indicates related category indicates related category

Anthropologists’ Case for Dialogue vs. Boycott

By TTN Blog

There’s a pending effort to enlist the American Anthropological Association in an academic boycott of Israel.  The AAA has formed a “Task Force on AAA Engagement on Israel-Palestine,” which issued a report in October 2015 (referred to below as the TFR).  Thanks to Dr. Gila Silverman of the University of Arizona, advocates of The Third Narrative have been alerted to a critical evaluation of the TFR by Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel and Palestine (ADIP).  A pdf of the full evaluation can be accessed by clicking here.  The following is an abridged version of this critique, examining the TFR’s theoretical framework and including a brief historical background on Zionism, Israel and Palestine:


This in-depth review reveals a number of compounded shortfalls in the TFR:

  • Neglecting its original task of having “productive conversations” using a “diverse set of lenses” that might enhance members’ understanding of “complexities,” the TFR ends up as an unbalanced, one-sided document. It reduces this Middle Eastern conflict to a string of accusations towards Israel.  . . .

  • [It] is premised on choosing a single paradigmatic frame (Israel as a “settler colonial state”) as the report’s linchpin. As a consequence, the history of Israel and Palestine is represented in shallow and misleading terms. To support its bias the TFR makes selective use of references and sources.

  • The critique which follows illustrates this bias with regard to two main fields: Israeli health services for Palestinians and Palestinians’ access to higher education.  It demonstrates how TFR’s treatment consistently misrecognizes crucial data, de-contextualizes the discussion, empties it of real historical validity, and shapes it as a series of stereotypic and erroneous images.  . . .

Section 1

Twisted Perspectives:

The TFIP Report and Israel as a “Settler-Colonialist” State

The TFIP Report on AAA Engagement in Israel-Palestine has been depicted as an academic statement—but a cursory reading shows it to be a political document. The Report’s political slant is made clear by packaging its discussions in the “settler-colonialism” frame. Introduced early (p. 7), it is the central concept suffusing the entire document. 

. . .  Embracing “settler colonialism” as the preferred frame of analysis—and also an implied accusation—obviates careful attention to the complex historical as well as present day relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel as a “settler-colonial state” becomes the fulcrum around which the entire Report is constructed.

This politically motivated selection poses questions. What is meant by the term “settler- colonial state”? What evidence is offered for its greater explanatory power in comparison with others? Most importantly, since it is acknowledged that a conceptual framework will largely determine subsequent analysis and conclusions, how has choosing the “settler-colonial” paradigm shaped (or warped and distorted) the TFR and its interpretation of the complexities of Israel-Palestine?

The TFR claims that Israel is a “settler-colonial” state but does not provide a justification or even a definition of what that means. Despite considerable literature regarding the concept as a general historical type, and vigorous discussions and debates among historians and sociologists—with specific reference to Israel— regarding its explanatory power, we are left without an explanation.  Instead, the TFR presents a brief list of what it calls “settler-colonial states,” and then assumes or intimates that Israel fits this supposed type. Citing a single unknown source (“one interlocutor”), the authors state: 

“in the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and Rhodesia, a group of settlers established themselves and, moving toward military, political and demographic dominance, sought to take over land from the people who were already there, using a mixture of force, treaty negotiations and legal instruments to marginalize previous inhabitants and push them into progressively smaller and less desirable islands of land.” (p. 12)

Assuming for the moment that this off-hand selection and phrasing has any analytic power, where is the evidence that these processes actually took place historically in Palestine-Israel and that Israel belongs to this category? Since neither evidence nor informed discussion is provided, we must closely examine the Report’s efforts to insert Israel into this category.

To begin, the total lack of clarity regarding place and time should be noted. Does “settler-colonial” refer to the 1920s in the Mandate period, to the post-state 1950s, or to the period following the 1967 War and occupation of West Bank territories, or to all of the above? Similarly, is the model meant to refer to the State of Israel, to the West Bank and Gaza, or to both? Are the TFR’s authors being deliberately vague?

. . .  Let us go back in time. When some Jews migrated to and settled in Ottoman Palestine was that “settler colonialism?” Or was Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine a project similar to Great Britain’s colonization of Canada, Rhodesia and New Zealand? Most Israeli Jews and many others around the world who are familiar with the history of Zionism and of Israel/Palestine would find this a strange portrayal of Jewish immigration. Political scientist Johannes Becke summarizes the substantial arguments against this claim:

“The Zionist movement had no metropole; Zionist settlement did not aim at economic enrichment; Jewish immigrants did not politically control the territory; support  by imperial powers shifted (in the end, Jewish independence had to be imposed against colonial Great Britain); the Zionist movement neither exploited local labor nor intended to spread any mission civilitrice; and of course, unlike British settlers in Aotearoa (New Zealand) Jewish immigrants could point to centuries of cultural, religious, economic, and migratory ties to the Land of Israel.” (p. 5)

This is a stark rebuttal of the simplistic model of “settler-colonialism.” At the very least it makes clear that there are sharply diverging interpretations of Israel’s history, which the Report explicitly avoids presenting (p. B-1).

