Winner of the Public Anthropologist Award 2024

The winner of the Public Anthropologist Award 2024 is Maria-Theres Schuler for her book Disability and Aid. An Ethnography of Logics and Practices of Distribution in a Ugandan Refugee Camp (Brill, 2023). Maria-Theres Schuler is a social anthropologist, journalist, and filmmaker with expertise in global inequality, corporate responsibility and social movements. Disability and Aid is an important book written with a commendable ethnographic sensibility. Of potential interest to experts and students of humanitarian, development and disability studies, as well as anthropology and African studies, the book provides a nuanced investigation of the dynamics of aid to disabled people in a Ugandan refugee camp.

Antonio: Can you tell us something about your journey as an anthropologist within and outside of academia?

Maria-Theres: I still remember the very first lecture I attended as an anthropology student. My professor said at the time: “No matter what you do with it, anthropology will teach you something important for life.” To this day, I find it immensely valuable in everyday life how much this field of study has taught me to question my own values and world views. Very important moments in this process of understanding were my fieldwork experiences. During my studies, I was part of an exchange program with Ugandan students in which we explored the interplay between disability and technology, and the regular exchange in this intercultural learning setting was enormously valuable. The exchange program grew into a long-term research collaboration between Makerere University in Kampala and the University of Zurich, and I was able to learn from the intensive collaboration with stakeholders such as disability organizations as well as from the exchange with the Ugandan researchers during my PhD on refugees with disabilities, on which the book Disability and Aid is based.

While writing my dissertation, I discovered my love for narrating stories and so, after my PhD, I quickly found my way to journalism: this allowed me to combine what I was passionate about – asking questions, researching and discovering in detail – with writing engaging stories for a wider audience. In order to allow me to maintain some level of autonomy that I was used to as an academic, I joined a self-organized journalistic collective in Zurich. In our online magazine, we write from a leftist perspective on topics such as climate, inequality, feminism, social welfare, migration and tax policy. In this work, I continue to apply anthropological perspectives, although it was initially a big challenge for me to deal with topics in a shorter time and not spend a whole five years on them! Somewhat by coincidence I came across the medium of film: when I was in Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo in March 2020 for a journalistic project, Covid-19 was spreading drastically, and horrific scenarios were expected for the African continent. Together with a friend who had already made films, we began to chronicle what we experienced on an everyday basis. The resulting documentary “Corona in Congo. A Diary of Uncertainties”, tries to show how the global Corona crisis has even reinforced existing inequalities. So meanwhile I am working more and more outside of academia, yet still with a strong relationship to science. For example, I recently started teaching as a guest lecturer in a CAS in Science Journalism.

Antonio: What’s the story of Disability and Aid? What motivated you to write this book and what hopes and goals did you have for it?

The story of Disability and Aid is, on the one hand, a rather familiar one: in the context of aid, different perspectives collide and good intentions often have unintended consequences. In the Ugandan refugee camp where I did my research, this was for example the case for an aid program focused specifically on access to water for refugees with disabilities. The project built boreholes that were accessible to a person in a wheelchair, for example, yet the people concerned did not start using them – because fetching water was usually the duty of children, and my research participants had no problems finding this help. Moreover, it was an important aspect of personhood to be able to count on this help. The aid project, however, assumed that the most desirable thing was for people to be autonomous. Their help was therefore more focused on the individual than on what was necessary or even desirable in this context.

On the other hand, the story of Disability and Aid is perhaps a little surprising. This concerns an overall shift from charity or emergency aid to sustainable development. That was the case for Uganda’s refugee policy, which pursues a self-reliance strategy by providing refugees with land to cultivate in order to become as independent as possible from aid. With regard to refugees with disabilities, this shift has been particularly relevant since the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities found its way into humanitarian aid. Refugees with disabilities were viewed less and less as helpless, vulnerable victims, but as actors with abilities who make important contributions. Participation, independence, and empowerment were important aspects of this rights-based approach, which seemed promising – not least because charity and dependency run counter to any goal of transformative development aid.

However, I found that this approach was neither very helpful nor very relevant in disabled people’s everyday lives in the refugee camp. My interlocutors did usually not use the language of rights when claiming help and support, but they understood their entitlement based on comparisons with aid given to other people, at other times or in other places. Such concrete everyday concerns and personal experiences were more readily available and meaningful for them than abstract human rights. Maybe more importantly, the aid delivered through this rights based approach – which preferred skills trainings and sensitization workshops over material and financial hand-outs – did not really help disabled refugees to build social relations, realize projects to make a living and invest sustainably in their futures – and thus did not support them in their pursuit of attaining personhood, which meant above all taking care of one’s children and family. Furthermore, I observed how my interlocutors experienced this shift towards a rights-based approach: in order to promote their inclusion, refugees with disabilities were increasingly asked to express their opinions on what would help them most and thus have a say in the services provided. What they repeatedly asked for were higher food rations, medication, support for their children’s education – preferably in the form of money so that they could decide on spending themselves. However, most of these demands could not be met, either because they were not in line with the criteria of the donors or with the project budgets. What’s more, from the perspective of my interlocutors, they fulfilled what was expected from them: they constantly provided the necessary information for the aid agencies’ reports and working procedures, allowed themselves to be photographed and filmed for their promotional material or played in a drama group that fought negative attitudes around disability when donor delegations visited – all things that helped the aid agencies acquire resources. This experience, whereby people with disabilities were recognized within the framework of universal rights, but in the end hardly benefitted in a manner that would have made them more equal, is what I call “disappointed recognition”.

I felt it was important to highlight these issues, especially now that disability is so high on the humanitarian agenda. By describing the different logics and practices of distribution at play in Kyangwali – one rather based on equality, wage labor or social welfare, the other one on hierarchy, social relationships and exchange – I also hope to contribute to a better understanding of the mutual mistrust so prevalent in this aid setting. Refugees felt the aid agencies were “eating their money” as they did not receive what they expected, while aid workers suspected the refugees of lying in order to receive more support. What the aid agencies perceived as excessive demands and unjustified complaints resulting from the “dependency syndrome” – the view that people remain dependent and do nothing for themselves when they receive help – could, however, be understood as rightful claims for resources and more equality. The book also shows how important it is for service providers to consider very different forms of dependency and to recognize how they are intertwined. Then one quickly can see which kind of aid strengthens other forms of important connectedness and which even reinforces problematic dependencies. Above all, direct aid enabled refugees with disabilities to invest in important and desired relationships of interdependence – and this was enormously important for them, as many had lost important relationships through war and migration.

Antonio: Thinking of your ethnographic fieldwork, what were the most rewarding aspects of it, and which ones the most challenging?

