By David M. Rosen
Four anthropology professors stood at the entrance of the ballroom at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver last November, where members of the American Anthropological Association would soon vote to boycott Israeli academic institutions, organized by the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement (BDS).
Each professor held up one of a series of enlarged maps that purported to show a visual history of the shrinking Palestinian lands since the beginning of the British Mandate in 1918. The maps, however, had erased a key historical fact, namely that in 1922 the British administratively severed 75 percent of Mandatory Palestine and ultimately transformed it into the country of Jordan, whose population, by the most conservative estimates, is at least fifty percent Palestinian. Indeed, Jordan is the only country in the world that has a Palestinian queen. That part of “shrinking Palestine” was missing from the maps.
I wanted to know how much the professors actually knew about the maps they were carrying. So I asked them, one by one, “How is it that a huge swath of Mandatory Palestine is missing from your maps?” The first responses: absolute silence. The fourth professor finally responded: “I don’t know.” These professors appeared to have little or no actual knowledge of the maps they were carrying. Had they created these maps, or had some BDS operative simply handed them the maps and told them to stand there? Would they have accepted this level of scholarship from their own students?
Although the vote for boycott was an ecstatic moment for BDS supporters, it represents a major crisis for the credibility and integrity of the American Anthropological Association and anthropology as a discipline. There is a huge amount of good anthropological research still taking place in the United States and elsewhere, but the BDS victory is illustrative of the way in which the ideology of the regressive left has hijacked much of the discipline.
The current crisis has its roots in the erosion of the American Anthropological Association’s commitment to science. When the association voted in 2010 to strip the word “science” from its long range plans, much of anthropology had already become thoroughly politicized. Evidence-based scholars such as archeologists and physical anthropologists had all but abandoned the association, and even many cultural anthropologists have walked away in disgust at the replacement of empiricism with narrative form and political aesthetics. What’s left, in many areas of anthropology, are the trace marks of a past discipline which now has little patience for science or for rational debate. The new anthropology is about political advocacy. It frames the world largely in terms of victims and victors, oppressors and oppressed. There is significantly less room for the careful analysis, thick description, and nuanced understanding that have long been the hallmark of good anthropology.
For BDS supporters, the association is the perfect petri dish for their political project. BDS supporters have captured much of the leadership of the association, which considers BDS activism to be bringing back the glory days of the 1960s student protests. Not surprisingly, these leaders decided that “something had to be done” about Israel. So, at the 2014 annual meeting, the AAA leadership promoted and packaged panels which served essentially as BDS political rallies. The panels, in which the stars of the BDS movement were treated like royalty, excluded virtually all dissenting voices. One anthropologist bragged about the politicization of the classroom, crowing that “teaching is my politics.” Another denounced objectivity as “part of the Zionist agenda.”
The Piltdown Adventure
Following this, the AAA leadership appointed a Task Force to examine the situation in Israel and Palestine. The report, released shortly before the 2015 vote, is itself a scandal, marred by pervasive citation bias and bad science. For a short while, the AAA leadership even appointed a known BDS advocate to serve as the chair. The Task Force report is dominated by the use of what can only be called Piltdown methods.
In the great Piltdown hoax of 1912, paleontological hustlers fabricated a phony fossil out of a modern human skull, the lower jaw of an orangutan, and chimpanzee fossil teeth, to produce the so-called “missing link” between human and apes. It took more than 40 years for the hoax to be fully repudiated. The heart of the hoax was the clever combination of unrelated and unconnected materials that were put together to create the appearance of legitimate fossil remains. But what was once a scandalous act has now become the central method of this Task Force as well as of much of the new anthropology.
As in the Piltdown scandal, the report combines exaggerations, distortions and outright fabrications to reach its BDS-mandated conclusion that Israel is a uniquely bad place and deserving of boycott. It’s a report which begins and ends with Israeli culpability for the situation in Israel and Palestine. The original Piltdown hoax was exposed only because anthropologists cared about the data. But in the new post-factual anthropology, only the narrative — not the data — actually counts. Like all forms of propaganda, the truth is a function of its emotional persuasiveness. If it fits the narrative –it is true.
Attacking Israel is a cheap shot for boycotters. There are very few anthropologists in Israel and no independent departments of anthropology. There are only about one hundred members of the Israel Anthropological Association. Of these, perhaps twenty or so hold full time academic posts. Moreover, American anthropologists have never been particularly interested in Israel as a research area, so have very little to lose in boycotting Israel.
Anthropologists continue to happily work in the most dictatorial and oppressive regimes on the planet without losing any sleep. But to attack those regimes could seriously threaten anthropological research opportunities. So boycotting Israel provides a soft target of convenience – a painless way for radicals to feel good without cost.
Finally, there is the touchiest issue, the elephant in the room that no one in anthropology wants to talk about — anti-Semitism. BDS supporters and leaders emphatically deny they are anti-Semitic. But, of course, one could ask, exactly who is it these days who publically admits to being anti-Semitic, or racist, or sexist? At the 2014 association meetings, the single anthropologist who raised the possibility that BDS was anti-Semitic was booed and hissed into silence. Many BDS leaders call for the end of the Jewish presence in Israel and are indifferent to the fate of the millions of Jews living there.
Moreover, it’s hard to imagine that the animus that pervades a group like BDS would even exist if Israel were not a Jewish state. [Don’t hold your breath waiting for anthropologists to boycott Chinese, Russian or United States universities over the occupations of Tibet, Crimea, the Black Hills or anyplace else on the planet.] So just maybe BDS is not per se anti-Semitic. It is amply clear, however, that the BDS movement has become the international safe harbor for anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers, Israel haters, conspiracy theorists, and kooks of every variety. This is now the club that the new anthropology wishes to join. In this land of magical thinking, where ‘truthiness’ prevails over truth, it is hard to imagine anything less than the credibility of an entire profession is at stake.
This story has not yet reached its conclusion, however. The entire membership of the American Anthropological Association will be asked in April to ratify or reject the pro-boycott vote that passed at the annual meeting. One can hope that for the sake of their professional integrity and the future of anthropology, they will soundly reject the emotionalism, bad science and political posturing that have brought it to this juncture.
David M. Rosen is professor of anthropology at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, N.J. and a co-founder of Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel and Palestine.