Furthermore, the fact that most Jews who arrived after the 1948 War were refugees, from World-War II Europe and from Muslim countries, also challenges the settler-colonial thesis. A wide-ranging article by historian Derek Penslar, “Zionism, Colonialism and Postcolonialism,” elaborates these points, while also bringing the issues of later periods into focus. With regard to the pre-1948 period, Penslar concludes that:

“[Zionism] was not, in and of itself, a form of colonial practice. Due to myriad historical and ideological factors, Zionism sought to realize itself in the Middle East, in an area not chosen for its strategic value, natural resources or productive capabilities, but solely because of the Jews’ historic, religious and cultural ties to the area known to them as the Land of Israel.  Because Zionism’s mission civilisatrice was directed almost entirely inward, to the Jews themselves, Zionism lacked the evangelical qualities of European colonialism in North America, Asia and Africa, where conversion of the heathen to Christianity served as a justification, consequence and at times a partial cause of colonial expansion.” (p. 96)

While rejecting the “settler-colonial” understanding of the pre-1948 context, Penslar argues that relationships between Israelis and Palestinians later underwent deep changes. “As a result of the 1948 war”, he writes, “Israel became an independent state, which, like a great many postcolonial states, oppressed an indigenous national minority… but such policies were not necessarily a form of Western colonialism.” (p.97) Moving to more recent events, Penslar is clear that following the 1967 War and the occupation of the West Bank “Israel’s relationship with the Arab minority [changed] to a genuine form of colonialism.”

“The speed with which the Palestinian labor force and market became tools for Israeli economic exploitation, the harshness of the Israeli military occupation and the sheer numbers of Arabs brought under Israeli control quickly created a colonial regime in the occupied territories.” (p. 97)

This is a cogent critique of the uniform claims of the “settler-colonial” model: the pre-1948 nationalist Zionist movement differed fundamentally from European colonization in Africa, Asia or North America. In contrast, the post-1967 imposed military regime and Jewish settlement in the West Bank may be seen as an Israeli colonial project.

These basically separate phases in a complex history clearly explain why Israel should not be considered a “settler-colonial state” and why it should still be criticized for the specific Jewish settlement in the occupied territories. We cite Penslar’s concluding caveat: “Scholars would be well served to consider the importance of ruptures as well as continuities within the fabric of Israeli history when evaluating the relationship between Zionism and colonialism.” (p.97). Viewed in this light, it is ironic that anthropology—which in recent decades has stressed discontinuities and fissures—should opted for a seamless understanding of the development of Zionism and Israel.

At the very least, the “settler-colonial” model is controversial, and other concepts or models might have been selected. Different frames of analysis have been adopted by Israeli, Palestinian, and other scholars. Examples are “a conflict of opposed nationalisms,” or an “ethno-national conflict”, that usefully have been employed by some social scientists and historians. Why has the TFR privileged the “settler colonial” perspective?

The answer is made plain on page 76 of the Report, in an extraordinary sentence:

“Anthropology has a particular responsibility that no other discipline has to oppose settler-colonialism and modes of social domination that mobilize categories of race/ethnicity/culture that earlier generations of anthropologists were complicit in constructing.”

This heavily-packed sentence demands attention at several levels. First, it becomes crystal-clear that the “settler-colonial” choice is entirely political: it was chosen because it conforms well to the authors’ academic-political world view. The argument is perfectly circular. Anthropology is understood to oppose “settler colonialism,” so once this label is attached to Israel it must be condemned. Another model of analysis, like “conflict between opposed nationalisms,” would not support the claim that “Anthropology has a particular responsibility” to oppose it.

Second, the sentence carries an authoritarian or even religious flavor. Since when are anthropologists charged with a “particular responsibility” to think or act in one way or another? Within a discipline that prides itself in revealing complexity and nuance, how can the authors’ insist upon such simplistic formulations?

Third, what exactly are the evils that “earlier generations of anthropologists were complicit in constructing?” What precisely is the meaning of this scandalous innuendo? The TFR authors may believe that they have a special claim upon Truth, but it takes a certain arrogance to assert that previous scholars (“generations” no less!) in one’s own academic discipline lacked moral insight, understanding and commitment. The implication is that the larger task of the “Task Force” seems to be to transform anthropology itself—thus far a respected scholarly discipline—into a conformist political project.