One of the rewarding aspects of my fieldwork was certainly when I felt that my interlocutors appreciated the relatively longer engagement over more than a year and not just a few days or weeks like many other researchers or visitors from abroad. However, this engagement was also a great challenge, especially in terms of what I hoped to achieve. I was aware from the start that refugees with disabilities saw me as a potential helper – be it to get a mobility appliance or to receive resettlement to a third country like the U.S. Therefore, I tried to distance my type of research as much as possible from the work of the aid organizations, for example by cycling or walking around the camp instead of driving a car like the aid workers, or by taking a lot of time to visit people outside office hours, helping them prepare cassava leaves for dinner or accompanying them to church. What unfolded spontaneously during such visits, often provided a different picture than what people were telling me initially in interviews, as I was for example introduced to relatives that I had not known about. Still, the closer my relationship grew with my interlocutors, the less I could escape the role of a potential helper, as I somehow intended. The claims for support towards me did not decrease, and this left me wondering as to whether I really had built rapport or if people were talking down the help they received.

So, I was often unsure how to react, when disabled people asked for things such as a small contribution for transport or to buy medicine, as I feared both enforcing the already asymmetrical relations and undermining the validity of my research findings. But then I took a closer look at these often uncomfortable experiences, and I tried to understand why I felt more at ease giving someone something without being asked, or when I felt it was reciprocated, for example when a recipient mended my broken sandal in return for helping out with money. Through these reflections I became increasingly aware that in many respects, my discomfort resulted from my unquestioned assumptions about what it is appropriate to ask for in which situations, or from my own expectations of how gratitude should be expressed or what equality meant. It was especially when I read James Ferguson’s book Give a Man a Fish, in which he demonstrates how people seek hierarchical connections to others and that this kind of dependency can also be productive and desirable, that I understood the importance of people’s claims for my research. These insights certainly did not resolve my concerns about reciprocity and research integrity. Yet they allowed me to understand the claims as a kind of sociality that was very important in this context.

Antonio: What are your plans for the future?

Maria-Theres: I intend to continue working at the interface between the social sciences and the public, and I can currently reconcile this very well with the kind of journalism I pursue: an ethnographically-oriented journalism that takes anthropological questions into account. In journalism, of course, there is a need to simplify very complex stories to a certain extent in order to reach a larger audience. Nevertheless, I always try to stay true to the very important nuances of how things work, which I think is particularly important in today’s reporting, which sometimes tends to oversimplify complex issues. I’m currently in the process of furthering my education in journalism and familiarizing myself with investigative journalism, for example by making inquiries to state institutions via the Freedom of Information Act. It’s often tedious work, but it gives you access to such important and exciting information, and there are so many stories lurking that should be told.

From an anthropological perspective, I am especially curious about human rights discourses and practices in connection with mining. There are so many initiatives to prevent human rights violations in this sector, which is of course very important. But what exactly do they mean on the ground? And are they enough to really bring about the necessary changes? During my journalistic work on mining, I came across similar mechanisms to those I experienced in the refugee camp, such as how communities are consulted when an industrial mining project is planned. There is a lot being done to ensure that human rights standards are met, and that, for example, schools and wells are being built and skills training is being offered to the communities. Yet, claims on the rightful share by these people seem to have no place in the current discourse and practice on human rights around mining.

Dove sei, Europa?

Il 26 gennaio 2024 la Corte di Giustizia dell’Aja ha accolto la denuncia presentata dal Sudafrica e ordinato a Israele di prendere misure immediate per evitare il genocidio dei palestinesi a Gaza.

Nonostante il cessate il fuoco rimanga un obiettivo complicato, è stato un momento importante perché l’ordine della Corte ha confermato quello che diversi rappresentanti delle Nazioni Unite hanno ripetuto negli ultimi tre mesi, cioé che quello che sta avvenendo a Gaza non può in nessun modo essere considerato una campagna militare di difesa ma, anzi, potrebbe configurarsi come un genocidio. La Corte ha ricordato alcuni dati essenziali, tra i quali l’elevato numero di vittime civili, inclusi migliaia di bambini, la distruzione di case, scuole e strutture sanitarie, lo spostamento forzato della maggioranza della popolazione della Striscia di Gaza, il tutto in un contesto nel quale il governo e l’esercito israeliano hanno continuamente rivendicato il proprio diritto di bombardare, spesso utilizzando un linguaggio deumanizzante nei confronti dei palestinesi, come quando il Ministro della Difesa Yoav Gallant ha detto “stiamo combattendo contro animali umani,” oppure quando Ron Prosor, ambasciatore di Israele a Berlino, ha affermato: “Questa è civilizzazione contro barbarie. Bene contro male.”  

E l’Europa? Silente e complice. Nessun paese occidentale ha supportato la richiesta del Sudafrica presso la Corte dell’Aja. Ora che la Corte ha deciso di accettare il caso, l’apatia politica europea si fa ancora più imbarazzante. Perdipiù, a seguito delle accuse mosse nei confronti di alcuni operatori di UNRWA (l’agenzia delle Nazioni Unite per i rifugiati palestinesi) di aver collaborato con Hamas per gli attacchi in Israele del 7 ottobre 2023, paesi come Stati Uniti, Regno Unito, Germania, Italia, Olanda, Svizzera, Finlandia, Australia e Canada hanno deciso di sospendere i finzanziamenti all’agenzia, di fatto contribuendo alla punizione collettiva della popolazione civile di Gaza. L’esatto contrario di quanto ordinato dalla Corte di Giustizia. UNRWA ha aperto una indagine interna ma, al di là di quel che emergerà, l’agenzia non è certamente priva di aspetti critici e problematici. In generale, le varie agenzie delle Nazioni Unite, incluso UNRWA, sono tutt’altro che perfette. Ma il punto ora non è discutere i termini di una necessaria riforma strutturale delle Nazioni Unite. Le proporzioni della catastrofe umanitaria a Gaza sono tali per cui, tagliare gli aiuti ora, equivale a esacerbare la portata e la sofferenza di tale catastrofe.   

Nei salotti della politica internazionale così come negli ambienti culturali istituzionali e nella comunicazione di massa, molti rappresentanti dei paesi occidentali continuano a percepirsi come protettori e promotori di valori come la dignità umana e il rispetto dei diritti fondamentali, spesso con un atteggiamento di superiorità e arroganza nei confronti di altri paesi e culture. Questa narrazione autocelebrativa, di fatto sempre contraddetta dalle guerre e dai saccheggi perpetrati dai paesi europei e dagli Stati Uniti in tutto il mondo, è oggi nuovamente smentita dalla storia. Portando Israele davanti alla Corte Internazionale di Giustizia con l’obiettivo di porre fine ai massacri in corso a Gaza, il Sudafrica ha di fatto messo ancora una volta in luce l’intrinseca ambiguità della moralità umanitaria occidentale e l’insostebibile logica per cui a volte (quando conviene) è giusto battersi per i diritti umani e per il rispetto del diritto internazionale, altre volte no.

È molto significativo che sia stato proprio il Sudafrica, un paese che ha vissuto la traumatica esperienza dell’apartheid, ad avere avviato la procedura presso la Corte di Giustizia. Dopo oltre tre mesi di bombardamenti ininterrotti, e nonostante la devastazione documentata da operatori umanitari e giornalisti che hanno pagato con la vita, gli alleati occidentali di Israele rimangono indifferenti o, addirittura, apertamente solidali con la violenza in corso.

