Joan Scott’s Change of Mind on BDS – Trajectory of Progressive Dogma

Joan Scott, the prominent and influential Cultural Historian, wrote a short article a few years ago, which I think captures that mood of current academic-based progressive sensibilities. She starts with a conversion narrative as the justification for her change of mind: she argues that it was the successful lobbying effort at censorship from Israeli and conservative-Jewish interests of an AAUP conference on academic boycotts supposedly only aimed at discussing the concept, that made her re-evaluate whether a traditional defense of academic freedom as justification for opposing boycotts makes sense in a context where even discussing boycotts is subject to censorship. But the conversion narrative immediately falls apart, in my opinion, as she continues:

What did it mean, I wondered, to oppose the boycott campaign in
the name of Israeli academic freedom when the Israeli state regularly denied academic freedom to critics of the state, the occupation, or, indeed, of Zionism,and when the blacklisting of the state’s critics is the regular tool of state authorities against Israel’s own academic institutions?
That line of argument is not just straight from the BDS literature, but the passing reference to Zionism as an assumed legitimate object for criticism already contains within it the presumed judgement of its illegitimacy. In other words, Scott was already strongly predisposed towards BDS.
Scott continues the article with a principled defense of an Academic Boycott as logical in the context of a broadened definition of Academic Freedom:
Such a boycott refuses to accept the facade of democracy Israel wants to present to the world. It is not a boycott of individuals on the basis of their national citizenship. Quite the contrary — it is an institutional boycott, aimed at those cultural and educational institutions that consistently fail to oppose the occupation and the unequal treatment of non-Jewish citizens. It demands evidence that these institutions provide academic freedom to Arabs as well as Jews, Palestinians as well as Israelis, within the borders of Israel, the occupied West Bank, and Gaza, and support it for Arabs and Jews equally. It says that, in the face of an apartheid that violates both the principles and practices of equality and freedom for all, a principled opposition to boycotts as punitive or unfair makes no sense. In fact, such an opposition only helps perpetuate the system. The boycott is a strategic way of exposing the unprincipled and undemocratic behavior of Israeli state institutions; its aim might be characterized as “saving Israel from itself.”

This quote, I think, contains the heart of modern (academic) progressive sensibilities (and where I think it actually differs from Palestinian aims and goals, whose ultimate goal is exactly the realization of a particularistic nation-state that would make Western progressives uncomfortable):

