Archaeology and the BDS/boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions: some personal fragmentary reflections

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions is pleased to present the latest in a series of essays reflecting on the decision to support the boycott until Israeli higher education ends its complicity in the violation of Palestinian rights (including academic rights).

This piece by Israel-Palestine archaeologist Brian Boyd->] joins earlier statements on Savage Minds by [Talal Asad, Mick Taussig, J. Lorand Matory, and Rosemary Sayigh.

Archaeology and the BDS/boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions: some personal fragmentary reflections

Brian Boyd
Columbia University

Reflecting on why I support the proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions, I found myself looking back through fieldwork diaries I made while I was an undergraduate student in the late 1980s. The first set dates from early July to late September 1988, the second from the same period in 1989: the early years of the First Intifada. My fieldwork was as a volunteer on a French-Israeli archaeology project in western Galilee. In 1988, the team consisted of a French director, a Palestinian assistant, and around 20 students, almost all European and one or two Israelis. In 1989, the situation was similar, with the addition of one Palestinian student. The project was mainly funded by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs/CNRS and the excavation license granted by, as with all archaeological projects in Israel, the Israel Antiquities Authority. All archaeological licenses granted to a non-Israeli project director must bear the name of an Israeli co-director, despite that person not being an active daily member of the project team.

During those six months, the archaeological team lodged in the old youth hostel in the Arab area of the northern Mediterranean coastal town that Arabs call ‘Akka and Israeli Jews call ‘Akko. A Christian Arab family ran the hostel, and the town itself was part-Arab (the Old City), part-Israeli (the New City). At that time, I knew little about the Israel/Palestine situation beyond UK media reports, but clearly the recently announced Intifada (late 1987) was on everyone’s minds, especially in a town with Akka’s/Akko’s demographic. I befriended a local Arab café owner, who said he worked for “the labor party”. One evening, a few of us diggers visited his café to find it full of tourists of different nationalities – Japanese, American, British, French. The owner had gathered them together from a number of tour parties and had given them cold-water melon on this hot day. After talking with us all about the Intifada situation, he orchestrated an international chorus around his tables – “We want peace! We want peace!”, over and over. This was, I guess, my first “political” encounter with an Arab person, and one which has stayed in my mind because of the contrast I was seeing between (a) this spontaneous Arab-led international “happening”, particularly hearing the call for peace, and (b) the fairly heavy Israeli police and military presence that I had seen everywhere since my arrival in the country only a few days before.

Moving forward a couple of years, I was offered archaeological material from the site mentioned above to use as the basis for my Ph.D. research, 1991-5. During those years I was regularly based at the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (now the Kenyon Institute), one of the remnants of the colonial infrastructure scattered across the Mediterranean and “Near Eastern” countries. Despite its anachronistic position and daily British in-house traditions, such as the taking of afternoon tea, and mealtimes announced by the ringing of a brass bell, staying at the British School for extended periods was a political eye-opener for me. The building is in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, just downhill from the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, West Jerusalem. All the “domestic staff” employed there were Palestinian, one of whom (the head cook) had worked for (former BSAJ Director) Dame Kathleen Kenyon on her Jericho and Jerusalem excavations in the 1950s and 1960s.

Talking with these employees, and of course with the British academic and administrative staff, I quickly learned that the BSAJ was very much a part of the Palestinian network of archaeologists (as were several of the other European schools and institutions in Jerusalem), although one of the School’s flagship projects in the early 90s was a joint operation with Israeli archaeologists at Tel Aviv University.

Despite living only a short distance away from the BSAJ, the domestic staff had to come to work each day via numerous Israeli army and police checkpoints, which marked the military zoning of east-west Jerusalem since 1967. This meant setting out a couple of hours before starting work at 8am. Similarly, they had to negotiate these demoralizing identity checks each night on their return home. The staff often told me about their children. It was fairly routine that their sons were arrested for stone throwing and indeed one of them was imprisoned for several years in west Jerusalem for this kind of activity.

But these were just normal, working class young Palestinian men, not students or academics, very few of whom I had the chance to meet. I had no clear picture of the academic life of undergraduate students, their opportunities or lack of, and how their careers developed or worked out. Despite the BSAJ’s informal “east Jerusalem” politic, there were certainly no Palestinian students working on their joint Tel Aviv University excavation project. I did meet a small number of Palestinian graduate students who visited the BSAJ to use the library for research, and a few of these have gone on to become established academics at European and American universities.

Apart from those involved in the joint BSAJ-Tel Aviv project, there were almost no visits, or guest lectures, by academics from the other Israeli universities. Through working on the late 1990s project mentioned earlier, I made some connections with some archaeology faculty and graduate students from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Haifa University in the north of Israel, all of whom were nothing but friendly, encouraging and generous. It was clear, however, that two (or more) very different academic worlds existed. Most colleagues from the Hebrew University were reluctant to make the short drive downhill from Mount Scopus to Sheikh Jarrah – “is it safe”? I was often asked. Academic conferences where both Israeli and Palestinian scholars presented papers and discussed research together were rare (in the “prehistory world” I inhabited at least), and joint archaeological projects between Israeli and Palestinian institutions were likewise scarce. When it came to student opportunities however, it was clear that Israeli students and faculty had much the same resources available to them as their European or American counterparts. They could volunteer (or pay) to participate on excavations anywhere in the world, they could easily embark on “study abroad” programs, and they could work with academic faculty from institutions other than their own.

In 1997, I became a faculty member at a UK university and was encouraged to start my own projects. After discussions with colleagues in the UK and at the British School in Jerusalem, I decided to try to set up a project in the West Bank that would involve Palestinian academics and students, as they did not have access to the resources or opportunities afforded to Israeli students. Maybe involvement of a UK university may be of some help here. I had further preliminary discussions to this end with Palestinian academics at a momentous conference at Birzeit University in 1998 – Edward Said was one of the keynote speakers – and so tentative plans were put in motion.