Significa che il Sudafrica o gli altri stati che hanno supportato il caso all’Aja siano senza problemi politici e sociali? Ovviamente no, ma in quanto europei, dovremmo imparare a essere più coscienziosi nel guardarci allo specchio, soprattutto in momenti storici come questo.

L’11 gennaio 2024, Ronald Lamola, il ministro della Giustizia del Sudafrica, ha iniziato il proprio intervento di fronte ai giudici della Corte citando Nelson Mandela: “tendendo le nostre mani al popolo palestinese, lo facciamo con la piena consapevolezza che facciamo parte di un’umanità che è una.” I membri della delegazione legale del Sudafrica hanno espresso, in maniera efficace e poi ribadita dalla Corte, un chiaro monito nel considerare la capacità genocida della campagna militare in corso a Gaza, ma hanno anche palesato la loro vicinanza e solidarietà nei confronti del popolo palestinese. Il Sudafrica ha anche ricordato l’importanza di collocare gli eventi attuali in un più ampio orizzonte storico contraddistinto da una situazione di oppressione e violenza strutturale che hanno portato al lento ma costante soffocamento dei palestinesi preparando il terreno per i tragici eventi di questi giorni.

Mentre la Germania, di nuovo dalla parte sbagliata della storia, dopo le prime sessioni della Corte  si impegnava a prendere posizione e sostenere Israele in sede di udienza, la Namibia, che agli inizi del XX secolo subì il genocidio degli Herero e dei Nama inflitto dai colonizzatori tedeschi, ha suggerito al governo tedesco di riconsiderare la propria decisione: “Nessun essere umano amante della pace può ignorare la carneficina commessa contro i palestinesi a Gaza”, ha dichiarato la presidenza della Namibia.

Il Sudafrica ha offerto all’Europa una lezione che va ben oltre gli aspetti giuridici legati alla Convenzione delle Nazioni Unite sul Genocidio (che pur rimangono assolutamente importanti). Quello che è in gioco oggi è il valore stesso del principio di umanità. La violenza, l’instabilità e la distruzione che le cosiddette guerre umanitarie, i tentativi di esportare la democrazia e la “guerra al terrorismo” hanno prodotto in Afghanistan, Iraq e Libia, per fare alcuni esempi, sono crimini della storia con cui l’Europa deve riuscire a fare i conti. L’idea sempre latente che il massacro o la sofferenza dei “civilizzati” siano più traumatici del massacro o della sofferenza degli “altri”, non può più essere accettata da nessuno.

Gli ex colonizzati sono ora potenze globali emergenti o in molti casi ampiamente consolidate che non solo mettono in discussione la retorica occidentale di una superiorità morale proclamata sostenendo il massacro dei palestinesi, ma agiscono ridefinendo (o in altri casi negando) quei valori di cui l’Europa voleva farsi baluardo.

Le gerarchie globali si stanno significativamente riconfigurando e c’è molta incertezza sulle prospettive di pace in diverse regioni del pianeta, ma le sfide che tutti noi abbiamo davanti richiedono un cambio di mentalità, non solo azioni e riparazioni ad hoc. Infatti, il grande rischio è che, di fronte ai fallimenti e all’ipocrisia dell’Europa nel contesto internazionale, anche valori come la pace, la diplomazia e i diritti umani vengano messi in discussione. Se i paesi occidentali sceglieranno di ignorare le decisioni della Corte Internazionale di Giustizia, a farne le spese, oltre ai palestinesi, sarà la credibilità stessa del diritto internazionale.

Manifestazioni di solidarietà con il popolo palestinese si stanno svolgendo in tutta Europa, ma la maggior parte dei leader politici non sembra essere toccata dallo sterminio di migliaia di civili a Gaza. Persiste un clima repressivo in cui la libertà di espressione e l’autonomia intellettuale vengono messi seriamente in discussione. È un momento storico chiave in cui è necessario che la coscienza europea si risvegli attraverso una comprensione rinnovata del concetto di umanità, non più espressione di asimmetrie e gerarchie globali, ma fonte di un umanesimo postcoloniale.

Call for Papers | Special Issue: Speaking out against genocide and repression

Journal: Public Anthropologist
Editor-in-Chief: Antonio De Lauri
Special issue guest editors: Lori Allen and Heidi Mogstad

From Cape Town and Jakarta to London and DC, masses of people have taken to the streets demonstrating against Israel’s ongoing destruction of Gaza and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Across the world, scholars have also used their pens and voices, publishing statements and op-eds, organizing teach-ins, and demanding national and academic boycotts, disinvestment, and sanctions against Israel.

However, in Europe and the United States especially, repression of Palestinian rights activism is intensifying, as censorship by governments and universities spreads. Palestinian students and scholars are particularly targeted, as are people of color. Those calling for Palestinian rights are being harassed, intimated, silenced, hounded out of their jobs, and criminalized. This includes anti-Zionist Jews who have been accused of betraying their people, their heritage, or of hating themselves for demanding justice for Palestinians.

In this political climate of ruthless and sanctioned assaults on Palestinian lives, academic freedom, and humanity, it is more important than ever that scholars speak out. And this despite the fact—and maybe because of the fact—that scholarly interventions can come at personal and professional costs. This is a time to speak out even though writing and talking may seem futile weapons against military violence. Because speaking out from a position of academic privilege may risk crowding out others, especially Palestinians, whose rights, freedoms, perspectives, and voices have so long been denied by the international community, this is a time for humility. But it is also a time for energy and all hands on deck.

In this special issue, we invite anthropologists to reflect on their responsibilities and experiences of speaking and acting out in response to Israel’s assaults on Gaza, and to consider what is at stake and what is possible through intervening inside or outside the academy. We also invite contributors to reflect on broader questions raised by the current situation, including but not limited to topics such as: the exceptionalization of Palestine/Israel, institutional voice and silence, personal and institutional incentives not to speak out, the possibilities and limitations of solidarity within and outside the bounds of the neoliberal university, ethical dilemmas and complicity, the limitations of language, academic freedom and freedom of speech, and anthropology as a launching pad to collective action. While we ask contributors to situate their interventions within the current historical and political moment, we welcome reflections on past engagements, cross-case comparisons, and pieces that trace longer histories of censorship and repression.

Submission details
We invite submissions of 1) scholarly articles between 6000–9000 words; and 2) alternative and experimental forms, such as poems, notes, short stories, interviews, conversations, and essays between 1000–3000 words.

An abstract/pitch (approx 250 words), title, and author bio should be sent via email to both of the Special Issue co-editors, Heidi Mogstad, Heidi.mogstad@cmi.no and Lori Allen, laa72002@gmail.com, before 1 March 2024.

The authors of selected submissions will receive initial feedback from the guest editors by 20 March. Full submissions will be due in to the Public Anthropologist’s editorial manager via this link by 30 June 2024.

Instruction for authors, including format and referencing can be found here.

Contributions will be double peer-reviewed, and we aim to reply to all submissions within 2 months.

The estimated publication date of the special issue is December 2024.

