Ghassan Hage’s letter responding to an invitation to give the keynote at the Anthropological Association of Israel conference and the president’s reply

I had initially asked the president of the Israeli Anthropological Association who invited me, Nir Avieli, if he wanted his invitation published. As I didn’t get an initial response i assumed he didn’t. But he has sent me his considered response to my reply. So here they are both for the records. As you can see both my response and Nir’s are polite and even cordial despite the differences, and if people want to comment, I’d rather if people keep the same tone of exchange.–Ghassan Hage

Dear Nir,

I have spent a bit of time writing this so it is a bit formal. That’s not the intention. It’s more that I want to be as clear as possible about my reasons.

I sincerely appreciate your invitation to give the keynote at the Anthropological Association of Israel. And I accept that it is an invitation made in good faith that emanates from your desire to open up the association to voices that are strongly critical of Israel as it has come to exist in the world today, and that as you say are not heard enough.

I am afraid I have to decline from accepting your invitation. I can’t say I am overjoyed to decline. As I mentioned to you before by temperament I am always inclined and disposed to dialogue, but I have thought hard about what my presence would achieve and I feel that the end result is negative not positive. But in thinking what is positive and what is negative I am thinking of how it impacts on the struggle of the Palestinian people to free themselves of colonialism, not the struggle of Israeli anthropologists to make their society more open minded and receptive. It is a mistake to equate the two even though they might occasionally overlap in terms of interest. You probably don’t want to hear me giving you a full blast of my reasons. And you might even think that you have heard it all before. But I genuinely accept that you want dialogue. And so I want to quickly say why, while I am also all for dialogue, I am not for the dialogue as you are proposing it, even though I am more than flattered about what you say about my work and thankful that you thought of me as a possible keynoter.

Israeli anthropologists face a number of situations that are similar to those we face in other settler colonial environments such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. We are all anthropologists working in a social space that is always already vampirically sucking a native population dry and violently (legally and illegally) blocking its claims to the land. You Israelis have to face the extra situation that your vampiric history is relatively short and new, the population that has been colonised by you is still relatively strong and still making claims of national sovereignty and autonomy over the land. The dominant forces in your society aspire to get to a situation where this will stop being the case. It aims to efface the existence of Palestinians as claimants of sovereignty and it is subjecting them to horrendous inhumane violence of a scale, intensity and permanence that is so beyond acceptable. This is what your own Baruch Kimmerling has beautifully called politicide.

So to me, the beginning of any decolonial anthropology is to be anti-politicidal. It has to be concerned with how to stop this horrendous violence and how to give presence and political and social power to the colonised. It is not about making the anthropologist of the colonising society more liberal and open minded and capable of confronting difference. This I feel is all what me presenting a keynote for your organisation would achieve: some conservatives will be upset. But that’s because they are dumb. Then there will be the intelligent liberals who will leave saying “what a feeling. I have heard a genuinely and authentically anti-Zionist intellectual with really confronting views, and with an Arab background to boot. It was a really enriching experience, I must be so open minded and groovy.” This does not and never did help the colonised. There will be a minority however who will fully understand these limitations and who will genuinely want to move towards the territory of decolonising anthropology. Those, I would love to work with, but I don’t believe the AAI is the best frame for this to be done.

I have many ideas of what a dialogue towards establishing a decolonial Israeli anthropology would entail. The first among them would be for Israeli anthropologists to refuse to belong to an organisation that symbolically absences Palestine from its name, or to belong to an organization that accepts anthropologists from the settlements among its ranks. If I was invited to Israel by an organisation that calls itself the Anthropological association of Israel/Palestine, that would be a good beginning. I will see it as indicating an aspiration to confront the mono-national mono-religious and eliminationist tendencies of the state. I would be happy to meet with Israeli anthropologists who aspire for such a decolonial politics. And it would be a delight for me to discuss with them possible strategies. Given that the numbers in the foreseeable future will be small perhaps we can meet in a Palestinian café and invite some local Palestinian anthropologists to participate in a dialogue about radically different non-colonial directions. I would genuinely be happy to take part in something like this.