Dislocations 1999/2000

January 1999 – I had been asked to participate in a session at the World Archaeological Congress (WAC) in Cape Town, entitled “Archaeology and the Left”. Following on from the Birzeit conference, I decided to talk about the long-term effects of the British Mandate – the Balfour Declaration in particular – on the cultural landscapes of the West Bank, the archaeological landscapes I was hoping to investigate as the focus of my new project. As part of my presentation of these landscapes I referred to a map from Walid Khalidi’s book, “All That Remains” (1985) which showed the locations of the approximately 420 Palestinian villages that were affected to various degrees by Israeli military intervention in 1948. I discussed how the remains of many of these villages are still visible today, and that any archaeological survey undertaken in parts of Israel will inevitably encounter such remains. It is therefore an obligation for archaeologists to record these fragments, as they constitute a significant part of the history of past cultural landscapes. Uncontentious, or so I thought.

Graduate students from Israel translated to faculty there what I had said/done in my presentation at WAC. The response from some colleagues took me by surprise. I was asked, “What the hell happened?”, “What did you think you were doing?”, and other comments pointing out that I was a prehistorian, so why was I talking about politics? When I tried to explain the political point of my paper, I was told – I’m paraphrasing here but the actual terms used are accurate – “it’s ok for Israelis or Palestinians to talk about this, but when outsiders talk about it, then they become the enemy”.

Those last words have stayed with me as I have considered whether or not to support the academic boycott over the last couple of years. Those responses seemed, to me, personal. They were about my personal political position.

Summer 2000 – I started fieldwork in the West Bank, just as the Second Intifada was announced. My fieldwork was put on hold for several years mainly due to the increased difficulties of obtaining site permissions, access, the construction of the separation barrier, increased road blocks and IDF checkpoints, and so on. All of these elements caused disarray in even the most basic travel and movement between – in my case – Jerusalem and Ramallah, and within the West Bank itself.

In the interim I was offered a project in Israel (by a colleague in the Israel Antiquities Authority), doing prehistoric landscape survey in the upper Jordan Valley. We were faced daily by the ruins of the pre-1948 inhabitation of those landscapes discussed by Khalidi, while ostensibly searching for prehistoric sites. We carried out the obligation to record everything according to normal survey conventions, but for me personally this felt frustrating and unsatisfying as I felt that after the WAC 1999 experience it would be, possibly, a step too far to publish this potentially politically charged material. I was “a prehistorian” after all. This may seem like self-censorship. It probably was, but I still have plans to publish this material at some point.

The proposed boycott

Over the last ten years, teaching classes (undergraduate and graduate) at Columbia University on the politics of archaeology in Israel/Palestine, I am often struck by the students’ lack of awareness of the circumstances of 1948 – the colonial British imperative, the imagined empty landscapes pre-State of Israel, the contradictions between different perceptions and histories of the same landscapes, and so on. “We don’t get taught this stuff in high school”, the students tell me. I don’t know why I’m so surprised; I didn’t get taught about these issues in high school either.

Since 2011 I have been working with students and colleagues from Birzeit University on a joint Columbia-Birzeit archaeological/anthropological project in the West Bank. As in the 1980s and 1990s, the undergraduate students do not have access to the resources and opportunities afforded to their Israeli counterparts. This has been further exacerbated by travel restrictions and the tightening of visa requirements for movement within and outside the West Bank. Academic faculty face similar restrictions. Attendance by Palestinian academics at international conferences is extremely low – lack of financial support and last-minute visa and “security” complications preventing travel (e.g. even as late as going through departures at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport) being common obstacles. In terms of student opportunities to study abroad there are a number of curious paradoxes. Some funding agencies require certain residency requirements – e.g. Palestinian students will only be considered for funding if they have Israeli citizenship – or different visa eligibilities that do not match up to the situation on the ground in Palestine. Many of the issues surrounding academic travel, eligibility, funding, and so on, clearly could be more effectively addressed by the Palestinian Authority, but the continued Occupation has exacerbated the PA’s already insular-looking and inadequate bureaucracy with regard to academic institutions and their teaching and research capabilities.

The Birzeit students I work with often use the rhetoric of occupation – despite living only a short distance from the Mediterranean coast, many of them have “never seen the sea”, or been to Jerusalem, equally close. This is in danger of becoming an overused trope – as it is reproduced and circulates in activist circles – but it remains evocative and powerful language, even if the lived realities of the situation are more complex.

So, I support the call for faculty and students of Palestinian colleges and universities to be afforded the same teaching and research opportunities as their Israeli counterparts, and their international peers and colleagues. This, primarily, must involve the unconditional removal of restrictions on movement and travel – local, regional and international – that the Occupation has imposed to such debilitating effect. Beyond academic issues, freedom of movement is a fundamental human right.

This is why, after much thought and indecision that I decided to support the petition for the boycott of academic institutions. Indecision remains, I should add. Signing the petition entails continued difficult relations with Israeli colleagues, sympathetic or otherwise, employed at such institutions; and students at Israeli universities who may wish to learn more about the situation will have limited exposure to visits and lectures from academics who are involved in or wish to discuss BDS issues. I am also deeply concerned about the effects of my signing on my current and former students when it comes to grant applications, submission of publications, and employment opportunities. Other concerns remain, and more nuanced discussion is required, especially amongst those who support BDS but do not actually have to deal with the Israel/Palestine situation in the machinery of their own research process. But for now, supporting the boycott of Israeli academic institutions is my choice.