Please email the Special Issue co-editors with any questions: Heidi Mogstad, Heidi.mogstad@cmi.no and Lori Allen, laa72002@gmail.com

How South Africa rescued humanity (and International Law) at the International Court of Justice

Since the creation of the United Nations, and in line with the civilizing mission’s rhetoric used to justify colonialism, racist arguments about the African continent as halting, obstructing, defying and subverting accountability for mass atrocities have been rehearsed in major political and academic circles in the West. In international diplomatic arenas as well as in institutional cultural environments, Western countries tend to perceive themselves as the protectors and promoters of human rights, responsible for showing other – mostly non-Western – countries the path toward ethical and democratic behavior. This self-celebratory narrative, always contradicted by wars and plunder perpetrated by European countries and the United States around the globe, is now again proven wrong by history. By bringing Israel before the International Court of Justice, the world’s highest court, with the objective of putting an end to the ongoing massacres in Gaza – while the West continues to side with and provide military supplies to the oppressor – South Africa (with the support of its partners, all of which are exclusively from the Global South) is challenging the West’s moral high ground and exposing its double standards.

It is symbolically significant that of all the 193 United Nations member states, it is South Africa, a country that has made the painful experience of apartheid, and therefore understands too well that ‘our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians’ (Nelson Mandela), that is initiating this procedure. After more than one hundred days of uninterrupted bombings, and in spite of killings being livestreamed as they occur, the Western allies of Israel remain unshaken. Biden and Trudeau, Sunak and Macron, Borrell and von der Leyen continue to marshall pretenses to excuse the violence of ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ and ‘the most moral army in the world’ and the atrocities it is committing with their help.

‘In extending our hands across the miles to the people of Palestine, we do so with the full knowledge that we are part of a humanity that is at one.’ It is with this quote from Nelson Mandela that Justice Minister Ronald Lamola opened South Africa’s statement before the ICJ, perfectly encapsulating the essence of their intervention. Because what stood out in South Africa’s intervention was precisely their humanity. Each member of the South African legal team went beyond presenting a legal case and, instead, offered a genuine expression of sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians and solidarity with their struggle.

Whereas most human rights mechanisms tend to focus on contingent facts and limit the room for broader contextualization and discussion about root causes, South Africa took the opportunity of this hearing to emphasize the importance of placing the current events in a longer history marked by ongoing denial of self-determination and right to return, Nakba, and occupation, all of which have led to the slow but consistent suffocation of Palestinians and prepared the ground for genocidal acts to take place. It stated that decades of impunity have emboldened Israel to intensify its crime.

As Germany committed to take a stand and support Israel in front of the Court, Namibia, which at the beginning of the 20th century suffered the Herero and Namaqua genocide inflicted by the German empire, cautioned Germany to reconsider its decision. ‘No peace-loving human being can ignore the carnage waged against Palestinians in Gaza,’ the Namibian presidency declared.

Already in 1961, Franz Fanon concluded his essay The Wretched of the Earth, by saying: ‘If we want to meet the expectations of our peoples, we have to look beyond Europe’. This statement can be read as a prediction of the role South Africa is taking today. His call to ‘look elsewhere’ in the quest for a true humanism, where concern for humanity is no longer eclipsed by the interests of dominating nations or the identities of conquering peoples, is reflected in South Africa’s outstretched hand to Palestinians at the very moment when Western hypocrisy is exposed.

South Africa is presenting the West with a lesson that goes far beyond legal aspects in relation to the United Nations Genocide Convention. The different degrees of humanity that so-called humanitarian wars and attempt to export democracy have produced, whereas the massacre or the suffering of the ‘civilized’ is considered as more tragic than the massacre or the suffering of ‘others’, can no longer be accepted. The former colonized are now emergent or in several cases largely consolidated global powers that question the Western rhetoric of a moral superiority proclaimed while supporting the massacre of the Palestinians. Global hierarchies are being reconfigured and much is uncertain about the prospects for peace in several regions. But the challenges we all have before us require a change of mindset, not only ad hoc actions and reparations.

Demonstrations of solidarity with the people of Gaza are taking place around Europe but most political leaders remain untouched by the cry of thousands of innocent civilians. It is a key historical moment for European conscience to wake up and, inspired by South Africa, protect the idea of humanity, before it is too late.

This paper was published simultaneously on both Allegra Lab and Public Anthropologist.

Episode 9: The humanness of humanity has a history 

https://anchor.fm/s/88129390/podcast/rss

In the 9th episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews anthropologist Mark Goodale on the history of human rights. The humaneness of humanity has a history. And Goodale’s work shows that this history is foregrounded in relation to geopolitical and economic history. He asks if a distinction at all can be drawn between politics and economy especially when there are clear empirical links between how the financial world has come to see human rights as relevant only to the extent that it is not an obstacle to political economic growth. The conversation takes a deep dive into the philosophical underpinnings of human rights as a moral project; its political implications; the emergence of the anthropology of human rights as an analytic frame; the post 9/11 turn to a collective erasure of human rights with the emergence of the surveillance state; and the place of human rights in the changing nature, texture, and form of the voices that are becoming increasingly dominant in contemporary movements for justice.

Note: this episode was recorded on 07.04.2023.

Anger on the move

24 November 2023. Gaza: at least 14,854 people killed, including 6,150 children and 4,000 women; and at least 36,000 injured. At least 6,800 missing. The Al Jazeera ‘Israel–Gaza war in maps and charts: Live tracker’ also shows the dead in the Occupied West Bank, which, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, the Palestine Red Crescent Society, and the Israeli Medical Services, number at least 229, at least 52 children. In Israel, figures show, the total number killed is at least 1,200.

While images of and individual stories about some of the hostages held by Hamas continue to flow across Italian (and other Western) TV media and political talk shows, the Palestinians who are killed day by day remain a remote, vague, and shadowy presence.

Anger is on the move. It grows, nourished by some of the most potent fertilizers: hate, violence, and fear. When the treatment for a wound becomes the combination of any of these ingredients, the medicine shows its other face. The pharmakon can alleviate pain or cure a disease, but it can also become lethal. The escalation of violence across the world in speech and action that followed Hamas’s 7 October attack and the unfolding of the responses of the Israeli government reveal, once again, the poisonous effects of remedies that seek to alleviate pain or find justice through the production of more pain and injustice.

As antisemitism is increasingly expressed in isolated actions by extremists across the world, so too is Islamophobia. As some observers seek justice for the horrors of 7 October, many others dismiss the subsequent massacre perpetrated by the Israeli government and forget the ongoing oppression that has been the normalized reality of a horrific story for the Palestinians in the past 75 years. This story begins with the establishment of Israel and the empowerment of Zionists among the Jewish people.

The outcome of this history of oppression is a reverberation of violence, hatred, fear, and a loss for the whole of humanity, that is, for more innocent people whose lives will be sacrificed in the name of a blind positioning on one or another side of the barricade.

The roots of violence

On the Italian Friday TV show Propaganda Live, journalist Francesca Mannocchi reports on her work in the weeks following 7 October in both Tel Aviv and the Occupied Territories. The children who live in the West Bank Occupied Territories tell how their ordinary life unfolds through the indiscriminate and illegal acts of violence perpetrated by the colonizers or otherwise called “settlers.” They may be beaten up, detained in administrative custody, threatened, blocked on one or another side of the checkpoints installed by the colonizers, and killed. Their life is one of permanent terror, humiliation, and violence. Children lose their friends, miss their parents, and see their loved ones killed in a chaotic, unreasonable, and absurd game of asphyxiation, where the muscular power of Israel must be constantly demonstrated through an uncountable and unaccountable series of crimes.

