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Anthropology Now and Next – a book launch in Tallinn
Apartheid with a friendly face – a visit to Israel


Anthropology now and next

Although he was never my teacher in anthropology, Ulf Hannerz (Stockholm University) has been a presence in my professional life since my undergraduate days in the 1980s, writing as he did about the contemporary, modern world, but in a curiosity-driven (rather than anxiety-driven) mode. Hannerz, whose work since the 1960s has always raised pertinent questions about the role of cultural meaning and collective identities in an era of globalised flows and transnational connections, is in fact a much more radical thinker than his mild manners would seem to suggest. Urging colleagues to take information society seriously, to see culture as ‘the organisation of diversity’ rather than ‘the reproduction of similarity’, Hannerz has argued that cultural creolisation is a fundamental aspect of life in the contemporary world.

With Christina Garsten and Shalini Randeria, I've edited a collection of essays in honour of Ulf Hannerz, with contributions from some of his academic friends and admirers on both sides of the Atlantic, and it was a great pleasure to be able to present this book to him (and the audience) at the EASA conference in Tallinn in early August 2014. This is still the pre-print edition, not properly proofread, but typeset and indexed. The book as such will be available very soon.


PS: The University of Tallinn may easily appear somewhat labyrinthine to the uninitiated, and Ulf was coming straight to the launch from a plenary session which had dragged on slightly longer than scheduled. When he was about fifteen minutes late, his wife, the anthropologist Helena Wulff, went to look for him, but soon returned, Ulf-less. He must have lost his way, she concluded. Alas, he didn't have a cellphone. One couldn't help but noticing the irony: one of the first anthropologists to take the study of information society seriously didn't have a mobile phone. Oh well. In the end, he did turn up, and things went well.

Anthropology Now and Next, published by Berghahn in 2014, will be properly presented on its own page as soon as it has been properly published.


Apartheid with a friendly face

Thomas Hylland Eriksen (June 2014, before the 2014 bombing of Gaza)

I recently (May 2014) returned from an academic visit to Israel/Palestine. Not least with the current boycott discussion in mind, I had been reflecting on the circumstances and rationale of the visit. Upon returning, I wrote an op-ed in Aftenposten about Israeli policy with the proposed boycott in mind. Here is a slightly expanded English translation.

Neither the memories of the holocaust nor Palestinian terrorism can justify Israel's increasingly brutal and humiliating treatment of its Semitic-speaking brothers and sisters. The country is in danger of losing its soul and becoming just another rogue state.

There is renewed debate about academic boycott of Israel. Still, I never hesitated when I was invited to give the main keynote lecture at the annual meeting of the Israeli Anthropological Association in Jaffa in May. I have earlier lectured in countries that are far from democratic, such as Iran, and it is precisely when there are considerable disagreements and profoundly differing viewpoints that it is important to keep the conversation going. Besides, there is freedom of expression in Israel, and I knew that several of my academic acquaintances in the country were deeply critical of their country's ‘security policies’. So I gratefully accepted the invitation to give this lecture as well as a few other academic activities in Israel, but signalled that I wished to do something meaningful in the occupied territories as well. This was arranged, and in addition to giving lectures in Israel, I got to see Palestinian villages and to meet Palestinians on the West Bank (thanks to Efrat Ben-Zeev, the chair of the association and the author of Remembering Palestine in 1948), as well as giving a talk to Palestinians and Norwegians in Palestine East Jerusalem.

There is hardly a place in the world which is more saturated with significance than this compact, densely populated sliver of a country. Israel/Palestine has so many sediments of history that scarcely a rock exists that is not subject to claims from at least three groups, whose narratives about that particular rock are divergent and contradictory. There is hatred, spite and mutual suspicion. Yet, the roots of the problem do not lie in intolerance as such, but in physical resources such as buildings, land and water.

Israel is a democratic country, but it is also an apartheid state. The Israeli state has forcefully taken property and territory from Palestinians, not once, but continuously, and the process of encroachment continues even today. Talking about a ‘conflict’ in this context is ultimately misleading, since it creates an impression of balance or symmetry. It is true that Palestinians, not Israeli, have carried out suicide attacks and other terrorist acts. But it remains indisputable that it is Israelis, not Palestinians, who have driven their neighbours from their homes and land for over sixty years, and who routinely subject them to intimidation and humiliation.

The Israeli marginalisation of the Palestinians began with the formation of the Israeli state in 1948, when about 80 per cent of the country's Arab population lost their homes. Most of these families now live as refugees on the West Bank. Every year, they commemorate the Nakba, ‘the catastrophe’, and some carry heavy, rusty keys around their neck, signifying their demand to the right to return to their homes.

