BDS Activist in Israeli University: Tom Pessach at TAU

Editorial Note 

In 2015, IAM wrote that Dr. Tom Pessah is an outlier even by the standards of radical Israeli faculty.  He is a veteran professional activist who tends to sport a Keffiyeh during public events. Pessah’s Ph.D. thesis from Berkeley University was titled “Backgrounding: The meaning of cleansing in Israel/Palestine, 1948”.  He is an ardent BDS activist and a supporter of a binational state, as he detailed in “Who’s Afraid of the Right of Return?”  

Pessah is the chairperson of Zochrot, an organization dedicated to the Palestinian right of return. Of late, Pessach is the book review editor of the Tel Aviv University academic journal Israeli Sociology and also sometimes lectures at the Sociology and Anthropology at TAU.

IAM also reported that Pessah has pursued postdoctoral positions at the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University and has taught two courses: “Ethnicity and ‘Race’ – A Global Perspective” at the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Ben-Gurion University; and “Violence and Politics – Selected Topics” at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University.  Between 2017 to 2019 He was a fellow at a Van Leer Institute Jerusalem project.

Pessah often promotes his extremist political ideology. In 2016 he organized a conference for Zochrot “Third International Conference on the Return of Palestinian Refugees,” where he wrote, “Zochrot works to promote recognition and responsibility-taking by Jewish Israeli society for its part in the ongoing Nakba and realize the return of Palestinian refugees as the necessary redress of the Nakba.”

Pessah was the recipient of the Morris Ginsberg fellowship in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for 2014-5.   The Fellowship was created through a grant of Morris Ginsberg, an eminent British-Jewish sociologist, to nurture postdoctoral students specializing in cutting edge research.  Unfortunately, it was used to finance Pessah’s activism with Zochrot.

Pessah’s endorsement of BDS is clear. In 2010, a bill in “Support of UC Divestment from War Crimes,” was co-authored by Pessah.  On October 29, 2018, in a teach-in at the University of Michigan, titled “What is BDS? And Why Does it Matter?” Pessah spoke as an expert on the BDS movement, where he said: “BDS has been a model of solidarity from my knowledge of participation in the movement… You see many Palestinians, many Jews, many Israelis working side by side, acknowledging the rights of Palestinians.”    

In an article published by Zochrot, “Imagining Return” in 2012, Pessah reveals something of his motivation.  The piece was “Dedicated to my comrades in Students for Justice in Palestine.”  He explained that “I get regularly hugged by Palestinians. Not everyone hates us …  I have Palestinian friends: they cook for me; they laugh at my jokes; we gossip; they burn discs for me; we get all mushy and cheesy with each other.” 
IAM often reported how Israeli academic-activists have been recruited by Palestinians.
Israeli universities should not tolerate BDS activists among their ranks. The Minister of Higher Education, Zeev Elkin, should look into this matter.

  The Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Tel Aviv University 


Israeli Sociology A Journal for the Study of Society in Israel

About Us

Founded in 1998, Israeli Sociology is published in Hebrew twice yearly. The journal serves as a platform for local studies, yet in dialogue with sociological scholarship around the world. The journal encourages a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches, in line with the heterogeneity of the discipline. It further offers a platform for debating the sociological research agenda in general and the sociological reality in Israel in particular. The journal also includes an extensive book-review section that allows readers a wide-range view of the Israeli social scene. Israeli Sociology was founded by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel-Aviv University, and is supported by the Institute for Social Research (established by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University) and by the Israeli Sociological Society.

Editor: Alexandra Kalev

Book Review Editor: Tom Pessah

Editorial Assistant: Dana Vaknin

Board Members

Adi Moreno, Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, Avihu Shoshana, Erica Weiss, Galit Ailon, Gil Eyal, Gili Drori, Hadas Mandel, Isaac Sasson, Nissim Leon, Nitza Berkovitch, Yariv Feniger, Yehouda Shenhav


Title: Backgrounding: The meaning of cleansing in Israel/Palestine, 1948 

Name: Tom Pessah 

Year: 2012 

Type: Dissertation Fellowship


Political sociologist Michael Mann posits the existence of a relationship between democracy in settler states and the massive cleansing of indigenous groups. The connection, according to Mann, is that these democracies represented settlers who shared a consensual ideology that denigrated indigenous groups and justified their cleansing. Through a series of comparisons between several settler democracies: California in 1860, Colorado in 1864, Queensland (Australia) between the 1860s and the 1880s, New Zealand in the 1860s, and Israel in 1948, I show that these settler societies were more ideologically diverse than Mann and others claim, and therefore more prone to internal disagreements. To overcome this diversity, the initiators of the cleansing used indiscriminate violence towards indigenous groups but were forced to present their actions as discriminate before state officials: they used one type of classification to overshadow another. This was a crucial condition for securing state resources for large-scale operations that caused massive deaths and displacement of indigenous groups. It also served to enhance the economic resources and status of the perpetrators both in relation to these groups and in relation to rivals within the settler society. In addition, the state’s representation of the cleansing has long-reaching effects on the legal status of indigenes and their lands and on the official narration of this history. The empirical chapters describe struggles within these democratic settler societies showing that securing the representation of the cleansing was crucial to its execution. The chapters on California, Colorado, and Queensland rely upon the protocols of investigative committees set up after episodes of costly state-sponsored violence. New Zealand is described through secondary sources. The chapter on Israel discusses the army’s operational orders, as well as interviews conducted with veterans, which can help us reconstruct how official representations were interpreted by actors on the ground.


