Anthropology: From Pursuing Science to Endorsing Genocidal Terrorists

Editor’s Note: This article originally stated that the Six-Day War occurred in 1968, and that the Yom Kippur war occurred in 1972. These dates have been corrected to 1967 and 1973, respectively.


When I began studying cultural anthropology in 1960, anthropologists still aspired to be scientific. Leaders in the discipline wrote books with titles like A Natural Science of Society, A Scientific Theory of Culture, and Essays in the Science of Culture. It is true that, in practice, cultural anthropology was more a craft than a science, but the aspiration to science signaled the seriousness of the venture.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, cultural anthropologists set out to explore the human world, developing the practice of ethnographic fieldwork to collect first-hand information about societies and cultures around the globe. The extraordinarily rich variety of social organization and culture was the focus, from witchcraft to matrilineal organization, evil spirits, segmentary lineage tribes, socialization and enculturation, hunting and gathering economies, caste and class, pastoralism and nomadism, the psychodynamics of family and religion, and exchange systems, to name a few of the topics.

The 1960s saw the decline of a scientific ideal for anthropology. New initiatives in cultural anthropology reframed the field as a political rather than a scientific project. Feminist anthropology burgeoned in the decade and was quite explicit regarding the political nature of its goals: to advance the interest of females. Feminist anthropology did not so much explore questions, but rather advanced feminist answers, primarily that females were all around the world suppressed victims of the evil patriarchy—a universal social pattern at last! The point was not to explore the complexities and nuances of the human world, but to instantiate female victimhood.

Feminist methodology and epistemology rejected scientific objectivity, claiming that knowledge was entirely a function of “positionality,” or one’s place in society. There was only subjectivity, each version reflecting the position of a given person in the power structure. The search for objective knowledge was futile; what counted as knowledge was whatever would advance the interests of females by overthrowing the patriarchy and replacing males with females in the power structure. The rejection of science was further advanced by Marxist “critical theory” and “postmodern” nihilism.

The 1960s counter-culture rebellion in America, along with the anti-war movement, inspired the rise of Marxist anthropology. It too had its dialectical materialist truths: class oppression was universal; workers were repressed by the bourgeois capitalists. Lenin’s emphasis on the exportation of the class struggle to colonies was particularly attractive to Marxist anthropologists, as it guided them to frame the entire world in terms of class struggle. Marxist anthropologists become the champions of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. The formulation of this approach as “postcolonial theory” became the dominant theoretical paradigm in cultural anthropology by the end of the 20th century.

Leninism had the additional advantage of providing the conceptual tools to condemn Western Civilization in part and in whole. The much-beloved “cultural relativism” applies everywhere around the world, accepting and celebrating all that is human, except to Western Civilization, which is thoroughly evil. (Israel, too, about which more later.) Celebrated works of Marxist anthropology, such as Europe and the People without History, condemned the brutal imposition of Western imperialism and colonialism, while never having a discouraging word to say about Soviet and Communist Chinese imperialism and colonialism, or the hundreds of millions murdered to advance the cause of Marxist society.

Cultural anthropology in the 21st century has been given over entirely to victimology. Anthropologists find a victim community, or one that can be construed as such, describe its suffering, condemn its oppressors, and thus prove their own moral virtue. All of human life and culture has been reduced, by the magic of Marxist and neo-Marxist identity anthropology, to oppressors and victims.

The favored “victim” of anthropologists these days is Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that leads Gaza and is vying with Fatah to take over Judea and Samaria, oops, I mean the “West Bank.” On June 7, 2021, many anthropologists affiliated with the American Anthropological Association published and endorsed the “MES [Middle East Studies Section] Statement on Palestine,” stating that “We stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people against ongoing settler colonialism and condemn Zionist violence against them.” This document was endorsed by the following:

Association of Black Anthropologists Executive Board

Association of Latina/o & Latinx Anthropologists Executive Board

Society for Cultural Anthropology Executive Board

Association for Political and Legal Anthropology Executive Board

Society for the Anthropology of North America Executive Board

Anthropology and the Environment Executive Board

Society for Urban, National, and Transnational/Global Anthropology Executive Board

The Society for Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology Executive Board

American Ethnological Society Executive Board

Society for the Anthropology of Europe Executive Board

Society for Medical Anthropology Executive Board

Society for the Anthropology of Religion Executive Board

Association for Africanist Anthropology Executive Board

Association for Queer Anthropology Executive Board

Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges Executive Board

Council on Anthropology and Education Executive Committee

Anthropologist Action Network for Immigrants and Refugees Steering Committee

Editorial Collective of American Anthropologist

Editorial Collective of Footnotes

Department of Anthropology of American University

Department of Anthropology of Northwestern University

Core Members of the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s Committee on Language and Social Justice

Brown Anthropology Graduate Student Association

The occasion for this solidarity was the launch of several thousand rockets toward Israeli civilian sites by Hamas, a group dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the murder of all Jews, and designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, the Organization of American States, Canada, Egypt, and Japan (but not by Iran, Russia, Syria, Qatar, Turkey, and other supporters of terrorism). Anthropologists took particular offense at Israel defending itself, in spite of the nation’s heroic attempts to avoid civilian casualties.