This situation actually reminds me a bit of the politics of positive discrimination. When you are aiming for structural change, your politics can be incommensurate with individual interests and unfair to genuinely nice people. That is, you can be aiming for more women in management and you end up discriminating against a genuinely charming feminist guy. Likewise, I want to participate in dialogues that open up the space for more Palestinian anthropologists to be as subjects and participants in shaping the future of anthropology in Israel/Palestine, even if I have to forgo interacting with excellent, open-minded and charming Israeli anthropologists.

Best wishes,


Dear Ghassan

Thank you for your frank mail.

I am disappointed but I am certainly not surprised by your decision to decline my invitation.

Colleagues I consulted in Israel and abroad told me that inviting a Palestinian and/or Middle Eastern anthropologist as a keynote for the Israeli Anthropological Association (IAA) annual meeting would be futile if not foolish: “no self-respecting Palestinian or Arab intellectual would accept such invitation”, they said. “Yes”, they added, “Edward Said came. But that was Said and the visit took place in a very different time”. Previous IAA presidents also confided in me that they made genuine efforts to invite prominent Arab anthropologists in the past: invitations that were declined.

As I wrote in my original email, I do hope my invitation was not too bold, or indeed, insensitive. But because we intend to hold the annual meeting in Kfar Qasim, an Arab town known for its tragic history – I thought this might indicate our serious intentions to create genuine dialogue, rather than simply feature you as a fig-leaf for liberal minded pious anthropologists.

I also felt that not even trying to invite you would be yet another indication of how we in the academic community have succumbed to the ruling regime. Giving up without even trying seems to plague the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is especially the case when we consider the death of the “the Israeli left” over the past decades, whose members once struggled for peace and reconciliation, but have now lost all political power and hope. We now make an invisible, silent few – the academia is perhaps the last bastion.
In this sense, I hope our email exchange was a forgone conclusion, though I respect and understand your decision. To be honest, I don’t think we really disagree on the fundamentals: The IAA has officially condemned the occupation of Palestine and called upon the Israeli government to stop the military control and human and civil rights abuse and engage in peace talks.
And as you convincingly argue:
“Israeli anthropologists face a number of situations that are similar to those we face in other settler colonial environments such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. We are all anthropologists working in a social space that is always already vampirically sucking a native population dry and violently (legally and illegally) blocking its claims to the land”.

Indeed, you and I face similar difficulties and dilemmas (for instance, working in public universities in Israel or Australia). The way I understand it, our privileged position demands that we critically engage in discussing sociopolitical problems, however intractable. I also feel that this is our only way of influencing others (our students or, at least, some of them) and, perhaps, having an impact.

I also agree with you that the main question at hand is what would be the most effective way of assisting the Palestinians in their struggle for freedom and independence. In a week in which the US administration committed 37 BILLION DOLLARS of the US tax payers money in military assistance to Israel, the largest ever sum of money given by the US to any foreign country, it is clear that the occupation of Palestine is an American interest and that the occupation is fueled by American tax payers. It is, of course, also maintained politically by the US and its allies, not least ‘Fortress Australia’: perhaps the most loyal of US allies.

The way I understand it, the most effective way of assisting the Palestinians in their struggle is by demanding that the US and its allies stop supporting the occupation. I realize that anthropologists anywhere have very little political power, but this is probably the only way to help the Palestinians.
Talking to Israeli anthropologists might not be very effective, but I do believe it can generate a productive discussion, to the chagrin of the ruling power.
I could have written now that “I look forward for better times”, but this would be just another self-righteous and meaningless phrase. For lack of better words I’ll just say that I’ll keep on trying…


Nir Avieli

President, The Israeli Anthropological Association