  • State-nationalism as an instrument of oppression
  • State as an instrument of selection of empowered vs excluded; citizens vs others
  • Democracy as a justifying ideology of oppression rather than a reflection of practical reality
  • Privileging of a human rights and equality frame
  • The privileging of universalist (“Human Rights” frames and rejection of separatist ones (as in “Apartheid”)
  • The academic as the spokesperson for the victims of nation-state policies
  • Refusal to accept the legitimate terms of engagement with the state through its own tainted mechanisms of legal and political dissent, since the way they are set up is exactly to exclude, rather than exclude
  • The state as exercising its domination through its institutions – including academic ones
  • An understanding of institutions as inherently legitimating of the state apparatus, unless they explicitly denounce and resist the state
  • The confidence in the ability of the progressive activist to manage individual harm and fallout from attacks on state institutions
I have a feeling that if Scott had to write this all over again she would likely remove the sentence of “saving Israel from itself” as unnecessary and inconsistent with a post-nationalist progressivism (that is actually more consistent with a position of the Zionist left).
The question is whether there are any actual facts that would make a difference to this stance. Scott goes on to list a number of violations that academic institutions and the state of Israel are guilty of, but the list is pretty much copied from BDS propaganda literature, is highly anecdotal, and would not stand up to any rigorous and comparative analysis. I think it is irrelevant. And I think it is exactly irrelevant because as long as Israel exercises a nationalist ideology that excludes the claims on rights by some based on that ideology, there is really nothing that Israeli academic, academic institutions, or even the state can do to sway such academic progressives.
But while I have a lot of sympathies for this type of progressivism, it is too crude an instrument to pass muster for a reflexive social criticism and activism that aims at just change, and encodes a primitive and rather naive understanding of the state and social institutions, and of the positive and empowering, and also terribly dark aspects of national solidarity. I don’t think it makes sense to speak of human rights only as a function of a well-established nation-state. Palestinians have their own quasi-state institutions, several at deadly competition with each other – and the terribly dark side of how human rights are managed by them needs to be part of activism as well, which means a more sophisticated understanding at how claims are apportioned and managed by which institutions. The concept of “Palestinian civil society” is an elision BDS adopts I find morally objectionable exactly because it serves to paper over such dynamics.
It also is supremely incapable of understanding how institutions and states are themselves fractured, and the fissures in Israeli society itself over the definition of the nation and who should be included – including a vigorous counter frame in Israel that rejects the particularistc aspects of the state polity, and pushes for inclusive, non-religious, and non-ethnic political and social rights. And it is incapable of understanding variations and alliances within Israel and across Palestinian and Israeli political landscapes for both complicity and effective resistance to settler-Zionist ideology (which is only one among many competing nationalist and non-nationalist ideologies).
And I think an uncritical embrace of the academic progressive ideology, fails to understand nationalism itself as a redemptive and protective ideology. Nationalism is itself a response to disenfranshisement and oppression because modern individual rights and individual agency are inconceivable outside a nation-state framework that empowers it. This is what scares many Israelis and Zionist Jews when confronting the passionate denial of a right to Jewish national self-determination from BDS supporters. It is a denial of their own right to agency and meaningful existence. I think progressives have a moral responsibility to take Jewish and Israeli history into account and understand the painful implications of a tactic of national delegitimation aimed at Israel.
But it does make me wonder if there is any room today for academics to claim the mantle of a progressive (and be recognized as such) while retaining a concept of progressive national solidarity and self-determination. It may be that strong Jewish and/or Zionist identification is too tainted, both because of the association between nationalism and an inherently oppressive state apparatus, and because of the rejection of any kind of separatist and particularistic group identifications, because of suspicions that its positive solidarity is potentially exclusive of others, all the more so if it seen as carrying privilege. It may be that embracing a more critical position of progressivism requires the acceptance of a certain degree of denunciation by the prevailing progressive culture club.

The Academic Boycott and the Proxy Science War in American Anthropology – Or How Reflexive Anthropology Disappeared from AAA

As a cultural sociologist who has closely followed the debates over Boycotting Israeli academia in the American Anthropological Association, I’ve been surprised at the lack of… well, anthropology.

In response to efforts of Anthropologists sympathetic with the BDS movement, AAA put together a task force which published its findings in October, 2015 on the status of Palestinians and Palestinian and Israeli scholars. The report’s authors claimed to have used anthropological methods and scholarship to study the situation, but I had a hard time finding any anthropology in the report at all. Methodologically, there was neither the classical immersion-style fieldwork, nor more contemporary approaches of collaborative knowledge production where “informants” are authorized as experts and become co-authors. On the theory side, the task force report relies on the master frames of “settler colonialism” and a “unitary matrix of control,” despite acknowledging that these are controversial ways of understanding the Israeli state and certainly contested by many Israelis. These contradictions between the making of the report and its content, on the one hand, and anthropological research standards and methodologies, on the other, raises troubling questions about the degree to which the American Anthropological Association will let itself be shaped by global political concerns to the detriment of advancing professional interests of the academic association, and indeed whether political and ideological battles leave any room for a meaningful anthropology, or dimply degenerate into ideological positions and highly political discourses.

The Report on the Task Force on Israel Palestine was supposed to be a resource for members who would be voting at the business meeting of the AAA in Denver, in November 2015. Two resolutions were offered by AAA members. Resolution #1, submitted by a group of that includes Israeli anthropologists, criticized current Israeli policies that continue to make Palestinian lives miserable, and that restrict the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars. It denounced those state policies, and proposed a set of steps AAA itself could do to seek to enlarge and protect the space for anthropological practice in the region. The idea was to help local anthropologists to engage in work that could help address both their own situations and also contribute to scholarship that could illuminate the conflict and seek ways to resolve it. The second resolution, denounced the Israeli state and accused it of willfully engaging in ethnic cleansing as well as engaging in destruction of Palestinian universities and denying Palestinian rights to academic freedom and education, and American complicity in such policies. And it finally exclaims that Israeli universities are complicit in this because they allow expertise, planning, and technology under their auspices that contribute to this. To address this, the resolution called for the AAA to engage in a boycott of Israeli universities, until such time as those universities are no longer “complicit” with Israeli Occupation and policies of inequality.

