Why I Support the Boycott

by Donald L. Donham


I support the proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Boycotts can sometimes be blunt instruments. For example, the boycott of apartheid South Africa was much more broadly cast. The proposed boycott of Israel seems to me finely focused and designed, in fact, to produce academic engagement.

The boycott issues a strong symbolic statement. That statement involves the insistence that we scholars hold the powerful, in this case Israel and the United States, accountable for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The continuing settlement of Palestinian lands must stop.

Universities, though not the primary actors in this conflict, are nonetheless parts of a structure of power that conditions it. As the report to the AAA shows, the links between Israeli universities and the occupation are not hidden. And the plight of Palestinian students and scholars in Israeli academic institutions is a serious one.

The anthropological identification with the less powerful has a deep history in the discipline, from its beginning with Franz Boas to the Vietnam protests of the late 1960s, led by anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins and Eric Wolf. The attempt to include the view of the less powerful in any analysis lies at the very heart of what makes social and cultural anthropology the kind of critical human science it is.

Of all the possible responses, I believe the boycott is the most effective way of educating the American and Israeli publics about recent anthropological insights into the effects of violence. Over the last two decades, there has developed a consensus, I think, that it is more accurate to say that the experience of violence constructs ethnic and religious identity than to assume, as almost all participants do, that identities cause violence. This view appears, for example, in Stanley Tambiah’s Leveling Crowds, Mahmood Mamdani’s When Victims Become Killers, and in my own Violence in a Time of Liberation. It is also woven through Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois’s anthology, Violence in War and Peace.

It is common for victims of violence to unconsciously change their view of the past–and therefore what is possible in the future. No more graphic example exists than Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent contention that it was the Mufti of Jerusalem that gave Hitler the idea for the Holocaust. Identities harden and courses of action that would have seemed immoral only a short time before become acceptable. Once this process begins, it feeds upon itself. Any effective intervention includes the attempt by outsiders to hold up a mirror to participants. The boycott begins to do this.

Benedict Anderson pointed out some time ago that we live in world in which states can legitimately only grow smaller. They can split, but they cannot expand. The kind of settler colonialism that produced the United States in previous centuries (and continues to disfigure Native American lives) is no longer possible to initiate. At the end of the day, racism and religious nationalism will not be successful in legitimating Israeli settlement, in our current, globalized world. By setting itself against such a broad international consensus, Israel has begun to endanger itself–to say nothing of how it has destroyed Palestinian lives.

The boycott is aimed not only at Israel. We know that the umbrella of uncritical and unconditional United States support has in many ways created the present situation. In the end, the boycott is aimed at changing American foreign policy with respect to Israel and more broadly in the Middle East.

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