One of the core principles of modern anthropology is cultural relativism, the idea that researchers must not make value judgements about the societies they study. Anthropologists think of themselves as setting aside their biases and preferences in order to see a society and culture “from the native’s point of view.” Whether studying the raiding activity of Bedouin tribal nomads, witchcraft by African villagers, or head-hunting by grieving Philippine tribesmen, anthropologists embrace the sentiment that “nothing human is alien to me.”
Except when it comes to Jews. Once again, Jews and the Jewish state have been uniquely selected for official opprobrium by the American Anthropological Association (AAA). A motion to boycott Israeli academic institutions, an initiative reminiscent of anti-Jewish boycotts of the 1930s, was presented this spring to the membership, which voted online. The resolution, which claims that “the Israeli state has denied Palestinians – including scholars and students – their fundamental rights of freedom, equality, and self-determination through ethnic cleansing, colonization, discrimination, and military occupation,” was defeated, according to the official tally released on June 6, by a vote of 2,423 against and 2,384 in favor.
By the narrowest of margins, AAA will not formally join the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. This was surely a great disappointment to its Middle East Section, which has long been obsessed with defaming Israel. While the U.S.S.R. was invading Afghanistan and slaughtering its people in 1979, the Middle East Section discussed only Palestine, and condemned only Israel.
It is true that followers of the postmodern turn in anthropology have taken up a more critical approach to society and culture, in some cases siding with the underprivileged, such as women, untouchables, and native minorities. But until now the AAA has not considered boycotting a particular people or country. It has not considered boycotting Turkey for its military invasion and occupation of Cyprus or its war against its Kurdish minority. It has not considered boycotting Lebanon for keeping Palestinians as stateless pawns. It has not considered boycotting Gaza, although Hamas shot 12,000 rockets at Israeli civilian targets. It has not considered boycotting Saudi Arabia for its suppression of human rights, or Iran for hanging homosexuals from cranes in public places, or Russia for invading Ukraine, or China for its military occupation of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang Uigur Turkestan, and Tibet.
Indeed, even Palestinian suffering merits action only when Jews are the alleged victimizer. This year the Middle East Section awarded its book prize to an excellent ethnography describing the marginalization and sufferings of Palestinians in Lebanon, but no boycott of Lebanon has been proposed.
Meanwhile, all around the Jewish state, in the Middle East and the Islamic world, are taking place the vilest atrocities of monumental scope. Next door to Israel, some 400,000 or more have been murdered in Sunni-Shia warfare, while the recently formed Islamic State has revived the Islamic practice of enslaving “infidels,” Christians and other minorities, gang raping the girls and women, and selling them (even on Facebook!) as sex slaves, while beheading any opposition and those not sufficiently conforming.
Notwithstanding the membership’s rejection of the boycott this year, the AAA Executive Board is moving ahead with a number of measures to punish the Jewish State, such as issuing a “statement of censure of the Israeli government” and sending a letter to the American government “identifying the ways in which U.S. resources and policies contribute to policies in Israel/Palestine that violate academic freedom and disenfranchise Palestinians.”
Remarkably, this compulsion to punish the Jewish state comes at a time when Palestinian youth, incited by the Palestinian authority and media, are engaged in a “stabbing intifada,” killing Jewish mothers, children, and elders. Palestinian Hamas, formally dedicated to destroying Israel and killing its Jews, continues to build tunnels from Gaza to attack Israel.
But for the AAA Executive Board and half its membership, only the world’s sole Jewish state is worthy of condemnation and denunciation. There is only one word for this selective demonization: anti-Semitism.
Philip Carl Salzman is a professor of anthropology at McGill University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.