The mobilization by the BDS activists was impressive and enormously disciplined in its messaging, and as political theater. Their performance at the AAA, and at the Business Meeting in particular, was a model of how to run a political campaign. And a political campaign is precisely what this was. BDS buried anthropology as a mode of thought and analysis. Instead of pursuing thoughtful anthropological debate over the existence of multiple perspectives and truths, and consequently acknowledging the profound difficulty of figuring out an ethical path forward, the AAA meetings became something akin to a tribal expression of solidarity in which BDSers presented themselves as holding the single, morally pure, position. This leads me to wonder about what an anthropological analysis of BDS itself might provide. Indeed, how is an academic boycott not a contemporary, secular pollution taboo against colleagues deemed to be tainted?

Part of me finds this astonishing. I always considered Anthropology to be more sophisticated in its understanding of the production of knowledge than sociology. I observed how anthropologists, much more than sociologists, had developed reflexive tools to avoid simplistic transference and counter transference of their own politics and culture onto the Other. Their experimentation with diverse genres of representation, including those that write one’s informants and cultural modes of knowing into the analysis, enabled anthropologists to avoid simplistic moral narratives that depicted the other in a non-agentive, ahistoric, acontextual, and overly cohesive depictions. Anthropology has long been committed to interrogating the way its own practitioners were implicated in representations of the other, and to seek out innovative forms of mutuality, such as by dialogic means of representation. While some critics denounced this reflexivity as potentially centering the anthropologist as the main character, I found that this approach carried a liberating rejection of master narratives. It focused on developing complex and nuanced understandings in which readers came to see that cultures and identities were forged through multiple and contradictory logics and agencies.. Although I have had my disagreements with Anthropology, I have always thought that sociology could learn a few things from its sister discipline.

Yet as anthropologists have descended into the Palestinian-Israeli polemical quagmire, vestiges of scholarly anthropology have all but disappeared, and claims and arguments are made on the strength of narratives that resonate with the political and moral values of different constituents, these themselves largely shaped by the structured position within the field of anthropology. The task force report itself is a mess of a document that occasionally references scholarly work, although highly selectively, but also happily relies on borrowed master narratives without attribution, and activist anecdotal reporting without any prioritization or valuation of references.

And the “debates” from active participants are even more polemic, and devoid of systematic introspective analysis. Battle lines have been drawn along demarcations that seem to mirror the science wars that marred academia in mid-to-late 90s. Except, of course, that the most “objectivist” and marginalized anthropologists are unlikely to enter the fray. Left in the game are the everything-is-political-and-anthropology-is-just-tool-in-the-battle-for-political-values and the somewhat more moderate values-and-politics-should-be-informed-by-research-not-drive-it orientations. Those disgusted and alienated by the naked battle for cultural capital, for what “cool anthropology” should look like are unlikely to weigh in. There is no resolution that appeals to them, and any debate is simply likely to delegitimize their understanding of cultural capital (what counts and is recognized as authoritative in the field) – so a lose/lose proposition.

I am reminded of Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus, where he uses careful institutional analysis, in-depth interviews, and correspondence analysis to show how the academic wars in the late 60ies in France aligned viewpoints along structural positions in the various fields, the professorial generations, and the new emerging orientations in humanities and social sciences. And the there is Bourdieu’s trenchant analysis of the “Spokesperson” in Language and Symbolic Power, where he shows how the spokesperson by claiming to be nothing but the reflection of the will of the People (or in this case “Palestinians” or “Israelis”, or … you name your reified essentialized category), at one and the same time channels and borrows authority from the constructed category of the pure moral (and therefore personally disinterested), while denying their own creative agency in constructing their claims and narratives (see my post on this). In both cases, Bourdieu takes these analyses as the point of departure for a call for a reflexive sociology, one that is attentive to the speakers’ own situatedness in institutional and structural positions in various fields, so as to generate an actual critical sociology that is not only politically relevant, but also effective.

