Combining Activism and Academia: A Moral Imperative

Over the last year, my academic and activist lives have been harder and harder to keep separate. Participation in the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Associations (AAA) in New Orleans last week at times left me wondering if I should even try to achieve a compartmentalization of these two areas of activity. Is it possible? Desirable? Imperative if I want to get an academic job in the United States?

I always look forward to AAA meetings. They provide a great opportunity to see old friends and colleagues, check out the latest books and films, attend interesting panels, enjoy the night life and culinary charms of some great cities (San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans), and participate in the business meetings of the sections of the AAA to which I belong: the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology; the Society for Urban, National, and Transnational Anthropology; and the Middle East Section. At last week’s meetings, I was honored to be elected Secretary and Webmaster for the Middle East Section, many of whose members know me more as a co-founder of the Electronic Intifada or as the North American Coordinator of the International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of Sabra and Shatila than as an ethnographer of citizenship in Israel and Lebanon or a student of Israeli-Palestinian identity politics and post-war Lebanese politico-legal dilemmas, women’s issues, and popular culture.

Like many of my colleagues in the Middle East Section of AAA, I have been deeply concerned about the consequences of politically motivated misrepresentations of the Arab and Islamic worlds following the horrors of 9-11 and the ongoing al-Aqsa intifada. Some of us have been focusing on ways to improve teaching, research, public education, and media work on the region, broadly defined, from a distinctively anthropological perspective, one that analyzes and interprets political developments in historical and cultural context while also attending to the various voices contending for legitimacy and listeners on a global stage. We are trained to look at social organization, institutionalized behaviors and beliefs, the production and propagation of ideologies, stereotypes, and expectations; we are skilled at analyzing and interpreting narratives and counter-narratives. As such, we tend to be well-informed, culturally-attuned, and academically responsible commentators on any number of distressing situations in the Middle East, and the dangers posed to the region, and by the region, in the near future as the Bush administration pursues policies that are unilateralist, imperialist, militarist, and alarmingly dismissive of international law and the building of a global consensus.

Yet at the AAA meetings last week, it was not at the meetings of the Middle East Section that I heard the most compelling discussions of our responsibilities and capacities to educate our fellow citizens about the Arab and Islamic worlds, but rather, it was at a meeting of the Association of Political and Legal Anthropology (APLA), in the course of informal discussions with colleagues who are working in Africa, Thailand, and Native North America; and at a book signing where the most interesting discussions took place.

One of the liveliest sessions featuring anthropologists who work on the Middle East took place the second day of the conference, and featured the incisive and courageous comments of Dr. Laura Nader as a discussant. Although panels that include Dr. Nader are always a sure-fire draw at AAA meetings, for some reason, this panel took place in a room that could only seat about 50 people. It was a standing-room-only affair, and the room became quite cramped, airless and warm with an overflow of avid listeners. In her final comments and critiques of the papers presented—all of them examining whether or not the concept of “area studies” has outlived its usefulness in the Middle East in a globalized era—she correctly noted that a key issue was missing from the panel as a whole and the papers individually: The question of Palestine and the dangers of the current Israeli occupation.

Dr. Nader did not mention, and no one seemed to be aware of, the fact that I and several American, Israeli, and Palestinian colleagues had presented seven stimulating papers on “Mixed Cities in Israel” the previous evening—our panel was the Middle East Section’s sponsored panel this year—but no one from the Section had attended it, nor had any but a handful of the students and professors thronging to hear Dr. Nader on Thursday come to hear us talking about the effects of Zionism on urban planning, socio-economic inequalities, and interpersonal relations in Israel, a profoundly multi-cultural country that presents a mono-cultural face to the world, although it is home to a non-Jewish minority comprising at least 20 percent of the state’s population.

One person speculated that the presence of Israeli scholars at our panel might have had something to do with the surprisingly low attendance, since some academics are now in favor of boycotting Israeli professors and academic institutions to register their displeasure at the Israeli occupation, a position that I find misguided and counterproductive, as does Noam Chomsky.

It seems that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Zionism, and US support for Israel are still topics that many scholars prefer to keep at arm’s length, and given what I learned from some younger colleagues attempting to teach college classes about the Middle East in some respected US institutions, it is no wonder. Three different colleagues reported that they are constantly taunted, insulted, and interrupted in class by students representing the far right of Israeli and US Jewish opinion. It is a safe bet that these students are taking such classes not to learn, but rather, to disrupt lectures, call into question the integrity of the instructor, and even to keep tabs and snitch on professors and graduate students, who are regularly reported to fascistic (and highly anti-American) groups such as Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer’s “Campus Watch” organization. Simply teaching about Palestinian kinship and household practices, food ways, oral history, and folklore has transformed some classrooms into combat zones and vicious debate fora requiring the oversight and intervention of chairs and deans. It takes a very brave graduate student or junior faculty member indeed to keep on teaching under such oppressive and threatening conditions.

