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Claiming the radical middle ground: critical of Israel, yet opposed to academic boycott

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My junior colleague's email, titled "time-sensitive" and sent from her gmail account, was oblique - something important, she intimated, and best not put in an email. Apparently, she and some other junior anthropologists had written a statement of opposition to the motion to boycott Israeli academic institutions currently being voted on by members of the American Anthropological Association. They were afraid, however, of the professional consequences of signing their names, and it could only be published if at least one person were willing to sign by name rather than be anonymous. The ask: would I be that person?

She may have remembered that in December I'd snuck into and disrupted a Trump rally - really, I thought, could my fellow anthropologists be scarier and less civil than Trump's goons who dragged me out of that ballroom at the Plaza? How dangerous could a blog post be? Dangerous enough, apparently, that the seven anonymous authors were working so secretively that they did not even all know each other's identities. Dangerous enough, apparently, that at the extremely vitriolic AAA business meeting in November of 2015, the resolution passed by a landslide, 1040-136 - suggesting, I'd argue, not widespread support for the resolution so much as substantial fear about publicly opposing it.

Just to be clear, the statement on which AAA members are currently voting is not about whether anthropologists should buy Soda Streams, whether AAA should divest endowment funds from Israeli-owned industries doing business in the occupied territories, or whether the American Anthropological Association should sanction the Israeli government. It's a statement that calls for the AAA "to boycott Israeli academic institutions until such time as these institutions end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights".

I agreed to be one of the named signatories (and now we number six) for three reasons. First, the resolution creates a false binary, in which the only way to stand in solidarity with Palestinians is to cut off our communication with academic institutions in Israel. Second - and this is particularly ironic for a discipline that studies the social organization of power and argues for historically-grounded understandings of social change: When has a collective commitment by a group of social scientists to avoid contact with other social scientists advanced the cause of justice? Approximately never. Third, the boycott has created a climate of fear, with junior anthropologists afraid of the professional consequences of not falling in line. The panicked demand for secrecy in my colleague's email reveals the damage already wrought to our discipline.

To be clear, my quarrel is with my pro-boycott colleagues' strategy of making the AAA their field of action, and with the unintended harm that is doing to our community of scholars, not with their actual assessment of the situation. In fact, I agree with some elements of the boycott advocates' description of the systemic and untenable ways in which unequal treatment of Palestinians is woven into the fabric of Israeli society. And it pains me to stand up publicly against colleagues for whom I have a great deal of respect as scholars, even more so because so many of them are fellow faculty members at Columbia.

As our statement argues, if you want to work for change, remember how power works. From Tennessee? Go meet with Senator Bob Corker, the chair of Senate Foreign Relations committee, and demand a different US strategy for Israel. Are you from Maryland? Call up Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on that committee. Or, all of you who are US citizens, show your commitment to a more just Israel by holding Hillary Clinton to task for pandering to AIPAC, or work to defeat Trump for doing the same. Spend the summer and fall canvassing door to door to put someone in the Oval Office in November who has both the vision and the political skills to engage productively with Israel's elected officials, civil society, and academics.

At Passover last month, many of us sat down to tables where the seder plate featured a red onion in solidarity with farmworkers or an orange to mark the under-discussed role of women in our quest for liberation, or used a Seder supplement that makes connections between our time as slaves and Black Lives Matter. As Jews, this is the when we remember that no one is free until all of us are free, and when we recommit to doing the work of liberation.

Those of us who teach then returned to classrooms where we seek both to illuminate power and oppression and to create space for respectful debate about how best to heal the wounds of history. As role models for our students, what kind of scholars and teachers do we show ourselves to be when our collective action in response to inequality is to break ties with other scholarly institutions? It saddens me - perhaps it is a signifier of the overall loss of the capacity for civilized disagreement in our country - when the protections of tenure feel necessary to speak up about a political issue. When Margaret Mead wrote that we should 'never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world', she was urging us to action, yes - but to action that moves the levers of power, not that sows the seeds of rancor.