But I see no reflexive sociology or anthropology in the debates around the Academic Boycott. There are plenty of identity politics “as a Jew…”, “as an activist” “as a Palestinian”, but you won’t hear much of “as an anthropologist…”, “as a researcher…” etc. For all the talk of delegitimation, sanctions, boycotts, engagements, non-engagement etc., you would think there would be lots of discussion about classical anthropological notions of pollution and solidarity, and how institutions think, but you see, anthropology is a critical endeavor cannot survive when the role of the spokesperson is the rule, and reflexivity is out the window.

But this reflexivity, I think, is urgently needed. There is a new generation of anthropologists who desperately want to be relevant, critical, and socially engaged. Nothing wrong with that. But it needs to do so by seriously interrogating what that engagement can look like and what politics it would engender, what kind of anthropology and scholarship would inform it, and how it can build on a diversity of anthropologies. It should teach that such engagements are not for the faint of heart, and requires taking some personal risks, and cannot be short-circuited by jumping on a band wagon of defending “the oppressed” somewhere far away, but requires an anthropological lens and engagement to lend it authenticity and integrity. It should be an anthropological engagement that builds on accumulation of knowledge, an understanding of the scholar’s own “complicity” or positioning a variety of different structures, a commitment to be open to an Other that one does not like, and be ready to be surprised. And it requires a commitment to not take at face value the constructions, narratives, and morality tales of its interlocutors, and probe instead at how they are entangled in a local struggle for claims-making. A struggle that entails competing efforts at restricting and enlarging the universe of included and excluded agents. By looking closely and attentively at the local struggles for authorized claims-making, a reflexive Anthropologist is uniquely positioned to identify and offer frameworks that can bridge and deconstruct such competing constructions, and thereby offer ways for conceiving larger and more inclusive publics that recognize all kinds of otherwise excluded agents and claims.

On Speaking on Behalf of the Oppressed

In Language and Symbolic Power[1], Pierre Bourdieu shows how the spokesperson by claiming to be nothing but the reflection of the will of “the People” at one and the same time channels and borrows authority from this constructed category (“the People”). In this act of charismatic magic, the spokesperson both constructs herself as nothing but a conduit, while also constructing the category of the spoken for. This act of institution also positions the spokesperson, since she is merely a conduit for an authorized other, as personally disinterested, and therefore all the more authoritative. It is an act of projected self-denial, motivated purely by the desire to present the will of this newly instituted “People.” But perhaps most importantly it is a speech act that denies the spokesperson’s own creative agency in constructing her claims and narratives, and thus removes an obvious target for criticism.

I was reminded of this beautiful analysis when I read the AAA Boycott resolution, and some of the reports on the speeches from the business meeting where the resolution vote took place. The resolution itself claims it is a response to the call from “Palestinian Civil Society” which thereby similarly removes the authors from creative agency (and authorship/ accountability) , while constructing the authoritative source of “Palestinian Civil Society.” But this will-without-author had an interesting twist in the American context. Bourdieu himself points out elsewhere in the book that contrary to Austen’s understanding of only the immediate context of a speech act, it matters greatly who utters a speech act, and what exactly endows them with the additional specific charisma to endow the speech act with actual power.

In that sense, political theater matters greatly, and the Boycott campaign brilliantly choreographed the spokespersons to derive maximum authority to the messages they delivered. It was reported to me (I wasn’t there personally) that most of the speakers for the Boycott resolution were young women, and were identified either as Arab/Palestinian, or wore T-shirts that identified them as Jewish (“Another Jew Supporting the Academic Boycott”).

There is of course the messaging implying in selecting young women to do the speaking – the least professionally authoritative and therefore the best vessels for denying the authorship of spokesperson and present the spoken-for as the real authentic author. Other dynamics are at works too, namely the implied equivalence (Bourdieu calls it homology) between the young and disenfranchised Palestinians and the powerful Israeli establishment on the one side and the insurgent rebels and the old establishment trying to stem the tide of the boycott campaign.

