabi…

Palestinian archaeologists have great difficulty sending radiocarbon samples out of the West Bank due to the fact that all materials leaving the West Bank must go through Israel and Israeli customs. It is also difficult to get mail in and out of East Jerusalem. International collaborators do help get materials out of Palestine.

Another fascinating aspect of the report is the special emphasis given to archaeology: both Palestinian and Israeli. Of course, when you think about it, archaeology has a special role in the shaping of national discourses in Israel. (They point out that archaeology has been “used to justify the demolition of Palestinian houses and villages.”) Thus, while the report notes that “the Israeli Anthropology Association adopted a resolution condemning the Occupation” Archaeology is a separate organization in Israel.

the majority of Israeli work in the West Bank is unpublished. It resides in “gray literature” that is archived by the SOA and difficult to access. We find this lack of dissemination of information from numerous West Bank Israeli projects disturbing. Archaeological excavation is in a sense, the scientific, systematic destruction of the archaeological record. One cannot re-excavate an area that has been excavated before. Thus the results of archaeological research must be disseminated to the profession for that knowledge to be built upon.

The report does not conclude with a specific set of policy recommendations, it does list a number of “guiding principles” that should be used in thinking about any AAA action:

  • A commitment to human rights.
  • A commitment to advocate on behalf of minorities, disadvantaged groups, and indigenous groups.
  • A commitment to the peoples whom we study.
  • A critical awareness of American complicity.
  • A fiduciary obligation to the Association.

Given the data they present and the guidelines the propose, I think I am not amis in seeing the report as strongly implying that the AAA should endorse some form of BDS. I think most readers will come to the same conclusion. If you are still on the fence, I suggest you look both at the links listed at the top of this post and this FAQ on the academic boycott website.

  1. In quoting from the report I have removed citations to make it easier to read. Please see the original report for the citations and bibliography. Here is a direct link to the PDF of the final report. 

September 23 2015

Wawa No Cidal

September 16 2015


Jack Goody (1919-2015): an oral history

[The following is an invited post by Keith Hart, Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and International Director of the Human Economy Program in the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria.]

It impressed me that in one version of the [myth of the] Bagre God and the spirits had organized life. Another version was about how the water-spirits, the fairies had helped mankind to invent culture. And in a third version man himself had gone out and invented how to build a house and the rest. All these were within the same myth, theological and humanistic versions together. It gave me a different idea about human beings, that the LoDagaa were always thinking “Was it god or was it mankind that invented this?”

It was very important to me that some of my friends could become university lecturers, having been brought up in a small, oral village and now learn everything from books. Certainly they lost a lot on the way, they lost the Bagre because Goody’s written version was the real one, done with old men whom they hadn’t known. I had to explain to them that my version was chance, I could have written down a hundred other versions if I had the time, the money and the energy. The written version was only one of many (J. Goody 1972, The Myth of the Bagre, Cambridge).1

So what follows is mostly based on oral memory. I have published four essays on Jack Goody’s writings and this one is something else.2

Professor Sir John Rankine Goody, FBA (aka Jack) was born in July 1919. He died just before his 96th birthday. His grandmother was a Scottish lady from Aberdeen who married a Londoner; Jack’s middle name came from her. She and her son (Jack’s father, eventually a telephones engineer like mine) were deserted when her partner decamped and may or may not have spawned a family of gangsters in Fulham, one of whom masterminded a famous hi-jack, the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Jack went to St Alban’s School in the London suburbs. After school he read English at St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he came under the spell of Hugh Sykes Davies, a surrealist poet, novelist and communist. Everyone was a communist at Cambridge before the war and Jack was probably no exception. There is a carefree photo of him riding with friends in an open car on the Champs Elysées in 1939. He had not completed his degree when the war broke out.

Jack joined the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment (Sherwood Foresters, shades of Robin Hood, also miners, as he reminded us in his last book on metals) and was commissioned. He then embarked on an adventure that shaped the rest of his life. He was struck by the originality of North Africa’s Islamic civilization. He was captured, then locked up in prisoner-of-war camps from which he escaped several times, including some months on the run in Italy’s Abruzzo.

He returned to Cambridge in 1946 to complete his degree and then took a diploma in anthropology. He became an education officer in Leicestershire, married and had three children. He then took up anthropology at Oxford and completed a Cambridge PhD with Meyer Fortes in 1954 based on fieldwork in Northwest Ghana. Fortes subsequently hired him as an assistant lecturer. His marriage did not survive the prolonged absences. Jack spent much time teaching in the department and his college, but only received a fellowship at St. John’s in 1961, when Fortes put pressure on the colleges to appoint his lecturers — Jack, Edmund Leach and G.I. Jones. He married Esther Newcomb, his American doctoral student, in this period and they had two daughters. Jack and Esther Goody became a team in the following decades, frequently spending time in Ghana and publishing together and separately.