Military occupation has been the only reality that young, adult, and old people have lived since they were born. As a result, most of these children tell the journalist that their dream is to become fighters in the name of God. They feel that fighting is their responsibility – it is the only chance they have to exist since their right to live in peace and freedom, to hope and dream a better life, has been violently taken away. At the same time, their older brothers, sisters, and their parents attempt to protect their families through daily acts of resilience. This can take multiple forms, from daily acceptance of injustice through patience and struggle, to fighting (which will mean dying or being imprisoned) against the occupying groups.

It is within this humiliating and dehumanizing normalized hell on Earth, which the most powerful governments in the world have produced and maintained in absolute silence and/or by supporting the perpetrators of this human catastrophe, that we need to frame the debate related to the violent events of 7 October 2023 and the subsequent revenge taken by the Israeli government, which has taken the form of the indiscriminate mass killing of Palestinians – a programmed and spectacularized live genocidal war.

Visions of violence

In the Introduction to his book The Question of Palestine, Palestinian scholar Edward Said (1979) writes:

‘I suppose that to many of my readers the Palestinian problem immediately calls forth the idea of “terrorism,” and it is partly because of this invidious association that I do not spend much time on terrorism in this book. To have done so would have been to argue defensively, either by saying that such as it has been our “terrorism” is justified, or by taking the position that there is no such thing as Palestinian terrorism as such. The facts are considerably more complex, however, and some of them at least bear some rehearsal here. In sheer numerical terms, in brute numbers of bodies and property destroyed, there is absolutely nothing to compare between what Zionism has done to Palestinians and what, in retaliation, Palestinians have done to Zionists. The almost constant Israeli assault on Palestinian civilian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan for the last twenty years is only one index of these completely asymmetrical records of destruction. What is much worse, in my opinion, is the hypocrisy of Western (and certainly Zionist) journalism and intellectual discourse, which have barely had anything to say about Zionist terror.’

Over forty years after this text was published, on 15 October 2023, in the online magazine Ebb, Hassan Harb names the operation launched on 7 October by Hamas and other fighters from Palestine as ‘the Palestinians’ way to enter decisively in this historical moment of US decline, launching a war of liberation against the Zionist entity that, like the muqawama, combines the past and present towards the future’.

The conceptualization of the killing of over a thousand civilians as a ‘war for liberation’ should not lead us to argue for or against the legitimacy of the violence perpetrated by Hamas and other groups of fighters on 7 October. Rather, we should pose another crucial question: where does such a horrific event come from? What could possibly have caused people to reach the point where violence became the only solution they could embrace in seeking freedom and justice?

The 7 October killings represent one extreme attempt by groups of fighters from Palestine to move against the oppressors whose legitimacy has been normalized and justified by the most powerful countries in the world. The consequence of such a war for liberation has been the killing of more than a thousand innocent people and the kidnapping of about two hundred children, women, and men (part of them opponents of the present Israeli government who were active in peace-making initiatives in support of Palestinians). It goes without saying that the indiscriminate killing of innocent people who had no responsibility for the crimes committed by the Israeli government is a horrific reality and any intention to destroy all Israelis and Jewish people must be condemned. Such horror, however, is not the outcome of the incursion of mad terrorist fanatics who have completely lost their minds, as a large portion of mass media tend to frame the question. The so-called “terror” has roots.

The violence one breathes and learns from (being an ordinary subject of injustice and discrimination) rarely vanishes into thin air. Horror produces horror, and the violence to which Palestinians have been structurally subjected sadly transformed and turned innocent civilians into targets. An eye for an eye – the law of violence; this is the only option left to a people whose right to exist has been negated since before they were born, and whose lives have been violated by Zionists and the European and American imperialist project born of the very idea of eradicating the Palestinians who inhabited Palestine.

This imperialist (US-led) project of the so-called “Global North” does not begin with the events following the 7 October killings and it does not have much to do with the specific context of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The horrific events we are witnessing daily are only one expression of a much larger and ongoing process of discrimination, displacement, mass-killing, and dehumanization of certain groups of people – these “others,” being the Palestinians, the Arabs, the terrorists, the ethnic/religious minorities, or the illegal (one should rather say “illegalized”) migrants.

As people wait to be killed and plead with the world to hear their call to be recognized as human beings with dignity and rights, the world is watching. We are all – those who can afford it – active witnesses and observers, participants, and responsible fellows of those who are actively committing crimes against humanity, which are otherwise crimes against every one of us, including the perpetrators.

When oppression becomes the norm and the denial of freedom and the use of indiscriminate violence is perpetrated and justified, resistance can take the form of violence, and this is simply because all other possible forms of democratic or peaceful opposition end in inevitable defeat when violence is used on the other side. This is the history of Palestine in the past seventy-five years. As a result of this overlooked and normalized paradox, hate has been growing, and it is now, even more clearly to the rest of the world, on the move.

Halt!

Hate has been growing for many years. Diatribes, especially in politics, are filled with anger. Violence is everywhere and it is endemic. It proliferates and expands, and it modifies the way in which we see the world. As it affects how we think, it also affects what we are – because, after all, we are what we think.

Protests in defense of the Palestinians, who are being abandoned to death through the imposed lack of access to vital resources, or actively killed, are witnessing increasing episodes of violence and anger against Jewish people. Antisemitism is re-emerging as a profound distortion of contemporary society. Again, the logic is that of two opposing sides: if you are not with me, then you are against me. This dichotomy builds on a great misunderstanding, that is, if you are with the Palestinians, then you do not recognize the Jewish people and their rights or the horrible killings committed by Hamas on 7October; and if you condemn Hamas, then you should support the indiscriminate genocidal actions perpetrated against the Palestinians by Israel. The false conflations of Hamas’s violent attacks with all Palestinians and the Israeli state/Zionist project with the Jewish people continues to stoke conflict. Hate grows, but such sentiment is the outcome of circles of false narratives which distort the facts.

Being able to recognize the horrors committed by Hamas on 7 October does not prevent one from being equally capable of understanding the historical context which has led to such events and therefore firmly condemning the horrible killings committed by Israel in recent weeks and throughout the seventy-five years of occupation. Cause and effect are inevitably and inextricably tied together in the world-history of oppression for domination.

The blood of innocent people and civilians does not have flags or sides. One possibility we may have as we try to orient ourselves into the future is a response to this growing violence through the deactivation of hate and the cultivation of peace, understanding, and comprehension. It is important to learn how to examine an extraordinary event by paying attention to a series of less noticeable and often hardly visible ordinary events, and to observe the common threads through which power emerges, violence proliferates, and the violation of people’s rights becomes an almost invisible and mostly accepted reality.