But what I find most interesting is the identity politics that provide different types (and asymmetric) authenticates to the messengers. The Arab/Palestinian authorizes the speaker as authentically interested, while the Jew authorizes the speaker as authentically disinterested. What I mean is this: it is because the Arab/Palestinian is perceived as close or even identified with the victims that their message carry additional authority. But exactly because of the asymmetric valence on moral/dominated/Palestinian vs immoral/dominating/Israeli Jew, it allows for an inverse authenticity for the Jewish spokesperson. Because of the close and identified position of the Jewish spokesperson to the Israeli Jew, a message on behalf of the Palestinian cause, is all the more disinterested, authentic, and carries moral authority. This only works because of the asymmetric valence. The moment the Jewish person speaks on behalf of an Israeli message the moral authority becomes immediately suspect as interested because it maps to the dominated/immoral valence.

[1] Bourdieu, Pierre (1991). Language and Symbolic Power (John B. Thompson, ed) Cambridge: Polity Press. See also his articles “The social space and the genesis of groups” Theory and Society, 14(6), 1985, pp. 723-744 and “Social space and symbolic power”  Sociological Theory, 71(1), 1989.pp.14-25.


Jews for BDS – On American over-Identification with Israel

A strange, even if carefully staged, political theater played itself out at the AAA conference. Many young supporters of the Boycott campaign, organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, were wearing shirts proclaiming “Another Jew Supporting the Academic Boycott.” At the business meeting, these – along with young people of Arab descent – were foregrounded in bringing motions and offering comments. Notwithstanding the selectively choreographed identity politics, I do believe this moment dramatized something quite different than the intended script, namely the vastness of the gap between Israel and the mainstream organized Jewish community on the one hand, and a very large segment of young Americans of Jewish heritage.

I think mainstream Jewish voices who denounce – as self-loathing Jews – Jewish Voice for Peace and activists who only seem to recall their Jewish heritage when tactically advantageous to invoke this otherwise dormant identity miss the point entirely. I don’t think they are self-loathing Jews in the least. But I do not think that many of any of them have any positive associations with organized Judaism, and most certainly not with Israel. I don’t they are much different than any other American who are committed to universalist values of dignity, social justice, and protection of the oppressed, and see Israel, not as a beleaguered middle eastern democracy trying to survive in a really bad neighborhood, but as the last and anachronistic vestige of Western Imperialism and Colonialism. In a sense then, they overidentify with Israel as part of and an artifice of unjust Western policies, and – as Americans – therefore see it as their noblesse oblige, as their burden of privilege, to attack this potent symbol of American domination by aligning themselves with its victims. Although most do not have any particularly deep sense of Jewish identity, I do think most lift from the rich Jewish heritage a vague sense of a tradition of universalist-oriented commitment to social justice and progressive causes. In this sense, and perhaps this sense alone, they see this vague Jewish identity something cool, cosmopolitan, urban, progressive, and inclusive, and organized Jewish community is just too particularistic and anchored. But much more than that, Israel stands as the single biggest challenge to this self-conception. The very things that made older generations embrace Israel, that enabled Israel to survive, and that continues to inspire non-Jewish conservatives, namely an unapologetic, muscular nationalism that is Western-oriented, is anathema to them, and likely mobilize them even stronger to oppose Israel and align themselves with the Palestinian cause.

I think it is a misreading to see this as self-loathing. It’s a very thin identification with Judaism perhaps, and much more an American progressive alignment that tries to confront their own sense of privilege, while finding a space for doing good and making a difference for social justice. And in that sense, nothing can be a more potent symbol than Israel, not as a Jewish symbol, but as an American one. This is an over-identification with Israel as “the ugly part of us”, where “us” is Western and American colonial power,  and not at all as an Other that needs to be understood and translated. It is also a repudiation of both Israeli and Jewish organized insistence that Israel is necessary for the Jews, or that a robust and deep Jewish identity is needed. It also, I think, reveals a confidence that anti-semitism is a non-issue for them. It neither haunts them, restricts their sense of opportunities and social relations, nor targets them – as long as they remain committed to the Palestinian cause.

