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Decolonizing Knowledge Means Supporting The Academic Boycott

Above Photo: Palestinians inspect a house set on fire by Israeli settlers in the Palestinian village of Turmus Aya, near Ramallah, June 21, 2023. Mohammed Nasser/APA Images.

The Palestinian call for BDS is a challenge to colonial infrastructures of knowledge and an invitation to help remake them.

It is a week since the vote in the American Anthropological Association membership to boycott Israeli institutions went live. What happened during that week? Sedil Naghniyeh, a fifteen-year-old from Jenin, died on Wednesday of a gunshot wound to her head. Israeli soldiers shot her on Monday, June 19, while she was standing in her front yard. Six others died and tens were wounded during that same attack on Jenin. On that day, hundreds of Israeli Jewish settlers descended on the Palestinian village of Turmus Ayya, just north of Ramallah. As per a Ha’aretz editorial, the scene is familiar: “cars are torched, windows are smashed, flames rise from among the houses…police and army let the attacks happen, as they have for decades.” In the West Bank town of Urif, meanwhile, settlers torched homes and a mosque and set a school ablaze.

This past week since the AAA vote marked a new phase of settler governance and “intensification to completely take over Palestine,” in the words of journalist and Mondoweiss Senior Palestine Correspondent Mariam Barghouti. The words of Israeli minister Itamar Ben-Gvir speaking to settlers on Friday morning made this clear: “We have your backs! Run to the hills and settle! We need a military operation as well to kill dozens and hundreds and if need be thousands . . . to fulfill our great purpose . . . the land of Israel for the people of Israel.” It has become impossible to turn away our eyes.

Why should an association of American Anthropologists honor the call to boycott Israeli academic institutions until these institutions “end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law”?

Anthropology as a discipline has faced painful reckonings over the past two decades. Anthropology carries into the present inexorable and bloody traces of the past. Can the discipline be divested of its entanglements with colonialism, anti-Blackness, imperialism, and civilizational discourse? What would remain, if so? Black anthropologists and indigenous anthropologists have led the way, forging pathways for new infrastructures of knowledge-making on which anthropology can stand. Anthropologists endorsing the boycott continue this work of dismantling coloniality by standing with Palestine and the Palestinians.

I voted for the boycott measure on the first day the vote opened. I joined thousands of other anthropologists who have been branded as enemies for the simple fact that they stood up for Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law.

The first time I was called an enemy of the Jewish state, I was 24 and facing interrogation by an Israeli soldier shutting down a small demonstration against the confiscation of a friend’s family’s land in Um al-Fahm. “What’s wrong with you Jews in the United States,” he spat in my face. Israeli forces had transformed the family’s agricultural field into a firing zone.

Um al-Fahm is a town inside the Green Line. The Israeli state had confiscated the town’s lands and water, allocating them to socialist kibbutzim and moshavim that young American Jews would visit on “birthright” trips. Um al-Fahm had the same number of residents as many an Israeli “town.” Israeli urban planners designated Um al-Fahm as a “village,” effectively blocking access to funding for roads, sewage lines, and adequate transportation. Anthropological notions of culture bolstered this dual structure of planning for Jews versus Arabs, who were said to need “traditional culture” rather than modern infrastructure. Residents came together to pave roads, dig plumbing lines, and to organize English classes. A few foreign volunteers like me joined the effort.

In some ways, the charge of “treason” was the continuation of a family legacy, one that complicated my American identity as a white middle-class Jew. My family has lived in Jerusalem for more than 500 years. Palestine was their home and what they called it. My grandfather was an officer in the Ottoman Army during World War I. After the war, in the 1920s, he took a job with the British Mandate Government of Palestine to construct a road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. He refused to fire the Arab workers he employed and protested the “Hebrew labor” imperative of the Labor Zionist movement. His loyalties remained with his Palestinian family, neighbors, friends, and colleagues. Four decades later, his cousin faced charges of treason. After the 1967 War and Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip, he spoke out for immediate negotiations with the PLO and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

In other ways, my experience in Um al-Fahm marked a rupture in familial legacies. My family has also been involved in establishing and supporting institutions of learning in Palestine and Israel for decades. They became Zionists in the 1930s and Israelis after 1948.  During my twenties, I worked with social scientists researching relations between a state defined as Jewish and all of the people—citizens and non-citizens—living in historic Palestine. These researchers violated basic tenets of Israeli social science that erased Palestinians from land rendered empty and studied society as if it were Jewish only. State forces deemed research projects and public opinion polls that challenged this social science infrastructure a security threat. Security police shut down Najwa Makhoul’s research and ability to publish, even though she was a citizen of Israel, by invoking colonial emergency laws dating to the British Mandate. Infrastructures of social science research, my friends’ work made clear (and as anthropologists well know), are political. It was my first confrontation with Anthropology as a discipline and as a mechanism of erasure.

Anthropologists know how colonizers used the doctrine of terra nullius to declare land available for settlement in multiple places around the world. We know the violence against Indigenous peoples contained in this rendering. And we know how to critique it. We use concepts such as colonialism and settler colonialism to describe processes that involve infrastructures of knowledge-making as well as military force. We know that such infrastructures are difficult to shift, that they include ways of knowing and thinking as well as stolen land and riches. Once again, infrastructures of knowledge-making are political.

Ideologies are falling all around us. Few of the students in our classrooms believe in the American dream, that the future will be better, or that the world they inherit will be livable for the majority of humans and non-humans alike. From Black studies and our Black colleagues, we have learned methodologies of abolition and speculative futures, attending to world-making that is cultivated and flourishes in the midst of catastrophe. From our Indigenous colleagues, we have learned practices and methods of relationality and tending to the Earth that anthropologists have been complicit in destroying and appropriating.

From our Palestinian colleagues, we have learned to hold ground and confront coloniality. They challenge us to confront practices of violent erasure and to break uneasy silences about difficult issues in our own times. In a time of “generalized catastrophe,” they inspire us to find new ways to “hold ground, persist, and subsist on an earth giving way to mudslides, fires, floods, and drought.” We are likewise inspired by the determination of our sister organization of Palestinian anthropologists, Insaniyyat, to push back against infrastructures of colonial knowledge production and to carry out their anthropological research, often at immense personal cost.

The call for BDS is a challenge to colonial knowledge infrastructures. It illuminates the contradictions inherent in a state claiming legitimacy as both a Jewish state and a democratic state. Palestinians have invited us to help remake infrastructures of knowledge-making. This challenge is central to our work as anthropologists and to our professed aspirations to move past colonial social science.

As anthropologists, we know how the accidental encounter with an interlocutor or a colleague can remake how we see the world. This is essential to our work as ethnographers. We must move past insight and sometimes-luminous writing about decolonization to confront and remake colonial infrastructures of knowledge-making in our own times. The vote before us invites us to do just that. It is time.

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