For anthropologists, Jews deserve no sympathy. They could have been paradigmatic victims, but they stubbornly chose not to be. In Abba Eban’s immortal words, applied by him to the Arabs’ rejection of peace, Jews “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” to be victimized. If Jews had only all succumbed to the Holocaust, they would have been celebrated by anthropologists. Jews could have failed at defending themselves from the invading Arab armies in 1947, or they could have let Nasser destroy their air force in 1967 instead of destroying Egypt’s, or they could have let themselves be overrun and annihilated by Arab states in 1973. Anthropologists would then have loved the Jews. Two thousand years of invasion, exile, oppression, and murder is not sufficient for Jews to qualify as victims; they have to be victims right now.

For the anthropologists, all Marxist postcolonial theorists now, Israel is a “settler colony.” Of what society Israel is a “colony” is never specified. Is Israel a colony of Germany, Poland, or Russia? Or a colony of the many Arab and Muslim states from which Israelis derive: Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, or Iran? How can you be a “colony” when you represent no other home country?

And how can Jews be “colonial settlers” when they are the indigenous people of the territory? We know that Jews are indigenous to Israel, Judea, and Samaria because their history, recorded in the Bible, documents that fact, as does their archaeology. What, don’t believe the Jews? One of my Marxist colleagues said that you did not count as indigenous unless Europeans arrived to find you there. How about the Romans, then, who invaded ancient Israel and eventually conquered, and then exiled, the Jews, finally renaming the area “Palestine” to forget the bitter battles? When the Romans arrived—read their accounts—there were only Jews there. Arabs were in Arabia. Keep in mind that Islam was not invented, and Muslims did not exist until seven hundred years later.

These so-called anthropologists, for whom nothing human is alien, except Jews, take the following thoughtful and balanced position:

We reject the “two-sides” narrative that ignores the differences between one of the most heavily militarized states in the world and a Palestinian population resisting their oppressors. This is a state which continues to displace, dispossess, and murder those living under its illegal occupation, based in ongoing settler colonialism, and a system of ethnic, religious, and racial apartheid. Palestinian resistance to this violent system of occupation and apartheid is a legal right.

Israel was established by the United Nations after earlier international commitments, so it is an entirely legal entity. Palestinians claim that all of Israel is “illegal occupation”—“Palestine from the River to the Sea”—and perhaps anthropologists would celebrate the destruction of Israel. As to the territories that Israel claimed in successful defensive wars against Arab invaders, Judea and Samaria were never recognized as part of any state since the demise of the Ottoman Empire. So the most that could honestly be said about legality is that Judea and Samaria are “contested.”

The anthropologists’ claim that Israel has “a system of ethnic, religious, and racial apartheid” is about as low as you could go. “Apartheid” is separateness, something that does not exist in Israel, where all groups have legal rights and have the capability to mix with others. They do so from the military to the hospitals, and up to the Knesset legislature and the Supreme Court. It is only the Palestinian Authority that favors apartheid, demanding that their territory be ethnically cleansed of Jews.

American anthropologists, besotted with intersectionality, want to see Israel in terms of the American race conflict, today artificially aggravated by the Democratic Party. So, the anthropologists make the literally nonsensical claim that Israelis are “white,” and that Palestinians are “people of color.” This “Statement on Palestine” is a shameful betrayal of anthropology and all that it once stood for. It is very sad to see anthropologists descend to replacing knowledge with partisan slogans, and dishonest ones at that.

Even as a testament to political activism and moral virtue, the “Statement” is an abject failure, because it stands alone. Anthropologists do not wish to speak out about the Syrian slaughter of a half million people, many civilian non-combatants, in the civil war just next-door to Israel. Where was the condemnation of the Islamic State and its murder, enslavement, and gang rape of “infidels”? Shouldn’t anthropologists be concerned about the Chinese ethnic cleansing in Inner Mongolia and Tibet, and the concentration camps for Uyghurs? How about Iran’s theocratic suppression of its people?

Anthropology, when it was devoted to serious intellectual inquiry, enriched Western culture and world culture through a greater appreciation of human diversity and commonality, and the complexity and subtlety of human endeavors. Perhaps the time for this is over. But maybe future academics will look back on our time with amazement and disgust. Then, they may revivify real anthropology.


Image: Raphaël Vinot, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, cropped.

Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

12 thoughts on “Anthropology: From Pursuing Science to Endorsing Genocidal Terrorists

  1. In this piece, professor Salzman misses an opportunity to summarize the history of American anthropology.

    “The 1960s saw the decline of a scientific ideal for anthropology.”

    Surely the rise of Franz Boas’s school from the 1880s onward saw an earler decline of a scientific ideal – to be sure, the crude Darwinism of the time, which still believed in “savages” and “civilised races”, from Darwin’s The Descent of Man. The Boasian method may have been more ethical, but it was less scientific. A good example was Margaret Mead’s now-discredited Coming of Age in Samoa (1928).

    Before Boas was Morgan. Salzman mentions that “Marxist anthropology” had a heyday in the 1960s. But back in the 1870s, an American anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan, actually influenced Marx and Engels – “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” was based on Morgan’s research into Native American societies.

    Professor Salzman is right that anthropology today, like most social science, leans left, often against a scientific approach. I witnessed an example at the American Anthropological Association’s conference in 2000 – Patrick Tierney was given a platform to defend his scurrilous attack on Darwinian anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, and the Association’s defense of Chagnon ranged from half-hearted to non-existent.

    But these are quibbles.

    Fully two-thirds of this article consists of a diversion, a rant in favour of Israel. Because, on June 7th this year, some anthropologists issued a statement about “solidarity with the Palestinian people”, Salzman launches into a lengthy condemnation of Hamas, as if the anthropologists had converted to radical Islam, rather than issuing a boilerplate “solidarity with people X” statement. During the Guatemalan war of the eighties, anthropologists thought they could hardly remain neutral toward the government’s campaign of mass murder of the people they were studying. At the same time, while apartheid still existed in South Africa, anthropologists condemned it. In both cases, the US government was somewhat involved, so liberal Americans felt they had to say something. It’s the same with the Palestinians, but professor Salzman can’t see it like that. It is he who “singles out Israel” for special treatment. And if he responds to this comment, I dare say he will once again accuse me of hostility to Jews, rather than of applying the same rules to everyone.

    1. So where was the companion “boilerplate” statement of solidarity with Israel, which Hamas fired thousands of rockets at? Why did the anthropologists not feel compelled to express any negative feelings about that? And Salzman dismisses the equivalence with apartheid. Nobody needs to “accuse” you of hostility to Jews.

    2. It is precisely that academics focus exclusively on Israel and do not apply “the same rules to everyone.” Here is how K. C. Johnson puts it:
      ‘Backers of the effort did not explain why CUNY faculty should condemn the alleged human rights abuses of one and only one foreign country. The PSC hasn’t criticized Iran for its treatment of gay citizens or Morocco for its annexation of Western Sahara. Egyptian persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood has escaped the PSC’s attention. The union not only has remained silent about China’s genocidal policies toward Uighurs but also passed a resolution last month claiming that “incessant China-bashing by the mainstream media” would lead to another “Cold War.” One PSC delegate even downplayed Hamas’s anti-Semitism, explaining that Hamas merely “wants to get Palestine back for the Palestinian people.”
      ‘Even within its supposed focus of “solidarity with the Palestinian people,” the union demonstrated a curious obsession with Israel. The PSC has expressed no concern about the fate of the thousands of Palestinian civilians killed in the Syrian civil war, including the hundreds who died in Syrian prisons. Nor has the PSC stood in solidarity with gay and lesbian Gazans or political prisoners executed by Hamas. Some “Palestinian people,” it seems, do not deserve “solidarity” from the CUNY academics.’
      https://www.city-journal.org/an-opening-for-dissenters

      1. “The PSC hasn’t criticized Iran for its treatment of gay citizens…”

        My tax money doesn’t prop up Iran, but it pays for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. That’s why I’m obliged to oppose the Lobby, just as I was obliged to oppose apartheid.

    3. Rod McLaughlin omits the contributions of German anthropology to the Nazi regime, about which American anthropologists have had little to say. I quote David Price of St. Martin’s College in Washington (http://web.mnstate.edu/robertsb/445/lessons%20fron%20second%20world%20war%20anthropology.pdf):

      Robert Proctor’s work on Nazi anthropology finds that anthropology as a profession fared rather well under the Nazis, and points out that there were few German anthropologists who opposed the officially sanctioned views of racial science (Proctor, 1988: 166). With the exception of isolated individuals such as Karl Saller, few wartime German anthropologists opposed Nazi views of race and anthropology, and Proctor found disturbingly little evidence that anthropologists resisted expulsion of Jews from Germany (Proctor 1988:164). As Michael Burleigh’s study of the German Ostforcher’s [The Ostforschung was the German Eastern European propaganda agency] contributions to the Nazi campaign stated: “No one asked these scholars to put their knowledge at the service of the government: they did so willingly and enthusiastically.”

