D I A L O G U E
Various | Anthropology News | May 2005
The Correspondence column is primarily for the use of American Anthropology Association members for the purpose of addressing issues that relate to the discipline and practice of anthropology. AN reserves the right to select and edit letters. All letters must be clearly marked for Anthropology News Correspondence, not to exceed 400 words and consisting of a signed original plus an electronic copy whenever possible. Letters published reflect the views of the correspondents; their publication does not signify endorsement by the American Anthropological Association. Editor’s fax: 703/528-3546 or email:firstname.lastname@example.org .
As editor of a AAA scholarly journal, I am dismayed to learn that vitriolic invective has become an acceptable means of engaging discourse in any publication of AAA. What disturbs me about the epithets used by certain proponents of political causes, just or not, is not so much their intemperate heat, as their hyperbolic misappropriation of concepts. When our colleague, anthropologist Smadar Lavie (Jan 2005 AN see copy in http://www.ha-keshet.org.il/articles.asp?article_id=192 ), misuses the term “apartheid” to characterize Israeli anthropology departments in which certain ethnic-identified groups are underrepresented, she debases a term that carries the weight of horrific suffering and inhumanity. Her evidence, such as it is, does not support this characterization; my understanding of the facts is confirmed by Andre Levy’s response in the same issue (see copy inhttp://www.haokets.org/Files/levyant.ext.doc) . Where Lavie might appropriately have called for a more concerted effort at affirmative action to redress a past imbalance (as proposed by Levy), her epithet instead attempts to evoke an inappropriate emotional response.
Lavie’s verbal abuse resembles the kind of wild academic political discourse that has grabbed so much public attention lately with the case of Ward Churchill, who characterized victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center (WTC) murders as “little Eichmanns.” Both Churchill and Lavie apply terms of loathing to groups who are already targets of hatred and violence. Although Churchill claims that he only sought to criticize US foreign policy by his talk, this sort of language is incendiary, as is Lavie’s characterization of Israeli anthropology departments as practicing “racism” and “apartheid.” The employees of the WTC were not functionaries in a machine whose sole purpose is the extermination of human groups; anthropologists in Israeli universities are not shown by Lavie to be implementing a policy of apartheid.
Needless to say , I advocate neither silencing these scholars, nor firing them from their jobs for debasing language. But I do not see why scholarly publications should be obliged, or even inclined, to publish their invective. Editors should not be censors, but must nevertheless make some judgments about what words it is appropriate to put into print under the banner of their publications.
AN is not a research journal, but it has moved away from being a newsletter and carries many short articles which are not filtered by a review process as are the many scholarly publications of the AAA. Controversy and criticism as well as news might be welcome, if that is the direction the membership think AN should follow, but they will not be advanced by absurd, insulting and false use of freighted terms as exemplified in Lavie’s essay. To the contrary: colleagues might be silenced by fear of becoming the next target of what now passes for “political discourse.”
Susan H Lees
CUNY Graduate Center
Co-Editor in Chief, American Anthropologist
Susan Lees alleges that I provided an improper analogy between Israel’s regime and academe and the concept of apartheid. Yet she resorts to grossly inappropriate analogy in comparing me to Ward Churchill, who described 9/11 victims as “little Eichmans.” In my recent AN piece I did not accuse anyone of being Nazi-like. Her analogy thus suits her own allegation of wild academic “political discourse.”
In the Webster’s dictionary “apartheid” is “…policy of segregation and political … economic discrimination against non-European groups in …South Africa.” Cross-cultural comparison is at the crux of anthropology. Substitute “Mizrahim” and “Palestinians” for “non-European groups,” and “Israel” for “South Africa” to obtain an accurate description of Israel. Israel’s anthropologists hold privileged positions they use to both perpetrate and benefit from the systematic discrimination of Israel’s 70%non-European majority. They are the cynical tip of this iceberg.
