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Interview with Amalia Sa'ar

In anticipation of the upcoming conference, Moral Engagements with Power, Emotions and Reproductive Biotechnology (June 28-29 2021), we interviewed Amali Sa'ar, who will be presenting at the conference:

While I see a close connection between activism and ethnographic research, boundary work between the two is sometimes required.

Why did you choose to chair the session "Ethnographic Involvement in Stormy Political Water: Challenges and Promises"?

I chose to lead this session because throughout my career I have been swimming in such “stormy waters”.

I am Israeli and Jewish, and I’ve done most of my work with Palestinian society. I'm dealing with a kind of "split" because I'm not Palestinian I’m still Israel, and the clash is particularly evident during wartime.In my work I deal with charged issues related to this complexity, such as my legitimacy as a researcher, representation, the politics of the encounter, and more.

Recently my partners (Dr. Sarai Aharoni and Dr. Alisa Lewin) and I have finished a research project on vernacular security from a feminist perspective (examples of publications from this project can be found here, here, here, and here). This is a topic we have been dealing with for over a decade. In our recent study we went to two frontier populations. Jews in the Gaza Envelope and Palestinians in the Triangle .We did two separate ethnographies that bring out completely different experiences. Among other things, we addressed ethical issues and especially the ethics of the conflict. After all, Gaza is under severe siege with appalling humanitarian conditions, and with each war the consequences there are far more devastating than here. We asked how it is possible to produce a moral ethical position when you are party to a conflict?

In addition, working in the envelope was for me a very complex experience. For on the one hand, in many ways I identified with the local residents very much – I felt compassion for their fear, their feelings of insecurity, their trauma stories and difficult experiences. On the other hand, the politics of most of the residents in the region is right-wing and I am left-wing. This raised several questions for me: How can I as an anthropologist understand their ethical discourse without being judgmental? How does my subject position, as an anthropologist who is also a feminist and a leftist affect my research of their ethical discourse? These questions represent charged issues that have preoccupied me along the way, and I will also discuss some of them at the conference.

What expression do morality and ethics have in anthropological research work?

Morality and ethics are real everyday phenomena in the researcher's life. They are an integral part of anthropological practice. You can hardly run away from them even if you want to. In many cases you are faced with ethical dilemmas that do not have unequivocal answers. For example, in the ethnographic workshop of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Haifa last month, I facilitated an “artist’s studio” (namely a small discussion group) on ethical dilemmas in the field. I chose to open it with the American Anthropological Association’s ethics statement, which is comprised of a number of guiding ethical principles and followed by actual dilemmas that anthropologists have faced during fieldwork. The dilemmas are shared openly on the AAA website and people debate the solutions that were reached in each case. For me this very debate has a great value, because we can all make mistakes that we later regret, or find ourselves pushed to taking an unexpected ethical position.

Therefore, our approach in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Haifa is to deal with ethics on an ongoing basis. Ethics as a subject is integrated into our courses, it resurfaces in the Anthropological Forum lectures, in our workshops and in our conferences. We seek to share our ethical dilemmas as it is important to understand that there are no off-the-shelf solutions to such issues.

Can you tell us about the meeting point between ethnographic research and social activism?

In addition to being an intellectual I am also an activist. Over the years I have done several studies that were initially participatory action studies, and some of them later developed into ethnographic studies. This is what happened, for example, with the study I started the conversation with. The process of working on it actually began in 2004 after the second intifada. Sarai Aharoni discovered the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls on all member states to gender mainstream their conflict resolution processes. This means that countries in conflict are committed first to understanding the gender implications of the conflict and then to applying the insights in the resolutions they sketch and including women around the negotiation table. Israel has signed this declaration, but does not actually implement its guidelines. At the time, the "Isha L-Isha - Haifa Feminist Center", of which Sarai Aharoni and I are members, wanted to delve into this issue and sought to conduct a study examining how the conflict differentially affects women of various groups in Israel. So Sarai and I, together with Dr. Dalia Sachs (also from Isha L-Isha and the University of Haifa) did a survey and found, for example, that multiple vulnerabilities – say being elderly and disabled – have adverse effects on women’s insecurity. The results were presented at the nongovernmental organizations community shadow conference that took place in New York parallel to UN Beijing + 10 world conference on women in 2005, to mark the end of the UN Decade of Women. Subsequently, we published those results also as an academic paper. Later, in 2014 after the war in Gaza, Sarai and I decided to go back to the subject and do a deeper ethnographic study, and so I can say that this is a project that grew out of our activism.

But to me there is also some tension here. Despite the positive links between activism and ethnographic research, boundary work between the two is required. I mean, as an activist I have clear political opinions, but political opinions are inevitably flat, because they are goal-oriented. As an anthropologist, on the other hand, I am interested in paradoxes and in-depth processes and ask: How do people give meaning to their lives? In this respect, I must remain open to contradictions and be able to contain things that I disagree with or don’t understand. During my fieldwork in the Gaza envelope, for example, I came to like and appreciate many people despite our political differences, because in ethnographic research you sit with a person and understand their logic and their passion. However, when you meet them as a political activist, you tend to be more focused on your differences. So subjecting my research to my activism will ultimately harm it. As an activist I want to contribute to society and my ability to do research is surely an asset, but as an Anthropologist I do not want to “prove my point;” instead, I want to allow myself to see the paradoxes in the field. This in itself is a profound paradox.

What advice would you give to young researchers whose research is conducted in the fields of "stormy water"?

Mostly to be in consistent dialogue about ethical issues. Have dialogue with one another and with other colleagues. In addition, do boundary work between your anthropological research and your activism.

Finally, can you share contemporary content that has an impact in field struggles for social justice that inspires you?

These days I am listening to an unusually inspiring podcast, called "Mothers of Invention" (to listen to the podcast click here). The podcast explores environmental justice from a feminist perspective. Each episode hosts different women, many of them indigenous whose native environment has been badly damaged – particularly cases of soil and water pollution – and have come up with innovative projects to create sustainable lives for their communities.

Amalia Sa’ar, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Haifa, is an anthropologist and feminist peace activist. Her interests include Palestinian citizens in Israel, gender and citizenship, vernacular security, feminist theory, and intergenerational relations in Israeli feminism.

Her first book, Economic Citizenship: Neoliberal Paradoxes of Empowerment, is on economic citizenship in Israel. Her second book Diversity: Palestinian Career Women in Israel in collaboration with Hawazin Younis, came out in June 2021.

For her full list of publications click here

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