Subsequently, Israel has won wars, quelled revolts, been struck by and defended itself against terrorist attacks. The country's de facto response to demands from Palestinians and international society have in recent years not consisted in a search for a solution, but tightening their military control of Palestinians' movements and land. It is perhaps here that the similarities with South African apartheid are most striking.

Jerusalem is surrounded by the West Bank on three sides. East Jerusalem is Palestinian, but it is located on the Israeli side of the barrier separating the West Bank from Israel. (To some, this much-publicised wall is a security fence; others speak of it as an apartheid wall.) Palestinians from the West Bank who wish to enter Jerusalem, or vice versa, must apply for permission in advance. Waiting for it, if it is at all granted, can require a great deal of patience.

The barrier has, in some places, been built in the West Bank itself, and this does not only isolate certain Palestinian villages from the rest of the occupied territory, but also increases Israel's actual territory. This also has a practical dimension for Palestinans. Palestinian children who live in villages on the Israeli side of the wall are not allowed to go to school in Jerusalem, so they must pass security checkpoints every day on their way to and from school. Occasionally, they are kept inside the barrier (built like a large metal cage) for an hour's time. At other times, they are released after just a minute or two. Sometimes, bored Israeli soldiers put on music and make the Palestinian girls on their way home from school, dance for them. Recently, a man died of a heart attack while he was kept back in the cage – with numerous other Palestinians, in scorching heat, with no explanation.

Much has been written about Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Not being a specialist on the region, I had earlier been given to understand that they were illegal, that the Israeli state officially did not endorse them, and that their residents were generally orthodox Jews who, for religious reasons, insisted on the right to live in their mythical Samaria. This was, to put it mildly, a simplification.

The first settlement I clapped eyes on during my visit to the occupied territories, was the size of a town, with massive apartment buildings, good infrastructure and impeccable security measures sheltering it from the outside world. The Israeli settlers have a far better supply of water than the people in the surrounding areas, with lush greenery and swimming pools. The housing is reasonably priced, and the food sold in the shops inside the settlements is subsidised. It is estimated that 650,000 Israeli now live in settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. According to international law, they are illegal, but they are not only recognised, but actively supported by the Israeli state. In addition, there are settlements which do not receive public support, and which are considered illegal by Israel too.

The West Bank functions roughly in the same way as a Bantustan (black homeland) in the final phases of apartheid. The economy is, in practice, controlled by the ‘mother country’. Israel can at any time withhold tax revenue from the Palestinian authorities, they can close their barriers any time, preventing Palestinians working in Israel from getting to work, and the Israeli bureaucracy is at its least efficient when a Palestinian applies, for example, for a building permit.

In some respects, the West Bank is less independent than a bantustan. The country is slowly, but surely, being fragmented and perforated by the Jewish settlements. When the barrier was built, many Palestinians lost some of their land, without receiving any real compensation. The white rulers of South Africa never encroached on black homelands in a similar way.

Moreover, Israel has built first class roads where the colour of your numberplate determines whether you have the right to drive on them. One of the main roads from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and the airport runs through the West Bank, but no cars with green numberplates (Palestinian vehicles) are seen on it. Officially, this restriction is a security measure. It nevertheless remains a fact that in this area, too, Israel has a less laudable record than South Africa under apartheid: There were no roads in the bantustans where black Africans were not permitted to drive.

It is easy to see that the barrier, the settlements, the soldiers, the security checkpoints and the segregated roads are neither a recipe for reconciliation and compromise, nor an efficient antidote to terrorism and suicide attacks. On the contrary, it is evident that the Israeli state actively contributes to and nurtures the growth of hatred, despair and intransigence on the Palestinian side.

It should be added that Israeli society has its own internal complexity, often ignored by foreign commentators. First, about 20 per cent of the population in Israel itself are Arabs, mostly living in Galilee, which largely avoided the 1948 nakba. Second, the Jewish population is complex. The elites largely consist of Ashkenazis with a background in Europe, while Mizrahim, with a background in the Middle East and North Africa, are poorly represented in high positions. Third, recent immigration, especially from Russia after 1990, has changed the composition of the population. In general, Russian Jews are right-of-centre politically and tend to support a tough approach towards the Palestinians. One of my colleagues commented that given the present demography in Israel, Labour or other moderate forces would never be able to return to power.

Would I have accepted the invitation now? Doubtless. Neither Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib nor the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have dried out the flow of academic visits to the USA, and there is no academic boycott of the brutal and undemocratic Chinese state. Yet at the same time, Israel is especially disturbing, perhaps because of the starkness of the contrasts. There is freedom of religion and of expression, the shopping is excellent, and the standard of living is high. But in order to fully enjoy its exceptionally rich cultural heritage, the colourful markets and the exquisite food, it may be necessary to forget the country's dark side. It can doubtless be done, but only by staying at a safe distance from the checkpoints and the barrier. Only then is it possible to remember the Holocaust while forgetting the nakba.