Anthropology at the Crossroads

In many West African societies, the crossroads is place of danger. It is where the social and spirit worlds intersect. Among the Songhay people of the Republic of Niger, the crossroads is a fork in the road, which, in Songhay incantations, is called a point of misfortune. When you reach the fork in the road, you have to decide which way to move forward. If you make a bad choice, the Songhay sages suggest, you will have to live with the consequences--betrayal, illness, or even death. For most Songhay people, a person must be well prepared to negotiate the crossroads.

Is your travel well planned?

Are you protected from potentially harmful threats?

Can you imagine unforeseen consequences along the path?

When members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) vote later this month on a proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions, they, too, will be standing on a crossroads--a point of potential disciplinary misfortune. One thing is certain: no matter the outcome, no one will know for sure how the approval or rejection of the proposed academic boycott will impact an academic discipline let alone the political dynamics in Palestine/Israel.

It is incontestable, though, that the AAA BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) debate has generated more heat than light especially on social media on which incendiary pro and con comments are par for the course. The existential fork in the road, however, is no place for shallow "on-the-bus/off-the-bus" thinking; rather, it is place for deep reflection--cruel reflection, borrowing from Antonin Artaud, in which you dare to think without illusion. Who are we? What is our purpose in the world? What are our fundamental obligations as scholars? What are the social, political and intellectual consequences of our decisions? What are the ramifications of taking the path that leads to the left as opposed to the one that leads to the right? Will our friends and family respect our decision, or should we simply go with the flow to avoid hateful responses that bring with them stress and potential disenchantment about the quality of our social and professional relationships?

The members of AAA now find themselves at such a crossroads. Which path should we take? How should we vote? Should we limit our potential boycott to Israeli academic institutions or should we also introduce resolutions to boycott the academic institutions of other nation states that violate human rights? For many anthropologists these are difficult choices to make.

For me, the actions and policies of the Israeli (Netanyahu) government are shameful. The ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands and the expansion of Jewish settlements are indefensible--actions that fan the fires of a mutual ethnic rage that fuels war rather than peace, a rage, I'm afraid, that seems to strengthen "one-state" extremists in Israel/Palestine as well as in the US. In an emotionally charged atmosphere in which fear of reprisal has silenced many scholarly voices, here are some "cruel" points to consider before ballots are cast.

Political Realities: As long as the US continues to give Israel substantial economic, military and political support, there is little likelihood for change in Palestine/Israel. Put another way, the State of Israel, which for many citizens of the world has become an international pariah, is not going to disappear. Indeed, ongoing direct and indirect US support of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, which is not likely to change no matter who is elected President this year, reinforces the Israeli right wing, which means more expansion of the settlements, more discrimination, and more violence. Given this context, how can positive social and political change, which benefits everyone, come about?

Effectiveness. Can a boycott of Israeli academic institutions promote social justice in Israel/Palestine? Noam Chomsky, for one, has for several years put forward a sobering critique of these proposed academic boycotts. He says that an academic boycott, such as the one that AAA members will begin to vote on this month, will increase support for current US policy, which bolsters Prime Minister Netanyahu's regime, which, in turn, promotes more social and political deterioration. Speaking at a linguistics conference in Gaza in October 2012 Professor Chomsky said:

If you call for an academic boycott of say Tel Aviv University you have to ask yourself, what the consequences are of that call for the Palestinians and there's an indirect answer. When you carry out an act in the United States, you are trying to reach the American population and you're trying to bring the American population to be more supportive of Palestinian rights and opposed to Israeli and US policies. So you therefore ask yourself, will an academic boycott of Tel Aviv University have - you ask yourself what the effect would be on the American audience in the United States that you are trying to reach. Now, that depends on the amount of organization and education that has taken place in the United States. Today, if you look at the people's understandings and beliefs, a call for an academic boycott on Tel Aviv University will strengthen support for Israel and US policy because it's not understood. There is no point of talking to people in Swahili if they don't understand what you are saying. There could be circumstances in which a boycott of Tel Aviv would be helpful, but first you have to do the educational and organizational work.

In a February 01, 2106 interview with Al Jazeera's Mehdi Hassan, Professor Chomsky reaffirmed his critique of academic boycotts of Israeli academic institutions."If you're an activist it's second nature to ask what are the consequences of my choices, not I'll do it because it makes me feels good... I do not suggest boycotting Harvard University and my own university, even though the United States is involved in horrific acts."

Beyond the issue of academic complicity in reprehensible governmental acts, which, taken to its logical end, would suggest that all academics--and academic institutions-- have blood on their hands, would Prime Minister Netanyahu worry about the political ramifications of a scholarly association's "yes" vote on a boycott of Israeli academic institutions? Following Professor Chomsky's logic, Mr. Netanyahu would see the expected reaction to such a vote as bolstering his support--especially crucial support in the arena of US presidential politics. Even if a large number of academic organizations voted for these boycotts, which, to date, has not been the case, would Prime Minister Netanyahu be moved to change his policies?

Probably not.

As one of my mentors once told me: "you have to be smart, persistent and patient to bring about meaningful change." Remember also what a wise Persian woman once said about the privations of almost 40 years of the Iranian Revolution: "For a long time the wind may bend the grass in one direction. Eventually, though, it blows the other way."

The Crossroads. Songhay sages pick their battles carefully. It is unwise to waste precious power on a battle that is of marginal consequence. It is also unwise--at least for me--to vote "yes" on a resolution that confronts us with an action that is likely to produce a bevy of negative consequences for our colleagues and our discipline. Sadly, an AAA "yes" vote for the academic boycott resolution is not likely to change the bloody politics of Israel/Palestine.

And so I hope that when we stand at the anthropological crossroads we recognize that a fork in the road is a serious space for "cruel" existential reflection.

This vote is more than a referendum on a contentious political issue. It is a vote that defines our scholarship.

Who are we?

What is our purpose in the world?

In time the votes will be tallied and we shall see which way the wind blows.