Leading US anthropologist signs on to BDS despite qualms

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James Ferguson is a giant in his field. By chance when I saw the statement below, I was reading his book on southern Africa for the third time, The Anti-Politics Machine, a brilliant study of why foreign aid failed in the nation of Lesotho. The Stanford anthropologist has great standing among cultural anthropologists, and a superior intellect; he is “possibly the field’s most globally oriented scholar,” as Stanford says. You can see the quality of his reasoning in this short statement that concludes by citing Israel’s “illegal and immoral conduct.” Most academics don’t write in such a straightforward, accessible manner.

While I am not a waverer on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), Ferguson’s statement should help persuade waverers — those who say: Look, we’re with you but we feel uneasy about what looks to be intellectual shunning. Well, Ferguson got over that because he saw that BDS was supported by those with the “best understanding,” “fair minded persons of honest character and good judgment.”

“Israel BDS, Why I signed… reluctantly,” by James Ferguson, originally at Savage Minds.

I did not come easily to the decision to sign the petition supporting an academic boycott of Israeli universities.  My experience has been that academic boycotts can easily do more harm than good.  They harbor the risk of creating divisions between scholars working on the outside (for whom grand denunciations come easily, and often without cost) and those on the inside (at least some of whom may be progressive intellectuals of courage and commitment, working under the most challenging of circumstances, who may resent rather than welcome attacks on the institutions that support them).  There are also, it must be said, risks of hypocrisy, when American scholars righteously denounce foreign universities while saying little about their own comparatively lavishly-funded institutions, which are of course dripping with their own forms of complicity with militarism and imperialism.

In a complex situation, however — one, moreover, of which I personally have only very imperfect and limited knowledge — I feel obliged to give great weight to the views of those more knowledgeable than myself.  This is, after all, the most basic sort of trust that we rely upon as a scholarly community.  And it seems clear to me that the members of our intellectual community whom I judge to have the most knowledge and the best understanding, both of the Israel/Palestine situation in general and of the political role played by Israeli academic institutions, are in strong support of the resolution.  This is not just a question of a list of names, but a set of convincing arguments that has been assembled by an impressive assembly of scholars, many of whom I know to be not only fine researchers, but fair-minded persons of honest character and good judgment.  

We are right to pause and discuss over this complex issue, and not to blithely assume that a repugnance for Israel’s policies simply or automatically warrants a boycott of its academic institutions.  And, in truth, I would be happier if the boycott were more closely aimed at specific practices of specific institutions (certainly, this would be desirable if our goal is to help transform Israeli institutions and not just to declare our opposition to the regime in the abstract).  But my assessment, in the end, after reviewing the arguments on both sides (and, as I have noted, giving special weight to the judgments of the scholars of the region whose work I know and admire, within anthropology and beyond) is that the boycott will find its fundamental meaning not within the academy, but beyond it.  In this light, we might see anthropologists’ support for the BDS movement both as a kind of public declaration that we have taken notice of the illegal and immoral conduct of the Israeli state and the institutions that support it, and as a small gesture of solidarity with those who have suffered most from that conduct.  That is reason enough for me.

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9 Responses

  1. David Doppler
    November 5, 2015, 11:46 am

    Time for regime change in Israel. Time for someone to confront the racists and fascists, because, Netanyahu has proven that, given more rein, he will move farther to the right, farther away from fair-mindedness and good judgment. He will rely upon the sword till the end. The Israeli mob-mentality that enables this movement needs to wake up to the cold morning of real consequences for his/its behavior.

    • Mooser
      November 5, 2015, 5:17 pm

      “Time for regime change in Israel. Time for someone to confront the racists and fascists”

      Who do you have in mind for the job?

      • gamal
        November 5, 2015, 6:49 pm

        “Who do you have in mind for the job?”

        I believe this one for Hugo First.

    • alen
      November 6, 2015, 3:49 pm

      “Time for regime change in Israel.”

      Name me one regime in Israel that didn’t take part in the ethnic cleansing and violence. Instead of a regime change, how about the abolition of the Zionist state?

  2. pabelmont
    November 5, 2015, 12:42 pm

    Ferguson: “And, in truth, I would be happier if the boycott were more closely aimed at specific practices of specific institutions (certainly, this would be desirable if our goal is to help transform Israeli institutions and not just to declare our opposition to the regime in the abstract). ”

    My take:

    You really cannot expect to take the Israel;i universities out of the Israeli-mind-and-behavior-matrix. They’re stuck, just as American universities are stuck with many unpleasantnesses including participation in the craziness, the madness which responds to the psychiatric disease called the military-industrial-complex.

    So the academic-participation-boycott of Israeli universities is basically just part of a pan-Israel BDS movement. Just as is purchase-boycott of Israeli culture (music, theater, movies, sports) and manufactures. It is the part which academics can play.

    Ideally, every Israeli person should feel BDS in his/her own life, the more strongly the better. If Israeli people actually lost jobs because of buying-boycotts on Israeli products, they’d feel it. And of course the owners of the Israeli export industries would feel it even more strongly. And, together, they’d be motivated to talk to their government or to elect different politicians.

    Or not. Because BDS could backfire in the sense of making Israelis more extreme (I hade to think what that might mean).

  3. Ossinev
    November 6, 2015, 6:58 am

    “Ideally, every Israeli person should feel BDS in his/her own life, the more strongly the better. If Israeli people actually lost jobs because of buying-boycotts on Israeli products, they’d feel it. And of course the owners of the Israeli export industries would feel it even more strongly. And, together, they’d be motivated to talk to their government or to elect different politicians.”

    Agree with what you say to a point. Unfortunately moral and conscionable Israelis will pay an undeserved price but as with South Africa that is inevitable. I think that the BDS thrust definitely should be at least as much on cultural and sporting links as trade and commercial links. The penny may drop when the younger Tel Aviv generation start to ask why are we loathed , why are our “fellow westerners ” trying to exclude us from international competition etc

    One can only hope.

    BOYCOTT APARTHEID ISRAEL

  4. StanleyHeller
    November 6, 2015, 8:33 am

    Big news about BDS. Last week the 200,000 member Connecticut AFL-CIO voted to call on the national organization to join in BDS against Israel because of its mistreatment of Palestinians. Read about it here http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/us_union_support_for_palestinian_rights_could_be_a_game_changer_20151105

    and tell about it to unionists in your area

  5. michelle
    November 6, 2015, 2:35 pm

    .
    seems like B.D.S. should extend as far as the reach of Israel in its criminal choices
    .
    B.D.S. such a peace minded way to say; stop hurting ‘me’
    .
    G-d Bless
    .

  6. JWalters
    November 7, 2015, 6:40 pm

    Thank you, James Ferguson, for your intelligent and courageous statement. This is not a time for good people to sit silently. Academic freedom, freedom of speech, and the democracy based on these are at stake. Your statement will undoubtedly help others take a stand for what is right.

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