      The history of the field of anthropology with respect to the mass murder of Jews stinks. Perhaps, indeed, the field has always been political, for it contributed to the Holocaust. Now that the Jews have a homeland that frees them from centuries of attacks, discrimination, exile, and murder, Jews defend themselves from violent attack and from the ignorant political rants of the field of anthropology. With all due respect to my anthropologist colleagues, the field should be defunded.

  2. they could have let Nasser destroy their air force in 1968 instead of destroying Egypt’s, or they could have let themselves be overrun and annihilated by Arab states in 1972.

    The Six Day war took place in 1967, not 1968, and the Yom Kippur war in 1973.

    As to the territories that Israel claimed in successful defensive wars against Arab invaders, Judea and Samaria were never recognized as part of any state since the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

    The West Bank (“Judea and Samaria”) were part of the Palestinian partition by the United Nations following World War Two. If Israel is recognized as a country due to that UN partition, then Palestine would also have to be recognized as such. The West Bank then was annexed by TransJordan after the 1948 war and this annexation was recognized by the US, among other countries. So the claim that the West Bank has never been recognized as part of any state since the demise of the Ottoman Empire is false.

    1. The palestinians have had multiple chances for peace and their own country, but instead have repeatedly rejected all offers because their hatred of Israel takes precedence. Examples? Where to begin. A good one is the 2000 Camp David Summit where Arafat refused to negotiate in good faith—despite the fact Israeli PM Barak had accepted the terms of the Clinton parameters—but instead decided to launch the 2nd intifada. Doesn’t sound to me like someone seriously interested in actually resolving territorial issues.

      Palestinians have made their choice. Now they need to live with the consequences.

    2. The Jews accepted the UN partition plan, while the Arabs rejected it and a half dozen Arab states invaded to drive the Jews into the sea. You can’t reject the plan and then claim you have rights to what you rejected.
      As for the recognition of Jordan’s control of the “West Bank,” even the Arab states were dubious: “The annexation was widely considered as illegal and void by most of the international community.” The same was true of Egypt’s occupation of Gaza.

      ‘During the December 1948 Jericho Conference, hundreds of Palestinian notables in the West Bank gathered, accepted Jordanian rule and recognized Abdullah as ruler. This was followed by the 1949 renaming of the country from Transjordan to Jordan. The West Bank was formally annexed on 24 April 1950, but the annexation was widely considered as illegal and void by most of the international community.[6] A month afterwards, the Arab League declared that they viewed the area “annexed by Jordan as a trust in its hands until the Palestine case is fully solved in the interests of its inhabitants.”[7] Recognition of Jordan’s declaration of annexation was granted only by the United Kingdom, the United States, and Iraq, with dubious claims that Pakistan also recognized the annexation.[8][9][10][11][12]’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jordanian_annexation_of_the_West_Bank

      1. My point is that the West Bank was not “stateless” after the demise of the Ottoman Empire. This is almost Talmudic reasoning which is too clever by half. It is meant to support Israeli claims that since the West Bank was “stateless”, it can now be incorporated into Israel. The actual history is that the West Bank became part of the British League of Nations mandate (which included TransJordan as well as “the river to the sea”) after World War One and then was part of the UN partition plan. While you make the claim that the invasion by the Arab powers invalidated the UN partition plan, the inhabitants of “Palestine” (the area covered by the partition plan) had no part in that invasion, though of course Arab individuals living in the partitioned area may have hoped it succeeded. But why should intervention by outside powers invalidate a UN plan? And note, regarding the annexation of the West Bank, the US did recognize this–and we were the only power that mattered.

        More to the point, it is now generally accepted that land belongs to the people who live on it. This, of course, is a modern viewpoint, but actually pretty recent (the Nazi invasion of Russia being the last to really contradict this, in Europe at least, unless one considers the Yugoslav wars to be such). Israel’s desire to annex part or all of the West Bank violates this modern sensibility. My opinion is that Israel is better off making an accommodation on the West Bank if it leads to peace (I’m not going to claim that this is easily attainable or even possible). But occupations corrupt the occupying power as well as being intolerable for the occupied.

    3. Mr. Domash (below) goes on to say that “While you make the claim that the invasion by the Arab powers invalidated the UN partition plan, the inhabitants of “Palestine” (the area covered by the partition plan) had no part in that invasion, though of course Arab individuals living in the partitioned area may have hoped it succeeded.”
      The Arabs living in “Palestine” were offered their part of the partition and refused to accept it. Their leaders fled to Egypt and elsewhere, and many of those remaining took up arms and attacked the Jews. It is true that they were promised that the invading Arab armies would destroy the Jews, and that the local Arabs would own the whole, which no doubt encouraged them. For the historical facts, see Efraim Karsh, PALESTINE BETRAYED (2010).

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