I recall vividly the primal scene when I joined Jack and Esther briefly at the beginning of my own doctoral fieldwork. I had travelled North overnight by bus from Accra. The driver had a girlfriend somewhere and we were all eaten alive by mosquitos until he chose to continue in the morning. I arrived in Bole at 2pm when it was really hot and eventually found the house where they were staying. Completely silent. I looked around and found them all – Jack, Esther and the two little girls – asleep naked in shallow water in the shower/bathroom.

Jack fully embraced the anti-colonial revolution after the war and the Gold Coast was its epicentre in Africa. He joined Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party during his first fieldwork. He soon saw that an independent West Africa would need histories of the precolonial past in order to chart a postcolonial future. He then switched his focus to the precolonial history of West African kingdoms. In the process he led the move from ethnography to history that marked African anthropology then and African Studies in general today.

This was also when he completed the book of his PhD thesis, Death, Property and the Ancestors (1962). Although Jack has published some forty books, the majority of them since his retirement three decades ago, I consider this one to be his masterpiece. The three words of his main title say it all. What does humanity care most about? Our mortality. What can we do to transcend our fate? We can try to live on through the real estate we bestow on our descendants or we can become an ancestor. Jack practised both assiduously. He managed to acquire a huge pile in a posh area of Cambridge from his college and did his best to ensure that all his children had a house. But his real money was on being an ancestor and how can an intellectual achieve immortality if not through writing books? I once asked him why he published so much and he replied, “Because I was behind (Leach) and had to catch up”.

This book is grounded in meticulous ethnography, but it is also a wide-ranging compendium of social theory, featuring the tradition of comparative jurisprudence on which social anthropology was founded (Maine, Maitland etc). In the 1960s Jack proposed, in popular magazines and the press, that his discipline should be renamed comparative sociology. He insisted that his graduate students should study modern social life in Africa: teachers, local government, migrant entrepreneurs. He envisaged a new synthesis of sociology, politics and anthropology, much to the dismay of Meyer Fortes who had built up Cambridge social anthropology as a world leader more or less from scratch. By now, however, a bruising dialogue between Fortes and Leach in the 1950s had given way to the more peaceful moiety system of Leach in King’s, Goody in St. Johns and their respective students.

Jack Goody duly succeeded Fortes as head of department in 1973. He did not try to merge social anthropology with sociology and politics. But soon after he launched his series of books on world history, at first contrasting Africa with Eurasia and later Europe with Asia. He also developed his interest in the significance of literacy in the 70s. His collaboration on literacy with the critic, historian and professor of English, Ian Watt, began in 1963. In Technology, Tradition and the State (1971), he confronted head on the reasons for the divergence of African states from Western feudalism. Now, with Production and Reproduction: A comparative study of the domestic domain (1976), he projected his comparisons onto the (old) world stage; and then he took on Lévi-Strauss in The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977).

Meyer Fortes had been something of a trade unionist manqué and a very good one (he also worked for MI6 during and after the war, honourably I would say). Jack was in many ways the opposite, bringing to his belated position of leadership the spirit of his own research and writing. He had no respect for disciplinary boundaries, telling us “You must find a question and follow it wherever it takes you”. As a result, Cambridge social anthropology when he was head became an assemblage of solipsists, where PhD students often pursued topics unknown to their supervisors. This was exciting and contrasted vividly with LSE, for example, where a sense of collective tradition was more onerous. The new Cambridge laissez faire model was open and dynamic, but fragmented and it didn’t do much for intellectual reproduction. Jack Goody himself never left behind a coherent school of followers.

Jack was, however, extremely gregarious and he entertained large crowds in his Cambridge home, treating them to cheap red wine and delicious pasta cooked by devoted clients, one of whom was Italian. At some stage his second marriage to Esther broke down; she has always been a stalwart supporter for me. He then married Juliet Mitchell, the eminent feminist psychoanalyst and writer, in 2000. Her devotion to him was remarkable. Near the end, Jack fell down at home and was admitted to a geriatric ward in Addenbrookes Hospital. Having to endure the night cries of demented old people and being treated like one of them was intolerable and he signed himself out. I asked him if he broke anything when he fell and he replied, “Only my spirit”.

‘Jack’ and its derivatives has the most separate meanings (seventeen at the last count) in English, a residue of the language’s pre-Indo-European phase: lift a car, hold up to steal, masturbate, increase, iris, flag, knave, a lad’s name, money, objects in a game and so on. The root meaning is erect penis.

  1. From a video interview with Sophie Chevalier and Grégoir Mayor in Cambridge, 2008 (transcribed into French). 
  2. Keith Hart 1985, The social anthropology of West Africa, Annual Review of Anthropology14: 243-273; 2006, Agrarian civilization and world society, in David Olson and Michael Cole (eds) Technology, Literacy and the Evolution of Society: Implications of the work of Jack Goody, Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah NJ, 29-48; 2012. Jack Goody’s Vision of World History and African Development Today. 2014. Jack Goody: The anthropology of unequal society. Reviews in Anthropology 43(3): 199-220. 

August 12 2015

Embassy to Rome

July 07 2015

Sooner or later you have to step out of the shade…

July 01 2015

Coin-op Throne

June 27 2015


Kennedy and the Triumph of the Social

While everyone should be celebrating the monumental decision of the Supreme Court to recognize same-sex marriages, there is also something in there that, along with this weeks’ ruling on the Fair Housing Act in Texas, should warm the hearts of social scientists in particular. Both of these decisions, in different ways, have advanced the view that our understanding of the real world matters for deciding legal principles. In Obergefell v. Hodges Kennedy argued that the proper interpretation of the constitution, of what it means to be “equal,” is subject to shifting societal norms:

“The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times,” he wrote on Friday. “The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.”

And in Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. Kennedy argued that it is not necessary to establish a discriminatory intent in order to sue under the Fair Housing Act. Rather, it is enough to show that “an identified business practice has a disproportionate effect on certain groups of individuals.”

This move towards looking at real world context (Obergefell) and consequences (Texas) in deciding the law just makes sense to us as anthropologists. But while we should welcome the way that these rulings increase the sway of the social sciences in shaping the law, we should also be cautious, for it remains an open question exactly what kind of social science will be held to be relevant in deciding legal questions. The move to include real world implications of the law received its biggest push from the law and economics movement and it is likely that quantitative research by economists and sociologists will continue to hold sway over qualitative work. Certainly several members of the Supreme Court remain quite ignorant about anthropological research on subjects like marriage. At the same time, however, these two decisions by Kennedy seem to establish important precedents for the inclusion of social science research in how we think about the law, and I think that’s a good thing.

June 25 2015


Welcome new blogger Uzma Rizvi!

Savage Minds has long been looking for an archaeologist whose writing would mesh well with our own (predominantly cultural anthropological) sensibility, and so when Uzma Rizvi guest blogged for us last August we knew we had found exactly what we had been looking for. We quickly asked her to consider joining the blog as a full time member. While interested, Uzma didn’t want to start until after the end of the school year. . . which has finally come around. So now it is with great pleasure that we welcome Uzma Rizvi, the newest addition to our team! We also would like to extend a hearty congratulations to Uzma on her recent promotion to Associate Professor! Below is a short bio from her academic homepage at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design in Brooklyn, NY.

I am an anthropological archaeologist specializing in the archaeology of the first cities. I teach anthropology, ancient urbanism, issues in new materialisms, critical heritage studies, memory and war/trauma studies, decolonization/the postcolonial critique, and social practice. My current research work is largely focused on Ancient India and Ancient UAE, both during the 3rd millennium BCE. Beyond these vast umbrellas of interest, I have a few distinct projects that have been occupying my research world of late. These include, but are not limited to, understanding ancient subjectivity and related to that, the idea of an intimate architecture; war and trauma in relationship to the urban fabric; and finally, epistemological critiques of archaeology that have emerged from my earlier work in postcolonial theory.

Welcome Uzma!

June 18 2015

Departing Dehradun at dusk

June 16 2015


The Limits of the Virtuoso

Via @jbouie Via @jbouie

Pierre Bourdieu, in his famous critique of structuralism from Outline of a Theory of Practice, says:

only a virtuoso with a perfect command of his “art of living” can play on all the resources inherent in the ambiguities and uncertainties of behavior and situation in order to produce the actions appropriate to each case, to do that of which people will say “There was nothing else to be done”, and do it the right way.

Two recent headline-grabbing stories, Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover and Rachel Dolezal getting outed by her parents as “white,” have served to highlight the limits to virtuoso performance: the boundaries our society places over the individual’s ability to perform gender and ethnicity.

