Social Justice, US Anthropology and BDS

It’s big news (in anth circles) right now.  The business meeting of the AAA voted by about 1000 to 150 to put a motion on the ballot of the general membership supporting BDS this spring. It really was the talk of the meetings.  Every where I went friends and colleagues were discussing it. They weren’t unanimous in the positions.  Some were opposed to it, others were unconditional in their support, still others took the hold your nose and vote yes approach. I opted out of participating in the vote.

I find much to agree with Maximilian Fortes‘ position on the AAA resolution. Here’s a key quote from his detailed blog post:

My point is that there is a surplus of misdirection, mendacity and hypocrisy at work among AAA members who support the academic boycott of Israel, and that the boycott is being supported using not just specious reasoning, but also by endorsing imperial political and moral narratives. The wrong conclusions are being drawn from preceding AAA actions, so as to better take the AAA on a new turn: international arbiter of human rights and protector of endangered others (and only those who are endangered by others). The same logic used in the pro-boycott petition could justify calls for regime change and sanctions against other nations that are the targets of US imperialism. All of the markers of an imperial narrative of protection and intervention are present in the motion to boycott Israel: support for “civil society” (thus reinforcing the neoliberal undermining and bypassing of Palestinian national authorities); and, asserted universals about “human rights”. The notion that violations of Palestinian rights can be traced to the work of Israeli universities—while downplaying the role of the US universities in the same endeavour—is fraudulent. I am also accusing the AAA of serving not just as an agent for imperialism, but as an agent of imperialism in its own right—by reasserting the US’ neo-feudal hold over Israel (and reminding its leaders of their proper place in the international hierarchy), and by validating US anthropology’s sense of its own superiority and indispensable centrality. The exercise is ultimately one of legitimating “American Exceptionalism,” and it almost certainly has nothing to do with concern over “human rights violations”.

. . .

“I think the AAA has damned itself, and its supposed support and solidarity for Palestinians. Dishonest gestures guided by ulterior motives hardly serve Palestinians, at least not as much as they may insult their struggle. What is best served by this motion, however, are (neo)liberal politics and a vindication of “American Exceptionalism”. The motion is effectively and primarily one that expresses US solidarity with US anthropology.”

Fortes’ critique is direct, definitive, and damning. The issue lurking beneath the AAA resolution (one that did not really come out in the discussions reported by colleagues and through social media) is that this is really more about a variant of US Imperialism.

In the early 1980s central american support activities were a big issue amongst leftist activists in Vancouver. We were all familiar with groups like the FMLN (El Salvador) or the FSNL (Sandinistas, Nicaragua). The actions of the US government in supporting the contras  and fueling counter revolution were soundly decried. We saw in this class struggle a clear and obvious set of choices: either support or struggle against US imperialism and destruction of the lives of working people and agrarian poor. This sense of the struggle manifest itself in the brief emergence of a home-grown militant group, Direct Action (also known as the Squamish Five).  At least two milieu activists also ended up joining the struggle directly and were sentenced to long jail terms for their efforts. The underling idea for all of us was that real social transformation included social justice struggles at home (to change local exploitative settings) and political campaigns of support for fellow militants in theatres of armed and intense social struggle. Boycotts were conceived as a weak and low order tactical choice. More direct engagements, focussed in sites of production and at locales of governance were considered the more strategically appropriate approach.

This was also the moment in which the South African divestment and boycott campus movement started up. While the underlying issues were similar – local struggles against oppressive situations- the support movement activities were of a different order.  Whereas the central american support activities were based in a shared idea of class struggle at home and away, the campus south african divestment/boycott movement elided concerns with class struggle and focussed instead upon moral issues and an inherently anomic tactic of corporate divestments and individualized consumer boycotts.

In the contemporary BDS debates the south african example is held up as an example of a successful deployment of tactics like divestment and symbolic boycotting. Such a conclusion is curiously ahistorical. The role played by the collapse of the Soviet Union , the rising tide of neo-liberal austerity measures and liberalizing of international trade and capital flows is quite likely a far more reasonable explanation for the end of minority rule in South Africa. While correlations can be made between south african capital and US university divestment the overall set of causes can not be strongly linked to the divestment campaign.  Though, the story of divestment leading to majority rule in south africa is an elegant tale that gives juice to current fiscal activists who find it easier to support neo-liberal economics than getting their hands dirty in real social struggles that build better social just communities.

The current BDS campaign simplifies the issue into a narrative of two great actors: the Imperialist Israeli State and the Oppressed Palestinian. The antagonists are reified and held in an almost ahistorical amber of cultural entrapment.  Much like an old style anthropology monograph on a ‘village’ the only possibility of change is seen to come from outside.  Thus enters the possibility of a white crusader from the west.  This is a strange parody of a fight within the semitic family: Jew/Muslim/Christian. The reality lives far away from this simple story spun by BDS advocates. To a large extent the possibility of their being both an Israeli and a Palestinian identity has only conceivable in recent centuries. These modern fraught social identities are ones that have emerged  out of a common historical moment and they seem to rely upon the continuation of the other for their own existence. Perhaps the only real solution is to transform these separate identities into one common identity, one nation without religion?

There is much that is wrong with our world. There are a great many people who will stand up to say that this struggle, that concern, is the most important. What I have seen as I move through my life is that the further away – socially, intellectually, geographically, etc- an issue is then the more intense the rhetoric around it. At least that’s what it looks like from my vantage point.  Point is we can’t solve every problem everywhere.  We need to focus, to select, to be discerning.  Ideally we should also be consistent. For me that leads to focusing on community activism at home and within arenas that I have some small modicum of potential in making what I hope are positive changes.

So when a major national professional association makes a decision with potential global reach we need to think very carefully about this. At the most simplistic, if it is right to divest from Israel and to boycott Israeli cultural and academic institutions why not other nations as well? One also needs to ask if the tactic that is being advocated will have the desired outcome. What are the underlying principles that are being activated to make all of these decisions?

My sense is that a vague combination of liberal guilt (the worry that despite being progressive one is also implicated in oppression), a desire to be ‘on the right side of history,’ and a sense of wanting to do something that might ‘make a difference,’ came together in a room in which 1000+ members of the U.S. Association of Anthropologists voted to initiate a boycott and divestment campaign.  I’m not convinced BDS is the elixir that will make our world a better place.