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February 26, 2016 4:46 pm

Harvard’s Steven Pinker Opposes Israel Boycott as Anthropologists Prepare for Upcoming Vote

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Steven Pinker. Photo: Rebecca Goldstein, Harvard University.

Steven Pinker. Photo: Rebecca Goldstein, Harvard University.

A well-known Harvard psychologist again voiced his opposition to academic boycotts of Israel Wednesday, as two groups of anthropologists geared up campaigns to defeat the boycott resolution before the American Anthropological Association (AAA), to be voted on beginning April 15.

Steven Pinker, psychologist and best-selling author, who previously spoke out when Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) banned the use of Israeli SodaStream water systems, released a statement entitled “Against Selective Demonization,” writing,

[Are Israel’s] policies really so atrocious, so beyond the pale of acceptable behavior of nation-states, that they call for a unique symbolic statement that abrogates personal fairness and academic freedom? It helps to put the Israel-Palestine conflict in global and historical perspective—something that anthropologists, of all people, might be expected to do … Why no boycotts against academics from China, India, Russia, or Pakistan, to take a few examples, which have also been embroiled in occupations and violent conflicts, and which, unlike Israel, face no existential threat or enemies with genocidal statements in their charters? In a world of repressive governments and ongoing conflicts, isn’t there something unsavory about singling the citizens of one of these countries for unique vilification and punishment?

Pinker’s statement was published on the website of one of the two groups of anthropologists campaigning against the AAA’s boycott resolution.

Members of this group, an anthropologist active in the AAA debate told The Algemeiner, “are mostly concerned with the freedom of speech and expression issues within anthropology.”

Called “Against Anthro Boycott” (AAB), their website describes their motivations as follows:

We are concerned that, while seemingly in service of justice for Palestinian academics and attempting to preserve a separation between Israeli academics and their institutions, the boycott will in fact have a pernicious effect by restricting academic freedom and exchange, endorsing discrimination on the grounds of ethnic and national identity, and breeding distrust and hostility within the AAA.

After offering arguments against the specifics of the boycott resolution, they note:

University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer [states]: academic boycotts are an “assault on the fundamental principles of open discourse, exchange of ideas, and free argumentation, principles that lie at the very foundation of the academy and its missions of discovery, search for understanding, and education.”  It is thus little wonder that academic boycotts have been rejected by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and by more than 100 major higher education institutions across the country …

A second group, according to the anthropologist with whom The Algemeiner spoke, “is a coalition of liberal left Israeli and American academics that oppose both the occupation and the boycott for multiple reasons.”

Called “Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel & Palestine” (ADIP), their website states that, while they are critical of Israel’s “occupation of Palestinian lands” and its “settlement project that continuously jeopardizes possibilities for peace,” they nevertheless oppose the boycott resolution for several reasons:

An academic boycott will not help the Palestinian cause, but it will erode our discipline’s professional ethos. An academic boycott is a political action that rests on absolutist positions rather than probing analyses. Despite its claims, such a boycott fails to distinguish between institutions and individuals. An academic boycott compromises academic freedom by censoring professional colleagues on the basis of their place of employment. It works symbolically and materially to create boundaries of exclusion from the moral community of scholars based on criteria that are disconnected from academic standards.

They conclude:

ADIP proposes that rather than disengaging from the region through a boycott, the American Anthropological Association and all anthropologists should increase engagement through the promotion of research, teaching and academic dialogue.

At the AAA’s annual meeting last November, members voted overwhelmingly to place the boycott resolution on the upcoming ballot, with 1,040 in favor and 136 against. The President of the AAA, Alisse Waterston, last month released a statement urging participation of the organization’s 10,000-plus members in the vote, noting that “It is very important that the election results are representative of the entire membership.”

The text of the resolution may be found on the AAA’s website.

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  • Gail

    Someday in the future, when the current tide of rising global anti-Semitism has died down, and the Israeli Arab conflict has been resolved, this action of the AAA will make a very interesting case study for some anthropologist trying to learn more about the contagious and sticky nature of anti-Semitism.