We did not discuss this alarming situation at the business meeting of the AAA’s Middle East Section, but it did come up at the meeting of the APLA in the course of a discussion about the dangers posed to freedom of speech, academic inquiry, public debate, research, and education in the wake of the Patriot Act, the Homeland Security focus of the Bush administration, and the run-up to another major war in the region. Professors who do not focus upon or teach about the Middle East provided eloquent commentary about the necessity of defending their fellow scholars working on or in the Middle East and the Islamic world.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the implications of US foreign policy in the region came serendipitously in the course of a book launch on Thursday. Two books were being introduced by the University of California Press series on Public Anthropology. Despite an avid leafleting campaign by two energetic members of the National Association of Students of Anthropology, only a dozen people showed up for the lunch time book launch, held in a banquet hall large enough to accommodate a Kennedy family wedding. The two books were “Birthing the Nation,” by a brilliant young Israeli-Palestinian anthropologist, Dr. Rhoda Kanaaneh of American University and “Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide,” by Dr. Alexander Laban Hinton of Rutgers University.

I had come to hear Dr. Kanaaneh’s presentation about her new book, which analyzes Israeli governmental policies towards, and local Palestinian women’s reactions to, state reproductive guidelines and practices stressing the need for more Jewish and less Palestinian births among Israeli citizens. But it was the intervention by Dr. Hinton, and particularly the stirring introduction to his presentation by the legendary Dr. David Maybury-Lewis of Harvard University (who was adamant that anthropologists had a sacred responsibility to educate for tolerance and to do their utmost to halt genocide and the patterns of human rights abuses that herald such atrocities) that sparked a frank discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Observing that the two books were, whether intended or not, a “set of bookends” sharing a common theme—the dark side of nationalism—I commented on how hard it was to alert people to the parallels between current Israeli policies (not only in the occupied territories, but also among Palestinians inside Israel) and the sorts of pre-genocidal policies and campaigns we have seen elsewhere. I mentioned the debate-extinguishing CampusWatch website and the general fear of being perceived as “anti-Semitic,” rather than anti-Israeli policy, that leads many professors and graduate students to conclude it is best to just keep one’s mouths shut on this particular issue.

No one in the room protested my comparison of IDF atrocities to those of the first stages of infamous genocidal campaigns of the 20th century, nor did anyone accuse me of malicious intent, irresponsible ranting, race-baiting, or anti-Semitism. In this context, the topic of Israel’s brutal occupation of the Palestinian people was not beyond the pale of public debate, or somewhere in the realm of what Noam Chomsky calls “unthinkable thought.” To the contrary, the few people present all seemed to agree with me, and an editor from the University of California press announced that she, as a Jewish American woman, was horrified and appalled by the policies of the Sharon government and hoped that people reading these books would awaken to the dangers of even further bloody deeds in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Two days later, I stumbled across another meeting focused on Dr. Hinton’s book, but this one was very well attended. It was also an organizing session aiming at enrolling more anthropologists in a new organization of academics who study and try to prevent genocide, and who recognize that genocides don’t just happen out of the blue, but are culturally constructed and socially orchestrated through processes, narratives, symbols, and ideologies of long duration. No one other than me attending this session worked on the Middle East or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the discussion session after the presentations, I related my experience of working on the case brought by survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacres against Ariel Sharon, Amos Yaron, and other Israelis and Lebanese in a Belgian court last year. No one in the room had ever heard of it.

I am fairly certain that of the 50 or more people present at this session, only two knew anything about the Belgian Law of Universal Jurisdiction and the possibilities it presents for pursuing war criminals in venues other than the International Criminal Court. I emphasized that the sorts of fine-grained reports that ethnographers create on a daily basis in the course of field research could also provide an excellent source of evidence in such cases, and noted that for victims, going to trial, or at least preparing to do so, was often a key part of healing from the trauma of experiencing and witnessing the worst evils humans can inflict on one another.

This session turned out to be the most inspiring hour I spent at the 2002 AAA meetings. It showed how all four fields of anthropology—cultural, linguistic, archaeological, physical—as well as applied and theoretical stances, can and must be brought to bear on the identification, analysis, and ultimately the prevention of any and all situations indicative of future genocides. As a professor of archaeology from Britain noted, “Before a genocide, you always see the same pattern of mass killings and even massacres. If the perpetrators can get away with this, that is their clear cue that they can get away with a genocide.”

The illustrative situations under discussion were the Rwandan and Balkan atrocities of the 1990s, but I could not help thinking of Israel’s March-April 2002 “incursions” into the West Bank and Gaza, which led to serious and grave violations of international law, mass killings of innocent civilians, and the obscene destruction and defacement of private and public property not necessitated by military tactics. I also recalled the IDF’s killing of over 15,000 civilians during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which led to the Sabra and Shatila massacres of September 16-18. Clearly, all of these events have been neatly swept into the media and policy “memory hole.” Few people know about these incontrovertible facts, so no one cares, and such crimes can—and probably will—happen again.

Maybe the fact that I just cannot stop being horrified about these crimes or committed to stopping future atrocities in my field research area will mean I’ll never get a job at a US-based institution. So be it. But I am convinced that many more people will speak out and act if I continue to pursue my activism alongside my research and teaching than if I don’t, so I gladly joined the new organization of scholars concerned about genocide and left the meeting reconfirmed in my view that activism and academia not only can—but must—go together. I hope more and more of my colleagues, whether studying the Middle East or not, come around to this view despite the oppressive and undemocratic atmosphere now stifling reasoned debate on so many US campuses.