What Will Be Next?: A Dangerous Climate for Scholars

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Last week, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) cast a vote on a resolution to join the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction Movement (BDS) against the State of Israel. Nadine Naber, one of the proponents of the resolution, spoke about advocating for the rights of the Palestinians, comparing the BDS movement to the bus boycotts of the Civil Rights era. In response to a counter resolution to enter a dialogue with Israeli and Palestinian professors, Naber argued that the boycott represented what “all Palestinian civil society has called for to achieve fundamental rights” and rejected the counter resolution by asking, “Would you have told civil rights activists not to boycott and instead dialogue?”

Dr. Naber’s curious analogy brings to light the inherent flaws of AAA’s case for supporting BDS, beginning with the fact that the bus boycotts had a clear motive and an observable goal. African Americans, many of who relied on bus transportation and were therefore financially supporting public buses, boycotted buses until they ended segregated seating. The purpose of action was clearly articulated, and its duration was finite. The key players were all stakeholders in the action and the movement’s intention was to end the discriminatory laws that applied to public transportation.

In contrast, Dr. Naber and her constituents call for boycotts of Israeli universities without articulating a lucid goal. Instead, they rely on sweeping generalizations to advocate for an amorphous set of “fundamental rights” on behalf of “all Palestinian civil society.” The boycotters, who claim to align themselves with Civil Rights activists, fail to complete their analogy, unable to identify the role played by the targets of their boycott and unable to articulate how each Israeli university is complicit “in violating Palestinian rights.”

While the language in supporting boycotts remains vague, the language used to demonize Israel as an illegitimate entity is transparent. The BDS movement has skillfully seduced students and scholars in the U.S and Europe to join their cause, recognizing their ability to shape beliefs and attitudes through their command of language. Scholars of human culture and society actively deny the connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, which they characterize as “the colonization of Palestine” and portray Israel as a colonial regime which even a rudimentary reading of a map of Israel and the vast and numerous Arab nations that surround it proves absurd.  They viciously proceed to attribute the displacement of Palestinian refugees, whose plight is largely the result of military attacks against Israel and a continual stream of terrorism against Israeli civilians, to an Israeli policy of “ethnic cleansing.” In sum, they elicit images of violent Jewish colonizers living on stolen land, leaving us to wonder whether they merely want Israel to change some of its laws or whether they ultimately want to bring an end to the Jewish state.

Those of us most familiar with Israel shudder at the stream of twisted truths and the ease with which American scholars are willing to embrace one narrative over another and join a political struggle in a country where most have never set foot. Yet, we continue to respond to their biased arguments by presenting nuanced counter-arguments and attempting to convince BDS supporters that dialogue is more just and more effective than boycotts.

It’s time for us academics to acknowledge that we are facing individuals who refuse to engage in dialogue and who endorse political action based on hearsay rather than rigorous research befitting scholars. It is, therefore, time for us to shift the parameters of the conversation.

It is time for us to turn the shame on our colleagues who are discriminating against members of the international academic community based on their nationality and who are abusing their affiliations with American universities to promote their own political agendas. We must call out scholars-turned-politicians who pressure their students to join their academic Cold War, and intimidate them from pursuing research opportunities with Israeli scholars, thereby raising serious ethical issues and abuses of positional power.

Most importantly, we need to increase our efforts to advocate on behalf of the targets of the AAA’s discrimination, by increasing our collaborations with Israeli universities and by embracing our Israeli colleagues who share our social justice oriented agendas. By doing so, we will also be offering an alternative course of action to students and early career scholars who find themselves caught in an overwhelming whirlwind of rhetoric and who may silently resent being pressured to compromise their identities as researchers in order to appease leadership. Our productive and constructive actions need to stand in stark contrast with the vicious words of those who seek to achieve nothing more than to humiliate and oppress Israeli scholars.

The AAA’s endorsement of a boycott of an entire nation of scholars signals the emergence of a very dangerous climate in the intellectual community, establishing a precedence whereby censorship and discrimination against one group are regarded as acceptable if framed as an effort to support the rights of another. Once it becomes acceptable to boycott Israeli universities in response to the request of “Palestinian civic society”, then what will prevent academic associations from censoring books published in Israel, from refusing to mentor Israeli students, or from banning Israeli scholars from attending conferences – should those requests be delivered in the future? The question we must pose to the supporters of the BDS movement as well as to ourselves should no longer be, “Why Israel?” The question we must ask now is, “What will be next?” if we allow the current wave of academic discrimination and oppression to proceed unchecked.


Melissa Landa, PhD is an Assistant Clinical Professor in the College of Education at the University of Maryland. Her interests include cultural competence and equity in education, the globalization of American education, and the complexity of human identity. She is also the director of a UMD education abroad program to Israel, which explores the educational and acculturation experiences of the country’s 140,000 immigrants from Ethiopia.  This essay was written for SPME



What Will Be Next?: A Dangerous Climate for Scholars

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