We must work together to deactivate such a paradigm. The memory of the violence suffered by our predecessors cannot become the trigger for more violence. If that happens, we have lost before we have even started on the path to (ir)reconciliation.[1] When violence calls for more violence, we have fallen victim to a historical cycle of horror. Such a vicious cycle must be halted.

As Antonio De Lauri well elucidates in The Courage of Historical Truths, we all have a responsibility in the process. Being united to bring an end to violence and the flowering of peace is what I wish to orient our life towards. Peace requires knowledge. And knowledge requires the ability to turn negative and corrosive emotions into strength and creative energy. This is possible, and it is necessary – for all the civilians who have been killed and for those who are condemned to die because of our complacency; for the migrants of the past, the present, and the future; for all those whose premature deaths are being neglected, forgotten, or turned into a justification by political propaganda; for something better to come through a collective and shared act of responsibility, justice, and comprehension.

This new horizon of humanness must break from purely rhetorical humanitarian narratives filled with empty promises and unfulfilled ideals, and critically question (to drastically change) the world-order of capitalism and economy-led principles which shape our lives and produce others’ deaths in circles of violence.

References

Harb, H. 2023. Al-Aqsa Flood: Imperialism, Zionism and Reactionism in the 21st Century, Ebb. Available at: https://www.ebb-magazine.com/essays/al-aqsa-flood . (Accessed: 15-10-2023).

Said, E. 1979. The Question of Palestine. Vintage Books Edition, New York.


[1] For a critical ethnographic view on irreconciliation – taken as instances when survivors refuse to forgive in response to persistent impunity of past injustices, see Mookherjee, N. 2022. On Irreconciliation. John Wiley and Sons Ltd.

Episode 8: Writing history beyond disciplinary constraints 

In the 8th episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews anthropologist Jeevan Sharma on how to write a history and ethnography of the speedy transformations in Nepal. Sharma’s work looks beyond disciplinary boundaries to study the political and economic inequities that has historically informed the social life in Nepal. There is no way of ethnographically understanding social change in Nepal without a careful engagement with these historical shifts. Eventually, Sharma reflects that the call for radical transformation in Nepal has not necessarily led to greater political emancipation, freedom, better livelihoods, and economic opportunities.

Writing history beyond disciplinary constraints by Public Anthropologist Podcast (spotify.com)

The Courage of Historical Truths

With the destruction of Gaza by Israel under way and the humanitarian situation in the occupied Palestinian territories worsening day by day, a recurrent question is raised in mainstream media, TV shows and many academic circles: Is Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks on October 7 proportionate or not? Some say it is. Others say only partially. Others say it isn’t. But the point is that the question itself is a trap. Any serious debate about the current escalation of violence cannot start from October 2023. To overlook the historical context is a violation of the truth: it pushes to one side the state of oppression that Israel has imposed on Palestine at a growing pace in the past decades, and it washes away the responsibilities of Europe in the root causes of the conflict and occupation.

Western governments and institutions have overwhelmingly shown support for Israel in its explicit attempt at annihilating Palestinians. “This is civilization against barbarity. This is good against bad”, claimed Israel’s Ambassador to Berlin, Ron Prosor. “We are fighting against human animals”, said Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant. As the mainstream narrative goes, what is taking place is a broader battle of civilizations between “the only democracy in the Middle East” (as Israel has often been labelled by politicians and journalists) and authoritarianism (Hamas and, by extension, all Palestinians). Good vs evil. The civilized vs the uncivilized.

“You are either with us, or you are with the terrorist”, said George Bush in 2001, when the US was launching the War on Terror, which led to two catastrophic decades of human loss (hundreds of thousands of dead), devastation and destabilization. Us and them. The civilized vs the uncivilized. Yet if we really want to indulge in the depressing mantra of a battle of civilizations, we should recognize that the terms of reference are different from how they first appear to the Western intelligentsia. With  current events in Palestine and Israel in mind, if we compare the speeches of Joe Biden or von der Leyen, with that of the king of Jordan at the Cairo Peace Summit, the conclusion would be that the American and the German don’t make a good impression (to use an euphemism). Indeed, I’d challenge anyone in saying on what “side” reason, justice and humanity lie in that comparison.

The decline of values, ability and courage in Western political leadership, coupled with their arrogance and double standards, is a perfect symbol of our empty times, in which social media threads determine the relevance of social issues, and a significant portion of academia is complicit with power or anesthetized and irrelevant. As I write this blog post, a turmoil was generated among some research institutes in Norway for the decision of a group of researchers to publish a Statement on the Situation in Palestine, now available on Public Anthropologist blog and taken down from the  website where it was originally published.

Over the past decades, we have seen wars conducted in the name of democracy, countries bombed in the name of human rights and regimes intermittently supported or fought depending on economic interests. In the US as well as in Europe freedom of expression has been dismantled, inequalities have increased and societal cohesion has eroded.

Polarizing discourses are used to generate clicks in ways that misrepresent reality. You raise questions about the opportunity to keep sending weapons to Ukraine? Then you are pro-Putin. You maintain that it is necessary to establish a dialogue with the Taliban? Then you support violations of human rights. Journalism is compromised or controlled. Dissidence is often mocked or even cancelled. Social problems tend to be oversimplified. Nuances are often unwelcomed in political debates. And so, horrors like the devastation imposed on Palestinians go on as Europe complicitly watches. Pro-Palestinians protests are banned. Voices outside the mainstream are silenced. European governments are far from being innocent in the protraction of this humanitarian tragedy. Once again, as with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the bombing of Libya in 2011 (to mention only two relatively recent examples), the current events will remain in the history books as a terrifying injustice.

It may be appropriate to recall how in 1993 the historian Howard Zinn introduced the essay “Terrorism over Tripoli”:

“In April of 1986, a bomb exploded in a discotheque in West Berlin, killing two people, one an American soldier. It was unquestionably an act of terrorism. Libya’s tyrannical leader, Muammar Khadafi, had a record of involvement in terrorism, although in this case there seemed to be no clear evidence of who was responsible. Nevertheless, President Reagan ordered that bombers be sent over Libya’s capital of Tripoli, killing perhaps a hundred people, almost all civilians. I wrote this piece, which could not find publication in the press, to argue against the principle of retaliation. I am always furious at the killing of innocent people for some political cause, but I wanted to broaden the definition of terrorism to include governments, which are guilty of terrorism far more often, and on an infinitely larger scale, than bands of revolutionaries or nationalists.”

The essay ends with these words:

“Let us hope that, even if this generation, its politicians, its reporters, its flag-wavers and fanatics, cannot change its ways, the children of the next generation will know better, having observed our stupidity. Perhaps they will understand that the violence running wild in the world cannot be stopped by more violence, that someone must say: we refuse to retaliate, the cycle of terrorism stops here.”

Unfortunately, we cannot say that lessons have been learned. Quite the opposite, as the situation in Gaza blatantly reveals.

Noam Chomsky once praised Zinn’s work (endorsement for Howard Zinn on History) in the following terms: “Howard’s life and work are a persistent reminder that our own subjective judgments of the likelihood of success in engaging human problems are of little interest, to ourselves or others. What matters is to take part, as best we can, in the small actions of unknown people that can stave off disaster and bring about a better world, to honor them for their achievement, to do what we can to ensure that these achievements are understood and carried forward.”