If the data presented in my two AN pieces does not demonstrate apartheid, what does? Lees ignores the FTE distribution chart in my October 2003 AN article (see also in http://www.ha-keshet.org.il/pictures/smadar.pdf ) and the data in the Jan 2005 piece. What evidence does Lees present to the contrary besides her own subjective “understanding of the facts” based on her well-documented, elaborate research ties to Israel?
The South African and Israeli situations are similar because Mizrahim and Palestinians (like blacks in South Africa) experience discrimination in all spheres of life, academe included. Unless they conform, Israel’s academe is blocked for Mizrahim and Palestinians in the first place. This is why the Ahoti-Rainbow-Mossawa complaint was filed. Yet the Israeli and South African apartheids differ because Israel camouflages its moral duplicity and presents the world with a posture of European humanism on the one hand, while screening from view its racist colonialism of non-Europeans on the other. Another difference is that South Africa had the courage to change. Presently, the Israeli situation seems hopeless, although the Israeli Anthropological Association is finally beginning a long overdue discussion about developing an ethics code and a call for affirmative action.
Unlike Ward Churchill, to whom I’m wrongfully compared, I fear no one can call for me to be fired. Lees does not address the substance of our complaint. She rather disingenuously states she doesn’t wish to silence me when in fact she suggests that AN should not publish me if based on the public data available to all Israelis I use “apartheid” to describe the ideology and practice of Israel’s academe. This is exactly how American anthropologists have aided their Israeli counterparts in continuing the current state of affairs—through squelching any dissent. I can only hope that our NGOs at least get the freedom of speech to make it known that we do live through Ashkenazi-Zionist racial discrimination.
Lees has a right to question my editorial judgment. Finding Lavie’s language offensive, and therefore inappropriate to publish, Lees asked me in February how I decide what to publish in AN. I explained to her that AN is not a peer-reviewed scholarly journal like AA. Rather, in September 1999, AAA officially classified AN as a newspaper, a genre that is not peer-reviewed. Yet, AN does have some policies, based on ethics in journalism, to guide editorial decisions, particularly allowing those alleged of wrong-doing or error to respond in the same issue.
The main criteria I use for deciding what to publish in AN include timeliness, news-worthiness and relevance of the material to the association and anthropology. I try to use the contributing editors to AN as an advisory body to help me in judging this criteria, or to develop thematic or issue-based series in AN, although nowhere has it been stated authoritatively that I am obligated to follow such a process.
Also, as I pointed out to Lees, I actually circulated Lavie’s article to several anthropologists including three contributing editors to AN, several people mentioned, and to the chair of the Israeli Anthropology Association, for comment prior to its publication. A number of comments and suggested edits were made, and a long period of negotiation of the language of the piece resulted from these communications.
Still, as I indicated to Lees, Lavie’s article was published not as a news report, but a commentary. According to media law, newspapers are provided certain privileges to publish controversial perspectives; these privileges are grounded in constitutional law. The opinion privilege, according to my AP guide, is based in the rationale that only statements that can be proven true or false are capable of defamatory meaning and that statements of “opinion” cannot.
For instance, prior to publishing Lees originally submitted letter, which she later revised, I questioned her opinion that Lavie’s use of “racism” and “apartheid” constitutes “verbal abuse” meant to provoke an “inappropriate emotional response.” I must say Lees’ letter evoked in me a fear that I was being made the target of someone’s anger for providing a forum for expressing different opinions on a complex issue. I view providing such a forum valuable to the association. I also believe a majority of the membership does: the most read section of AN according to the last AN readership survey is the commentary.
As I wrote Lees, I frequently judge it is relevant to publish controversial opinions and arguments, such as hers and Lavie’s, so that they might be responded to publicly from another or several other viewpoints, and particularly so that readers can evaluate these opinions themselves from those texts; this is particularly so when an issue has been brought before the association, as had the issue discussed in the exchange between Lavie and Levy. Importantly, however, it clearly states in AN’s policy that the opinions made in AN do not represent the publication, nor the association.