With regard to Caitlyn, the point was made eloquently by Laverne Cox who wrote:

Now, there are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards. More importantly many trans folks don’t want to embody them and we shouldn’t have to to be seen as ourselves and respected as ourselves. It is important to note that these standards are also informed by race, class, and ability among other intersections. I have always been aware that I can never represent all trans people. No one or two or three trans people can. This is why we need diverse media representations of trans folks to multiply trans narratives in the media and depict our beautiful diversities.

Crystal Frasier and Jenn Dolari posted their own Vanity Fair covers Crystal Frasier and Jenn Dolari posted their own Vanity Fair covers

Gina Mei writes about how this insightful post resulted in the twitter hashtag #MyVanityFairCover where gender-nonconforming individuals posted their own Vanity Fair covers in order to show that trans notions of beauty needn’t reproduce cisnormative beauty norms. Contrasted with these images it is even more clear how much the mainstream media’s embrace of Caitlyn serves to reaffirm traditional beauty norms rather than challenge them.

Rachel Dolezal’s story is more complicated, with new details emerging each day, making it hard to know what is true and what is rumor. However, it does seem that she lived much of her life as a white woman, even suing Howard University for discriminating against her for being white. It isn’t clear exactly when or why she decided to change her ethnicity, but there is a long history of white-to-black passing in American culture. Nor is it a phenomenon unique to any one ethnicity:

When viewed together what these two stories make clear is that performing another ethnicity is not the same thing as performing another gender. As Adam Serwer explains:

Dolezal knew it wasn’t enough to perm and dye her hair and do whatever it is she did to her skin, and to tell everyone she was black. She also had to invent a history in which she and her family had borne the scars of racism, one in which she was born in a “tepee in Montana” and went hunting for food with bows and arrows. One in which she and her siblings endured beatings according to skin tone, and were lashed with “baboon whips” that were “pretty similar to what was used as whips during slavery,” to say nothing of the years she spent filing questionable reports with police about hate crimes. With that connection, even someone as light as her could be black.

But even that wasn’t enough. As Richard Seymour puts it: “the axis on which this question is decided appears to be, not a particular agent’s political identifications, but the socially accepted protocols of race.”

Which is not to say that gender performance involves nothing more than a perm, a dye job, and telling everyone you are a woman. Far from it. I’ve seen some arguing on the internet that the biology or race and sex differences places different kinds of limits on gender and ethnic passing. The argument being that while humans don’t have races, we do exhibit sexual dimorphism. But this is not very convincing. For one thing, the biology of human sexuality has a bigger grey zone between male and female than most people realize. Watch Alice Dreger’s TED Talk to get a sense of just how big and complex this grey zone can be. But, more importantly, within both gender and ethnic categories there are a wide range of phenotypical possibilities. The famous “paper bag test” distinguished between darker and lighter skinned blacks just as there are “tomboys” who still live as cisnormal “women.”

I think a better way of thinking about the limits of such performances comes from thinking about race and gender as technologies of power. As such, I believe we can learn a lot by looking at differences in how gender choices and racial identities are (and have been) policed, at the specific constraints such policing places on our ability to perform various identities. For one thing, women trying to pass as men are not treated the same as men passing as women. Nor are blacks passing as white treated the same way as whites passing as black. “Privilege” is an overused term, but one useful way of thinking about it lies in looking at how such failures are policed. Moreover, I think it is crucially important to remember that these constraints also operate on those who are performing the “correct” gender and ethnicity according to mainstream social norms. Blacks are sometimes accused of “acting white” and women who aren’t seen as sufficiently feminine get called a lot of nasty things. Some reports claim that Dolezal herself engaged in this kind of policing of blackness, probably to distract attention from her own failure to meet the standard.

I think that most people understand that ethnicity and gender are performances. Whether it applauds or condemns their transgression, much of the media coverage about people like Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal serves to reproduce the mechanisms by which gender and ethnicity are policed. It is even arguable that the underlying logic of race and sexuality are reproduced as well. Is there not an silent “. . . for a man” appended to much of the appreciation of Caitlyn’s beauty? Is there not a not-so-silent “How did she think she could get away with it?” appended to much of the coverage about Rachel Dolezal? As a society we understand that gender and ethnicity are performances, but in doing so we have not yet let go of the biological determinism which underlies how we evaluate such performances.

For me, the true virtuosos are the artists and comedians who are able to perform the ambiguity, poke fun at the failures, and expose the technologies of power for what they are. I’m thinking of the “race draft” skit from the Chappelle Show, or Kate Bornstein’s peformance art. Performances that, like people uploading #MyVanityFairCover photos to Twitter, challenge us to see the workings of gender and ethnicity in reproducing the status quo.

June 07 2015

Thanking the cow whose milk we've been drinking in our tea.
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