As Palestine burns, many scholars are still reluctant to speak out, established academic institutions avoid making a public stand, unverified information is used as communication tactics, investigative journalism is invisible. Along with Palestinians, truth dies. There are times when we need to create the space for the courage of historical truths to emerge. This is one of those times.

This post was originally published by Allegra Lab: ‘The Courage of Historical Truths’. 

Gaza is not a humanitarian crisis: on self-defence, depoliticising language, and contextualisation

On Thursday evening October 26, EU member states finally agreed to a formal declaration calling for ‘humanitarian corridors and pauses’ of the shelling in Gaza. The declaration also expressed concerns for the ‘deteriorating humanitarian situation.’ While some have celebrated this move as a display of European unity and care for Palestinian lives, other have criticised the declaration for not insisting –as did eventually the UN spearheaded by Jordan– on an immediate and durable ceasefire. The declaration also smells of humanitarian hypocrisy.  Although allowing safe and urgent access of humanitarian aid to Gaza is surely important, European leaders have enabled the ongoing war crimes against Palestinians by insisting on Israel’s unconditional right to ‘defend’ themselves. Moreover, the representation of Gaza as a humanitarian crisis erases the political and historical roots of the war, in which Europeans are not moral bystanders but are deeply implicated.

On self-defence

“What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?” asked the late feminist writer Ursula K. Le Guin. For the past few weeks, I have asked myself the same question repeatedly. Since Israel began its bombing campaign on Gaza in response to Hamas’s terror attacks on October 7, European leaders have continuously emphasised Israel’s right to defend itself. Meanwhile, witness reports from inside Gaza speak of continuous bombardment, civilian deaths and displacement.

The magnitude of the violence and suffering is hard to take in. On October 16, Save the Children reported that one child in Gaza was being killed every 15 minutes. Since then, the shelling has only intensified with hospitals and other civilian infrastructure targeted. Three weeks into the war, at least 3.195 Palestinian children have been killed. This number surpasses the annual number of children killed across the world ‘s conflict zones since 2019. Thousands of men, women and children are also reported missing, presumably buried under the rubble.

On October 25, Yousef Hammash, spokesperson for the Norwegian Refugee Council on Gaza, wrote the following on X (formerly Twitter):

“I don’t know how, even when this chaos is finished, how we will recover. We are two million people who are traumatised. I don’t think there is enough psychosocial support on this planet that could help us.”

The right to self-defence is an important principle in international law but cannot be given as a blanket statement. It also carries particular meaning in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, where Israel has continuously used it to excuse and legitimise more oppression and dispossession.  Since October 7, Israel has been bombing and displacing the population of Gaza and refusing them supplies of food, water, fuel, and other necessities. This is collective punishment and not self-defence.It is also a flagrant violation of international law.

In the past few days, some European politicians have qualified their support to Israel by urging Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli army to respect international laws and the protection of civilian lives. To some, this might sound like a reasonable compromise that respects the rights and needs of the population on both sides of the conflict. However, the idea that exposing a civilian population to bombardment, blockade and eviction orders can be just and legitimate is a contradiction in terms. Moreover, human rights organisations have already documented multiple indiscriminate attacks directed at civilian targets. In the words of Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Agnès Callamard:

“In their stated intent to use all means to destroy Hamas, Israeli forces have shown a shocking disregard for civilian lives. They have pulverized street after street of residential buildings killing civilians on a mass scale and destroying essential infrastructure, while new restrictions mean Gaza is fast running out of water, medicine, fuel and electricity. Testimonies from eyewitnesses and survivors highlighted, again and again, how Israeli attacks decimated Palestinian families, causing such destruction that surviving relatives have little but rubble to remember their loved ones by.”

We must condemn Hamas for their acts of terror and brutality and demand that they immediately release the innocent Israeli hostages. We must also respect Jewish fears, traumas and suffering, and intervene to address the worrying rise of antisemitism in our communities and worldwide. However, as underscored by Jewish peace activists in Israel and across the world, we should not show solidarity with Israeli civilians by granting their leaders moral permission to retaliate. Revenge will not break the cycle of violence or contribute to making citizens of Israel safe. As violently exposed by the October 7 terror attacks, no lasting peace will be achieved unless Palestinians are granted their full rights and freedoms.



On language
In the past weeks, I have been involved in multiple debates inside and outside of academia about language and terminology. Admittedly, it feels morbid and absurd to argue about language, while children are buried under rubble or dying in hospitals in Gaza that are struggling to stay afloat.

However, the language we use to describe violence and injustice matters. As I have argued elsewhere regarding European border violence, I am critical of representations of the unfolding events in Gaza as a ‘humanitarian crisis.’ Although well-intended, this language obscures the prolonged and everyday violence and dispossession of the Palestinian people. It also conceals the political and historical roots of the current war, including the West’s and Europe’s historical complicity.

Gaza is not a humanitarian crisis but a politically sanctioned attack on civilian infrastructure and people who, due to decades of occupation and blockade, are made unable to defend themselves. Moreover, this is not an ‘evacuation’ or ‘relocation’ but a forced and unlawful displacement of the Palestinian people.

Listening to some public commentators, it seems as if they think that if only Egypt would open its border and let the people of Gaza in, everything would be all right. However, this ignores the fact that many Palestinians are severely injured, hospitalised or otherwise unable to move. Some are also understandably reluctant to give into Israel’s evacuation orders and leave their homes and land behind. Historically, displaced Palestinians have been categorically denied their right to return, to their homes, lands, and property from which they were illegally dispossessed. In fact, most of Gaza’s population are refugees or descendants of refugees who have been ethnically cleansed and expelled from their homes and land before. Like the right to self-defence, forced displacement thus means something special in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It has been part of Palestinian’ lives since the state of Israel was established after the Second War and effectively contributed to Israel’s settlement expansion and annexation of Palestinian territory. For this reason, we should all be wary of commentators and politicians who speak of the need to ‘evacuate’ the Palestinian population as if this was a positive humanitarian intervention and solution. We should also be wary of calls for ‘humanitarian pauses and corridors’ when these calls are not immediately followed by commitments to Palestinians’ rights to return, self-determination and statehood.

On context
Language matters. So does history. In Norway and elsewhere, some have argued that Hamas’ attacks on October 7 are so horrendous they resist any form of interpretation or contextualisation. Others have accused contextual analyses of being morally relativising, for shifting the blame and responsibility or rationalising violence. However, as Susan Sontag argued, images are ‘insufficient to repair our ignorance of history and the cause of suffering these images pick out and frame.’ Moreover, Judith Butler asks astutely: ‘Why can’t we condemn morally heinous acts without losing our powers to think, to know and to judge? Surely we can, and must, do both.’

Like all the pro-Palestinian advocates I know, I oppose any effort to justify Hamas’ atrocities. I also sympathise with the reluctance to make sense of them. Yet, we cannot understand the attacks in isolation from Israel’s longstanding, brutal, unlawful, and increasingly normalised occupation of Palestinian territories. Nor without taking into account the international community’s abandonment of the Palestinian cause and people. In fact, as Lori Allen argues, the history of our present starts much earlier, shaped by the West’s rejection of Palestinian demands for a democratic state and Europe’s decision to absolve itself of responsibility for the Holocaust by supporting the Zionist settler-colonial project. 