I don’t think Israel has an answer for these kids. Successive governments have done their best to eradicate the charismatic progressive movements on the left, leaving only settler Zionism as the remaining charismatic movement engaged with building something from a value-based perspective. To mobilize these kids would require something quite painful for Israeli leaders, namely legitimating the very progressive forces and projects in Israel they consider enemies and draw them into something that would appeal to their progressive energies.

And the organized Jewish communities too have no answers. The knee-jerk reactions to exclude all those who are remotely critical of Israel, such as J-Street, and banishing boycott-friendly events and activism from campus Hillels, has only served to shrink the space for engagement that doesn’t simply consist of rejection. And I don’t think Jewish organizations have noticed the way that their own identification with Israel has become part and parcel of an American cultural political landscape and dialectic, and increasingly aligned them with conservative political forces that embrace Israel for the very reasons young activist reject it, namely as an overidentified extension of Western civilization, democracy, and entrepreneurship, and an unapologetic robust nationalism.

Israelis of course overidentify too with America and the West, assuming that no cultural translation is necessary in engaging with Americans and American Jews. The result is an almost humorous bilateral misrecognition where they speak completely past each other even as they assume they are speaking the same cultural language.

On Reconstructionism

I have been reading Mordecai Kaplan’s “Judaism as a Civilization” as well as Mel Scult’s “The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan.” Actually, I started on Scult first, but while well written, I found the parts I am particularly interested in, namely Kaplan’s sociological imagination, missing. For those who don’t know who Kaplan was, he was a Jewish rabbi, professor, and philosopher, and the founder of the 4th stream of Jewish denominations, reconstructionism. Kaplan published his mammoth work in the early 30s although many of the ideas had been developed and published earlier. Kaplan was frustrated with the widening gaps between the practical and spiritual realities of American life and not only traditional Judaism, but also Conservative and Reform responses to modernity. Taking what one might call a democratic, progressive variant of functionalist sociological approach to the problem at hand, Kaplan argued that fundamental practical social realities and political inclusion in American life had radically changed conditions for Jews in America. A concept of a supernatural God that dictated practices and beliefs in this world, and an acceptance of injustice and suffering as a temporary transit point to salvation in the afterlife simply, did not align with the sociological realities of Jews in America, in their new found opportunities for self-expression, individual realization, spiritual meaning, and sources of satisfaction and worth in work, education, entertainment, the arts, and social relations that could be found outside of the confines of a narrow Jewish community. Kaplan believed that to address this problem required a radical reworking of what Judaism meant through a sociological lens. Judaism needed to be reconceived in such a way as to be perfectly aligned with American life. Embracing what he saw as the immensely creative potential of American spiritual life, his response was to constantly find ways to maximize the Jewish in American Judaism. This required not just a reinterpretation of the vast Jewish heritage to emphasize those aspects that particularly resonated with American life, but also to embark on institution building that proactively insisted on funneling as much as possible of practical life through such institutions to build practical solidarities (both organic and mechanical to borrow from Durkheim) at the experiential level. He was the founder and director of one of the first Jewish community centers that incorporated a gym and pool in addition to a sanctuary open to the working class immigrant Jews, and not just the affluent established ones who had closed themselves up into exclusive synagogues – “shul with a pool” – to carry this sociological vision further. I find this project fascinating and am eager to continue to read him with an updated sociology in mind and a set of new practical realities that Kaplan did not have to confront. I am also interested in Kaplan’s positive support of Zionism – remember that this is pre-state Israel and most of American Judaism was indifferent or somewhat hostile to a Jewish nationalism that could call into question the status of Jews as loyal citizens of their host countries. It seems that Kaplan saw Zionism and in particular Ahad Ha’am’s vision of it, not as a replacement for an reconstructed and authentic American Judaism, but as a national project that was likely to focus the energies of Jews, giving them a point of pride and anchor in a joint national project, and strengthen communal solidarity. If this is so, what happens when the liberal and progressive underpinnings of such practical Utopian visions, once solidified in state bureaucracy losses its reason d’etre and with it, its charismatic potential? And what happens to a vision based on construction (a nation and a reconstructed agentic self, as well as actual settlements and institutions) once the space for such building and construction disappears? This is no less than the seminal challenge of American and European Judaism and how it should or shouldn’t relate to a Jewish homeland that has lost its charismatic pull for progressive nation building.