  • robert davis

    Why “other occupiers” are not boycotted? precisely because Israel does NOT occupy illegally Western Palestine land and antisemites want to make the world believe its LIES. That’s why they repeat the LIES ad nauseam and want measures to punish Jews, sorry Israel with any weapons they can find…HOW can one make others believe a LIE? First by repetition and this they do since 50 Years now following france’s Policy and…boycots, war etc except they cannot make war since Israel is a nuclear war. Remains “Only” lies, pr and boycots that’s all they have.

    • robert davis

      Erratum :…Israel is a nuclear power…

  • g,ben-nathan

    Anthropology is a branch of academia that has lost its way – if it ever had one in the first place.
    In an attempt to be “relevant” it has become fearfully left-wing.
    Criticizing Israel is perfect for anthropology. It creates self-justification. It risks few repercussions. Israel is a “soft-touch” in a way in which China and Russia are not; secondly, attacking Israel allows anthropologists to feel they are actually DOING something in the world. It confers relevance.
    For example, in the UK, the profession’s magazine Anthropology Today shamefully devoted itself to excoriating Israel and extolling the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. A full three page article (August 2010, vol 26, no 4) catalogued the hour by hour adventures in being on the Turkish vessel the Marmaris – absolutely nothing to do with Anthropology, but important and very stirring for the readers.
    If anthropologists really wanted to make a contribution, they could launch an investigation into the origins of the Palestinians. They might find out that their current identity is ‘arrived-at’ and that they were, once upon a time …JEWS !

  • Daniel Liberman

    No wonder why I left this discipline as soon as I graduated at the University of Buenos Aires. Anthopology is today a frozen body of dead concepts.

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    Academia represents the highest standards of humanity in a global certainty that life from the protozoan to the human being is a gift to be cherished, revered, nourished, and blessed by each and every participant in its arena. As human beings whose cognitive abilities surpass most, if not all, other species at least as far as it is discernible to our human understanding, we have the responsibility and the obligation to all living creatures to think concomitant to act humanely towards all of creation. This includes toward Israel and the Jewish people. Steven Pinker is spot on in his assessment of the world’s address once again Jews to be scapegoated by the AAA or any academic organization representing thousands of academics.

  • Roger Moore

    Israel has been fighting to maintain its existence since 1947, under continual verbal or armed attack from most of the Arab countries that surround it. As recently as last year the Muslim leaders have declared they would like to exterminate the Jews in Israel and take it over. While Israel has integrated the Jewish refugees that entered Israel so they can live normal lives, the surrounding Arab countries have held the Muslim refugees to their countries in refugee camps for nearly three generations now and deliberately not allowed them to integrate with their fellow Muslims. Yet the AAA has turned a blind eye to all that. As an anthropologist and archaeologist I find the AAA’s attitude reprehensible and wrong-headed.

  • Jack

    Well done Pinker!
    The sad part of the whole BDS issue is that racism is at the base of this conduct.
    Racism based in pure illogical, (even when expressed as an ideology), hatred.
    Designed for no good purpose.
    And it probably hurts poor Palestinians more than Israel.

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  • Zalman Saperstein

    It is amazing to me that an academic organization is politicizing itself and stepping into a conflict that has arisen because of the Holocaust and the return of Israelites to their original lands despite many mideast nation vowing to destroy the nation of Israel.

  • Emily Winters

    How utterly ignorant of supposedly highly educated people.

  • nat cheiman

    Why is it that boycotters, generally contribute little or nothing to society >

  • AKUS

    It is my hope that should this evil resolution pass Israel will ban and expel all American anthropologists and archaeologists from the country.

  • SteveHC

    If this disgusting resokution passes, American anthropolgists – or at least those who belong to the AAA – should be banned from entering Israel and from collanorating with Israeli anthropologists, universities, and related institutions, foundations and/or societies.

  • Roz Shorenstein

    Something sensible for a change. I won’t burn my Harvard Ph.D. degree after all