We must also be wary of how the incessant demand to condemn Hamas frames the debate and the condition on which most Palestinians are allowed to speak.  As professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA, Saree Makisi, knowingly observes:

What we are not allowed to say, as Palestinians speaking to the Western media, is that all life is equally valuable. That no event takes place in a vacuum. That history didn’t start on October 7, 2023, and if you place what’s happening in the wider historical context of colonialism and anticolonial resistance, what’s most remarkable is that anyone in 2023 should be still surprised that conditions of absolute violence, domination, suffocation, and control produce appalling violence in turn.

As Makisi highlights, turning to history challenges the all-too-common tendency to speak and write as if the current war started on October 7, 2023. It also challenges racialised narratives of the war as a civilisational conflict between the ‘liberal democratic west’ and ‘fundamental Islam’. This framing is not merely reductionist and ahistorical but also incites further polarisation.
Finally, turning to history is crucial to not only understand the ongoing atrocities but also to understand whether ‘conditions might change such that a future of violence is not all that is possible.’ To this end, we must also understand Israeli Jews’ desires and needs for security and recognition in the context of the Holocaust and enduring and growing antisemitism. Like the Palestinian people, Jews carry intergenerational trauma and have existential and legitimate fears of being annihilated. While Israeli Jews’ freedoms and ways of life are promoted by the Israeli state, they also suffer from the conflict, and increasingly many are critical of their right-wing government, the Israeli occupation, retaliation attack, and surging settler violence on the West Bank. Somehow, we must find ways to acknowledge all of this without erasing the colonial domination of the Israeli state and without conflating historical events with ongoing apartheid, terrorism and oppression.

As I write this piece, Israeli air strikes continue to damage hospitals in Gaza, and civilian death tolls keep rising. According to a spokesperson for UNICEF, Gaza has already become a graveyard for children, and many more will be killed in the days to come. In a sane and just world, this would be unbearable and unacceptable to all of us. Instead, solidarity with Palestine and efforts to oppose violence against civilians are increasingly silenced and oppressed.

Time to act
With this piece, I am heeding Lori Allen’s poignant call for us as anthropologists, scholars, and teachers to act. Those of us who are not scholars from or of the region should recognise this and make sure we do not displace other voices. However, as anthropologists and scholars of humanitarianism and displacement, we should use our tools and knowledge to intervene where possible and appropriate. We cannot accept that indiscriminate attacks on civilians and other war crimes are justified under the rubric of self-defence or as part of a larger narrative of a ‘war against terrorism.’ Therefore, we must challenge dehumanising and depoliticising language and do what we can to hold the Israeli government and our own political leaders to account. We must also challenge the longstanding misrecognition of Palestinian lives and freedoms, which for too long have allowed the Israeli apartheid system to continue. This is not the time for us to be worried about being seen as ‘too political’ or claiming that scholars ought to be ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’. Gaza is not a humanitarian crisis but a politically sanctioned attack that collectively punishes Palestinian civilians in the name of justice, security and ‘never again’. As western citizens, many of us are also implicated in this violence historically and through our countries’ support for Israel, weapon export, and abandonment of the Palestinian cause and people.

Statement on the situation in Palestine

25 October 2023

We extend our solidarity to those suffering and grieving the loss of loved ones in both Palestine and Israel.

As scholars of humanitarianism, war, displacement and related fields, we are deeply concerned by the escalation of violence in Palestine.

We strongly condemn the ongoing acts of indiscriminate and large-scale violence perpetrated by the Israeli government against the people of Gaza.

We also strongly condemn Israel’s deliberate blockade and denial of essential supplies of food, water, fuel and other necessities to over two million people in Gaza, half of whom are children and two-thirds are displaced. This amounts to collective punishment and is in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.

We are deeply concerned about measures taken in Europe and elsewhere to repress peaceful protests and silence those who have expressed solidarity with Palestinians, including fellow scholars. This curtailment of freedom of expression undermines the essence of our role and duty as researchers. It is vitally important that we are able to participate in free and critical discussions on matters such as violence and war.

As scholars, we also emphasise the importance of viewing this conflict in its historical and political context, acknowledging the historical inequalities, injustice and violence brought about by Israel’s longstanding occupation of Palestinian territories and maintenance of an apartheid state. We reiterate the need to consider the roots of the current situation in the actions and inaction of European governments before, during and after the Second World War.

It is both possible and necessary to unite against antisemitism and Islamophobia, and to promote the right to freedom, safety and self-determination for both Palestinians and Israelis.

We call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and the release of all hostages. We call for all parties to respect international law and allow the immediate and uninterrupted passage of critical humanitarian relief for the people of Gaza.

We call for a commitment from Israel and all European governments to a peace process that ends the occupation of Palestinian territories.

We call for the protection of freedom of expression and the end to any form of censorship in Europe and elsewhere on the situation in Palestine.

———

Antonio De Lauri (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Heidi Mogstad (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Anwesha Dutta (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Laura Nader (University of California, Berkeley), Emily Hume (Chr. Michelsen Institute/NCHS), Ugo Mattei (University of Turin/Hastings College of the Law), Elisabetta Grande (University of Eastern Piedmont), Farhat Taj (University of Tromsø), Marianna Betti (University of Bergen), Estella Carpi (University College London), Lovise Aalen (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Salla Turunen, Jessica Schultz (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Nichola Khan (University of Edinburgh), Astri Suhrke (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Antonius Robben (Utrecht University), Julie Billaud (Geneva Graduate Institute), Don Kalb (University of Bergen), Carmeliza Rosario (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Marco Traversari (University of Bologna), Iva Jelusic (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Alessandro Corso, Luigi Achilli (European University Institute), Valentina Benincasa (Universidad Complutense de Madrid), Livio Senigalliesi, Marie-Benedicte Dembour (Ghent University), Saul Mullard (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Maria Alcidi, Stein Sundstøl Eriksen (Norwegian Institute of International Affairs), Cathrine Talleraas (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Cindy Horst (Peace Research Institute Oslo), Cecilia Salinas (University of Oslo), Iselin Åsedotter Strønen (Univesrity of Bergen), Bjørn Enge Bertelsen (University of Bergen), William Dawley (University of Bergen), Manimala Chanu Asem (University of Bergen), Håkon Larsen (University of Bergen), Mary Anne Karlsen (University of Bergen), Geir Henning Presterudstuen (University of Bergen), Liv Tønnessen (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Heath Cabot (University of Bergen), Mari Norbakk (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Malin H. Kleppe (Western Norway University of Applied Sciences), Karine A. Jansen (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Ana Ivasiuc (Maynooth University), Columba Gonzalez-Duarte (The New School for Social Research), Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (University College London), Aslak Orre (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Kari Telle (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Nora Haukali (University of Bergen), Elisa Giunchi (University of Milan), Elin Skaar (Chr. Michelsen Institute).