Consequences of Selecting the Settler-Colonial Model

The authors of the TFR did note that their selection of “settler colonial” would shape their presentation. Nowhere is this clearer than on page 15, in “History Denied.”  Their selection of terms is quixotic if not bewildering: the section most certainly is a denial of history, but not in the way they intended.

What we learn in this section is that there was a war in 1948, and its sole consequence was the Nakba, the Palestinian people’s tragedy. This is a fine illustration of “History Denied”! What events led to the 1948 War?  Were there casualties among the Jewish population? How might this lengthy, bloody war have influenced the behaviors and policies of both Arabs and Jews in the decades that followed?

These are only a few of the questions that might be asked—but none appear under the rubric “History Denied.” To make things clear: a 1947 General Assembly resolution, affirmed the recommendation to establish two separate states; it was accepted by the Jewish leadership but rejected by the Palestinian leadership and Arab states. Armed conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine then broke out, becoming outright war when Britain left the country in May 1948. Following Israel’s establishment, the Egyptian Army advanced into southern Israel and the Jordanian Army seized control of West Bank areas and Arab Jerusalem. Thousands of Israeli Jews and Palestinians died. There certainly was a Palestinian disaster—dozens of villages were destroyed and about 700,000 Palestinians became refugees—but to present the Nakba as the sole consequence of the 1948 War is a total twisting of history.

This politically-slanted feature of the TF Report obviously conforms to its “settler-colonial” frame of reference. In this rendering of history there was no bitter conflict between opposed national or ethno-national groups living in and claiming the same small territory. Instead, “settler-colonial Jews” marshaled strength, dispossessing and then oppressing the tragically overwhelmed Arabs. Given this one-dimensional “analysis,” the TFR ignores Israeli casualties in the war for its very existence (more than 6,000 Israelis—roughly one percent of the Jewish population—were killed in the 1947-49), and does not consider short- and longer-term Israeli outlooks and policies as consequences of the war.

The pattern is repeated throughout: succeeding sections of the TFR supply biases, abuses, denials, and prejudice presumably leveled in one direction only: by Israeli Jews against Palestinians. History and context for the “data” are absent. One would hardly know about major wars in 1967 and 1973 (initiated by hostilities from Arab states) resulting in thousands of casualties, or that during the 1990-2000s hundreds of Israeli civilians were killed by so called Palestinian suicidal (murderous) bombers, or that in 2014 thousands of rockets launched from the Gaza Strip killed and wounded Israeli civilians, both Jewish and Palestinian. Neither would one learn of repeated diplomatic attempts and negotiations aimed at lowering or ending hostilities between the sides. The one-sided reduction of history is not only because the story is “long, complex, and richly disputed” (p. B-1). Rather, the “settler-colonial” frame encourages both extreme partiality and denial, leaving a one-dimensional view of a seemingly never-ending Israel-Palestine conflict.

Finally, as pointed out by Herbert Lewis, in their “settler-colonial” version TF authors consistently portray Palestinians as devoid of agency. Palestinians have been historically active in pursuing their interests and opposing Israeli policies, but the “settler-colonial” frame reduces them to near-passivity. It does no justice to the lengthy struggle of the Palestinian people for rights within Israel, and a separate state of their own, and makes no mention of their own responsibility for advancing toward peace and seeking social justice. Paradoxically, by selecting this frame, the TFR does not provide an anthropologically coherent analysis of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and fails to comprehend, or give proper voice to, the active ways in which Palestinians in both Palestinian territories and in Israel have continued to seek their independence or full citizen rights. There are ample anthropological concepts to relate to these developments, but the “settler-colonial” mantra condemns them to irrelevancy.

In sum, by using the “settler-colonial” paradigm, the TFR papers over a crucial distinction between pre-1967 Israel and Jewish settlement in the Occupied territories subsequent to them. No clear distinction between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians living under Israeli occupation is offered and sustained in the document. Hence, like the BDS movement, the report fails to draw a clear line between criticizing Israeli policies and actions and challenging Israel’s very existence. The biased paradigm allows readers to feel that opposition to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands engenders questioning its very legitimacy as an independent  state.  . . .

Again, a pdf of this entire critique can be accessed by clicking here.  And we are informed by Dr. Silverman that Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel and Palestine  (ADIP) has released a series of videos, with Israeli and American scholars speaking about the proposed boycott.  One of these videos is shown below; click here for a link to this and other such YouTube videos online:

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply