The BDS Attack on Israeli Anthropology

by David M. Rosen

David M RosenThe vote on whether the American Anthropological Association (AAA) will boycott Israeli Academic Institutions is going forward despite the bylaws of the association which make membership open to all individuals and institutions, including Israeli institutions; federal, state and local laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of national origin; and the Association’s Articles of Incorporation that prohibit the organization from engaging in propaganda. These political and legal issues have been buried under the momentum of the BDS motion targeting Israeli anthropology.

Targeting Israeli anthropology involves mobilizing the support of a majority of voters among the some 11,000 AAA members and focusing it on a tiny group of Israeli academics. There are no independent departments of anthropology in Israel; Israeli anthropologists typically constitute a junior discipline in joint departments of sociology and anthropology. At last count, there were only about 120 anthropologists in the entire country, and only a fraction of them hold full-time academic appointments. Even fewer are members of the AAA. American academic organizations have been significant gateway institutions that facilitate the participation of this small community of scholars in world anthropology.

Ironically, Israeli anthropologists are probably the most likely to agree with many of the concerns that motivate many grassroots supporters of BDS. Most Israeli anthropologists support a fair and just solution of the problems of occupation, oppose the settlement movement, and support the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Nevertheless, like all persons calling for Israeli and Palestinian cooperation and dialogue in achieving peace, Israeli anthropologists have become anathema to the leadership of BDS and its anti-normalization campaign, which opposes the right of Jewish self-determination and the very existence of the Israeli state. BDS founder Omar Bargouti’s recent call that Israel be “euthanized” makes plain BDS’s increasingly hysterical and irredentist vision for the Israeli state.[1]

Suppressing moderate voices is central to the BDS’s anti-normalization campaign, which is designed to shut down debate and communication surrounding the Israel-Palestinian conflict and drive out the voices of dialogue and moderation. But no one should be surprised. All radical movements demand simple binary oppositions: a world made up of oppressors and oppressed, good guys and bad guys. BDS is no different. Its ideology cannot abide even the existence of liberal, tolerant, pluralistic, and progressive Israeli institutions and actors. The BDS anti-normalization project is specifically designed to eliminate all cooperation with centers of progress and reform in Israel. All of these become subsumed under the mantras of the regressive Left, such as “settler colonial state,” “complicity,” and, of course, the evil specter of “Zionism.” Once upon a time, this kind of thinking by slogans was anathema to anthropology. Now it has become commonplace. 

The BDS Guidelines and the Politics of Complicity

Understanding BDS’s ideology of complicity is central to understanding how BDS works in anthropology. BDS dogma continuously uses the term “complicity” to describe the ways individuals and institutions are said to be implicated in the Israel occupation of Palestine. The term ‘complicity’ appears eight times in the academic boycott guidelines created by the Palestinian BDS National Committee, which serve as the foundational charter and catechism for the BDS movement.[2] It is crucial to examine the BDS doctrine of complicity and how it functions as a component of BDS rhetorical stratagems. For BDS, complicity operates at three distinct human and organization levels. These are 1) individual complicity, 2) Israeli institutional complicity, and 3) non-Israeli institutional complicity. Israeli institutions are regarded as presumptively complicit.[3] Other individuals and institution are deemed complicit by virtue of their activities and actions. According to the guidelines, such persons or institutions can be deemed complicit through one of five separate modes of action and thought. These are 1) Silence 2) Justification, 3) Whitewashing, 4) Diversion, and 5) Direct Collaboration with complicit academic institutions. These fifteen BDS-defined forms of complicity comprise BDS’s template of culpable thought and action. Individual complicity falls under BDS’s so-called ‘common-sense’ boycott standards which target persons, while institutional complicity falls under the institutional guidelines.

Individual Complicity

BDS’s guidelines claim that it supports the universal right of academic freedom and that mere affiliation of Israeli scholars to an Israeli academic institution is not grounds for applying a boycott. But, as Todd Gitlin has noted, the “S” in BDS is best understood as meaning slippery.[4]   BDS paeans to academic freedom serve as a Potemkin village of the mind, functioning only to imitate and mislead. The actual details and operations of the BDS guidelines render these assertions meaningless. Central to this deception is the BDS assertion that all academics, Israel, American or anyone else, are subject to so-called “common sense” boycotts that

conscientious citizens around the world may call for in response to what they widely perceive as “egregious individual complicity in, responsibility for, or advocacy of violations of international law (such as direct or indirect involvement in the commission of war crimes or other grave human rights violations; incitement to violence; racial slurs; etc.).

While couched in the language of violations of international law, it is actually impossible to know to what actions and statements the guidelines really refer. Indeed, at face value the guideline justifies the boycott and blacklisting of virtually any member of the public or the academy. Clearly, there should be no tolerance for racial slurs, but when did such slurs, offensive as they are, become the subject of international law? BDS’s slippery slope of sanctionable offenses is completely open-ended and culminates in the final offensive category: “etc.” BDS slipperiness is further amplified in the resolution passed by the AAA members at the annual meeting, where the resolution states that “individual anthropologists are free to determine whether and how they will apply the boycott in their own professional practice.” If we examine how this actually works we can see that it opens up opens up a whole world of self-authorized vigilante boycotts of scholars for any reason.

Take, for example, the case of Moshe Shokeid, an Israeli anthropologist with strong left political leanings. He is most well known for authoring highly regarded ethnographies of gay life in New York. During the first Intifada (1988-1993) he, along with other colleagues at Tel Aviv University campus, initiated and chaired the organization Ad Kan (No More), a university-based peace movement that organized conferences, protests, public demonstrations, and advertised lists of many academics who advocated negotiations with the PLO—a punishable offense at that time. Members of the movement also visited Yasser Arafat in Gaza and Ramallah. Shokeid himself met Arafat twice. In 2008, Shokeid was a signatory to a petition criticizing actions by the Israeli government that were said to be infringing on the academic freedom of academics in the occupied territories, a petition that was lauded by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.[5] Thus, by any reasonable standard Shokeid has a long history of progressive engagement with the issues of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

In 2012, Shokeid was invited speak in California. A BDS supporter initiated an effort to boycott Shokeid’s talk by circulating a public letter stating that in some of his early work Shokeid had “participated in Zionist representations of Palestinians as antithetical to, and outside of, a modernizing, rational Israel.” Shokeid rejects this characterization of his work. What should have been an academic debate about scholarly analysis and interpretation became instead an ad hominem attack. Shokeid’s early work used an approach to modernization that might be considered somewhat dated, but was a commonly used scholarly argument about indigenous peoples and modernization. If it were about any other place in the world, it would have been unremarkable. In the context of Israel and BDS dogma, it became demonized. Shokeid’s work became the pretext for assigning individual complicity and for attempting to blacklist him and exclude him from the academic community. What is crucial here is that BDS dogma provides any individual with an off-the-shelf pretext for leveraging normal scholarly disputes into moral grandstanding. The so-called “guidelines” provide the trappings of legitimacy and coherence to what is fundamentally an out-of-control discriminatory animus, grounded in guilt by association, that serves to shut down the free exchange of ideas for no other reason than the national origin of an individual scholar.

The vigilante character of these self-authorized boycotts is also illustrated by Hebrew University political scientist Dan Avnon’s experience in seeking a sabbatical appointment at the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.[6] Avnon was seeking a Sir Zelman Cowen University of Sydney-Hebrew University of Jerusalem faculty exchange fellowship. Here the University’s Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, led by a BDS advocate, has apparently concocted its own foreign policy of blacklisting Israeli academics. The University of Sydney has no policy authorizing boycotts, yet faculty members in a department ostensibly felt free to create their own boycott while university administrators remained mute. In this instance, there was no attempt to make even a sham case for individual complicity. Like Shokeid, he was blacklisted merely for being an Israeli. Avnon later learned that shortly after sending the email rejecting him, one BDS supporter emailed out the news to numerous colleagues trumpeting his achievement at blacklisting an Israeli. These episodes raise many questions about the leeway given to faculty members to engage in a wide variety of forms of speech suppression under the banner of BDS.

Institutional Complicity

Beyond these individual blacklists, BDS guidelines provide what is termed an “overriding rule” that all Israeli academic institutions, unless proven otherwise, are subject to boycott because of their alleged “decades-old, deep and conscious complicityin maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights. As mentioned above, BDS asserts that institutional complicity involves five modes of action that can justify boycott: 1) Silence 2) Justification, 3) Whitewashing 4) Diversion, and 5) Direct Collaboration. Although the guidelines treat these in connection with academic institutions, an examination of BDS rhetoric shows they are routinely applied to individuals and non-academic groups as well. An example is “whitewashing,” which covers almost any issue or topic in which Israel might, directly or indirectly, be cast in a favorable light. In BDS rhetoric, “whitewashing” is the term used to stigmatize progressive and liberal practices in Israel that the BDS narrative defines as existing merely as a cover for Israeli crimes and a diversion from the occupation. As an example, it was used recently to describe the activities of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO) founded by Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said, an iconic figure in Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.[7] It’s a cliché that revolutions eat their own children, but with the BDS demonization of Said’s orchestra, BDS can be seen to have taken its first bite.

Likewise a simple Google search shows that BDS supporters employ numerous synonyms for whitewashing. Pink washing (Israel’s gay rights movement); Greenwashing (Israel’s environmental movement); Gender washing (Israel’s feminist movement); Brown washing, Blackwashing, and Redwashing (advocacy by members of minority groups on behalf of Israel); Health washing (Israeli medical outreach in crisis zones); Animal-washing (Israel’s animal rights movement); Veggie-washing (Israeli vegetarian advocacy). In parallel with BDS attacks on individuals, these rhetorical strategies are designed to mark out and dismiss virtually all activities in Israel, which elsewhere are regarded as normal and/or progressive. BDS rhetoric, however, demonizes them as a form of complicity. Such categorizations are attempts to close down all ordinary forms of discourse.

Spreading the Web of Complicity

The doctrine of complicity is also used by BDS to describe relations between Israeli institutions and non-Israel institutions. For example, the guidelines tell us that a variety of forms of scientific cooperation constitute complicity: the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation, the “Eureka Initiative,” a European inter-governmental initiative set up in 1985 that includes Israel, and the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership (BIRAX). The most important target for BDS is Horizon 2020, the largest European Union research program ever undertaken, which will make available more than 80 billion Euros in research funding over a period of seven years. BDS is seeking to exclude Israel, arguing that such scientific cooperation amounts to a whitewashing of the complicity of Israeli universities.

It is not clear how much anthropological research is actually supported by the Horizon 2020 research program. The vast majority of Horizon 2020 projects are located in the “hard” sciences with a smattering of archeology. Examples include the study of RNA in drosophila brains at the Hebrew University, a study of single cell genomic profiling of renal cancer stem cells at Bar Ilan University, a study of iodine deficiency and preventable thyroid-related diseases in Europe involving cooperation between the Hebrew University, and more than a dozen European academic institutions and a bio-archaeological project on resilience and collapse in early Christian development of the Negev Desert at the University of Haifa. Nevertheless, BDS demands that all projects of these kinds be brought to an end under the doctrine of complicity. BDS supporters in anthropology, however, are eager to try and close down any anthropological research involving Israel under the Horizon 2020. Niko Besnier, a member of the AAA Task Force, presumably taking his clues from the PACBI guidelines, has cited Horizon 2020 in his written request that the European of Association of Anthropologists take a stand against Israel on the grounds that “neutrality is no longer possible.”[8]

If the boycott passes it will not be the end of this issue but only the beginning. Some anthropologists will leave the association; many others have already quietly dropped their membership. Fewer, if any, Israelis will come to an association where the unwelcome mat had been laid out. But most of the damage will be to the AAA itself, which will be branded and transformed into a partisan political organization with diminished influence throughout the world.


[1] Monica Osborne “‘Academic Boycott’ Is an Oxymoron.” Chronicle of Higher Education. February 19, 2016.

[2] Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) Guidelines for the International Academic Boycott of Israel (Revised July 2014).

[3] PACBI Guidelines state “As a general overriding rule, all Israeli academic institutions, unless proven otherwise, are subject to boycott…”

[4] Todd Gitlin “There is no Victory Without Anguish: On the Logic and Illogic of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.” Tablet Magazine, January 20, 2016.

[5]Academic Freedom for Who?” Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, n.d.

[6] Avnon has published as account of his experience, and what follows is drawn from that account. See Dan Avnon. “BDS and the Dynamics of Self-Righteous Moralism.” Australian Journal of Jewish Studies 28 (2014): 28-46.

[7]PACBI: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra violates boycott.” Electronic Intifada. March 24 2010.

[8] Niko Besnier, “European Anthropology in Israel/Palestine.” Social Anthropology Vol. 23, no. 4 (2015): 503.