We Shouldn’t Fear Being “Divisive” in Pursuit of Justice

We Shouldn’t Fear Being “Divisive” in Pursuit of Justice

We Shouldn’t Fear Being “Divisive” in Pursuit of Justice

We shouldn’t pretend that movements like BDS aren’t “divisive.” Instead, we need to make the moral and ethical case for why that divisiveness is necessary.


There’s a word that tends to pop up all over the world whenever marginalized people fight for their rights: “divisive.”

In Australia, for instance, Indigenous leaders are campaigning to have a “First Nations Voice” enshrined in the Constitution, advising Parliament and the government on all issues that affect aboriginal communities. The conservatives rallying against it base their opposition mainly on the initiative’s “divisiveness.” When Brown University established a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice in 2003 to investigate the university’s historical relationship to slavery, it was attacked by some as “divisive and wrong-headed.”

The same refrain is predominant in the arguments used by opponents of an initiative to convince the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to honor the Palestinian appeal to “boycott Israeli academic institutions until such time as these institutions end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law.” Such a boycott, opponents claim, would significantly damage the association and hamper its mission. And, right on schedule, the critics have reached for everyone’s favorite word, writing, “The divisiveness and ill will created will be permanent.”

Many anthropologists in the US support the boycott of Israeli universities, reaffirming their deeply entrenched and well-documented complicity in apartheid and denial of Palestinian rights. Although boycott proponents have made a compelling case for it as a logical fulfillment of the AAA’S ethical and professional obligations, they have not adequately addressed the salient argument of divisiveness. I believe it warrants closer interrogation.

In brief: Is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement divisive? Of course it is. But is that a problem? No—and rather than shrink from the charge of divisiveness, advocates of BDS and other justice struggles should take it head-on.

In settler-colonial contexts, from Australia to the Americas passing through South Africa and Palestine, authoritative calls for freedom, justice, and unmitigated equality voiced by Indigenous nations have often been suppressed, demonized, or plainly dismissed as “divisive,” among other qualifiers, both by colonial authorities and, crucially, by those in the West invested in maintaining or justifying colonial systems of oppression. There will always be some who defend the most horrific forms of injustice to maintain hegemony, privilege, and oppressive systems that perpetuate both. By the same token, calls for racial, gender, climate, and social justice within “Western democracies” have also been attacked by conservatives as divisive. A recent poll, for instance, shows that some 40 percent of white adults in the United States consider the Black Lives Matter movement “divisive and dangerous.” They are correct—these appeals for justice—including the 2005 BDS Call from Palestinian society, which I coauthored—are divisive. But they ought to be. They engender what I call ethically necessary divisiveness.

Democratic institutions and professional associations theoretically operate on two principles: that “majority rule” does not entail the subjugation or domination of minorities, and that minorities have the ability to peacefully change the rules that govern them. They also publicly subscribe to the principle that unity should never erase diversity or repress different yet “legitimate” political or ideological convictions. Accordingly, any divisiveness that alienates, delegitimizes, or suppresses views that are different yet nonetheless legitimate is deemed unacceptable.

But there are compelling cases that demand righting an ethically indefensible wrong where divisiveness is not merely acceptable but also ethically necessary. Take for instance, genocide; enslavement, including its contemporary versions; killing children; rape; discrimination based on identity; apartheid; settler-colonialism; despotic rule; denial of fundamental human rights; etc. An institution taking an unequivocal position against any of these wrongs engages in ethically necessary divisiveness.

Using the divisiveness claim to maintain a hegemony-enforced “unanimity” is censorious, since it is designed to shut down robust debate, and antidemocratic, as it undermines the value of voting in shaping an institution’s collective decisions and policies. It is also ludicrous and unethical, as it essentially assumes—whether this is articulated, admitted, or not—that injustice is the non-divisive, uncontested norm.

When “unity” and “diversity” are misused as camouflage for complicity in the commission of ethically indefensible wrongs, mobilizing pressure to end this complicity, as contentious as it may be, becomes a profound ethical obligation. An ethically necessary divisiveness, then, can be simply defined as a division between two groups on a proposition that ethically necessitates a binary choice. Do you support slavery? Yes or no. Nothing in between is tenable. In such cases, it is unacceptable to say, “It depends,” because it simply does not.

Following this modest ethical argument, Palestinians are not asking the AAA to liberate us from Israel’s 75-year-old regime of settler-colonialism and apartheid, though that regime can only be sustained primarily due to the unconditional military, economic, and diplomatic support of the United States. Palestinians and American anthropologists who support our rights under international law are simply asking the AAA and its members to refrain from aiding and abetting Israel’s system of violent oppression, of which universities are a pillar.

For decades, Israeli universities have played an indispensable and outsize role in designing, implementing, justifying, and whitewashing every aspect of Israel’s regime of oppression against the Indigenous Palestinians—from the planned ethnic cleansing of 1948 to the ongoing Nakba of gradual forcible displacement in Jerusalem, An-Naqab, the Galilee, the Jordan Valley, to the criminal siege of over 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, to the ongoing land and resource theft through the construction of illegal colonial settlements and apartheid walls.

The weapons and spyware technologies; the killer drones; the military doctrines that justify the “disproportionate” devastation of civilians; the demographic councils that strategize on how best to counter the “demographic threat” of Indigenous Palestinians; the thinly veiled colonial archeological projects designed to erase Indigenous Arab and Islamic history; and a thousand other mechanisms of colonial oppression are all made and sustained by Israeli universities.

Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.… Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted.” Palestinians and progressives supporting our rights are making a clear demand to do no harm, and to end complicity. Is it divisive? You bet it is. Demanding justice and resisting injustice have always been, by definition, controversial, but they’ve also always been ethically necessary.

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