Settler Colonialism and Resistance

The Settler Colonialism and Resistance Group met throughout 2017-2019to discuss a new understanding of the relations between the Zionist settlers and the local Arab-Palestinian population. In the first year the group discussed theoretical texts and the early work of its participants. In the second year the group focused on presentations of original research with the aim of publishing a collection of articles.

Led By

Lev Grinberg, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Daniel DeMalach, Sapir Academic College


Gadi Algazi
Khaled Anabtawi
Avishai Ehrlich
Hanna Herzog
Alexandre (Sandy) Kedar
Jacob (Kobi) Metzer
Mansour Nasasra
Tom Pessah
Areej Sabbagh-Khoury
Oren Shlomo
Na’aman Tal
Erez Tzfadia
Himmat Zu’bi


Tom Mehager


מפגשים בין האנתרופולוגיה להיסטוריה במחקר המרחב הישראלי-פלסטיני

אנתרופולוגיה   |   היסטוריה   |   היסטוריה חברתית   |   ישראל-פלסטיןשנות פעילות: 2011 – 2013


לא פעילהראש/י קבוצה:ד”ר דפנה הירשמשתתפים: 

ספא אבורביעה, רמי אדוט, נעמה בן זאב, נאור בן יהוידע, שני בר און, יפעת גוטמן, דפנה הירש, מנאר חסן, בועז לב טוב, ראודה מורקוס-מח’ול, בני נוריאלי, רגב נתנזון, אריז’ סבאע’-ח’ורי, יובל עברי, תום פסח, טלי פפרמן, סמדר שרוןשתף דף זה:

על אודות בשלושת העשורים האחרונים חלה בין האנתרופולוגיה להיסטוריה התקרבות שמתבטאת בכמות הולכת וגדלה של עבודות המשתמשות במקביל בכלים מחקריים של שתי הדיסציפלינות. המפגש בין ההיסטוריה לאנתרופולוגיה עשוי לבוא לידי ביטוי בשימוש במתודות פרשניות מתחום האנתרופולוגיה לניתוח תופעות היסטוריות; בחקירת קהילות מסוימות שהתקיימו בעבר, ושבאמצעותן אפשר לבחון “שאלות גדולות” (כגון היחס בין מבנה חברתי לפעולה, טיבו של הכוח הפוליטי, דפוסים של יחסים חברתיים וכיוצא באלה); ובמחקר אנתרופולוגי המעמיד במרכזו תהליך שינוי היסטורי, או המבקש להבין תהליכים חברתיים המתרחשים בהווה דרך חקר שורשיהם ההיסטוריים. על אף התפתחות זו, המפגש בין האנתרופולוגיה להיסטוריה כמעט לא נתן את אותותיו בשדה האקדמי הישראלי.  מטרת הקבוצה לפתח כלים למחקר ההיסטוריה החברתית, התרבותית והפוליטית של המרחב הישראלי-פלסטיני, הנשענים על נקודות המפגש שבין האנתרופולוגיה להיסטוריה. העמדה המחקרית שאנו מבקשים לפתח מקדמת הקשבה לסיפורי חיים, מתן תשומת לב לפרקטיקות יומיומיות וליחסים בין דמויות וקהילות, וניסיון לעמוד על האופנים השונים והמשתנים שבהם הן מבינות את המציאות ומייצרות אותה כחלק ממשא ומתן מתמשך המתנהל בינן לבין המדינה וסוכניה. באמצעות עמדה זו אנו מבקשים לנסח אלטרנטיבה ל”לאומיות המתודולוגית” הרווחת, ולתרום הן לפיתוח הכלים התיאורטיים והמתודולוגיים העומדים לרשותנו והן לדיון הציבורי.

Imagining Return Dedicated to my comrades in Students for Justice in Palestine By: Tom Pessah 10/2012   Tom Pessah (on the left) with Zochrot at The Human Rights March in Tel Aviv 2012  

This text was publishe first here.

I should have taken your email! People were all around us at the rally, shouting and singing, I really wanted to talk to someone but I didn’t notice how well you were listening, how you had patience to talk to me and read the flyer I was distributing. You had a red beard and skullcap, and a blue shirt with “Israeli Peace” on it. I wore the black shirt of Students for Justice in Palestine.

You read my flyer and asked me, “where it says in 1967 Israel occupied more territories populated by Palestinians, what do you mean by ‘more’? Are you saying Israel of 1948 was also conquered”?

I know what you are really asking: do “we people” recognize “your” right to exist, or… you know, want to throw you into the sea?

Dude, I’m an Israeli Jew, just like you! I don’t want to throw any Israelis into the sea, honestly. I’m a horrible swimmer and I have asthma, so although the sea in Tel Aviv is warmer than around here, I’d rather just look at the waves, maybe dip in my toes once in a while. Besides, the sea gets polluted: throwing people in could be dangerous!

But because I am Israeli, I know where you’re coming from. This question is one of our formulas, isn’t it? The ones we use when people tell us they were displaced in 1948, and we get really scared. You know them all by heart, don’t you? “These things happen in wars”; “If they had won they would have done the same”; “If they hadn’t rejected the partition plan in 1947, it wouldn’t have happened”; “the Arab states should have done more for them”, etc., etc.

I’ve tried not using those formulas and just listening to Palestinians telling me the place they are from, the place they can’t return to. I’ve tried looking at them straight in the eye when they say it, without responding. I feel so nervous it makes me sick in the stomach. I cringe. I feel like I’m going to explode.

Because when I look them in the eye, it stops being “us and “them”. For one moment, I wonder what if I was “them”. In Lydda, Yitzhak Rabin drove them out, firing shots above their heads; he tells the story in his memoirs. In Al-Majdal, which is Ashkelon today, they were loaded onto trucks after the fighting ended, and dumped on the other side of the border. In Jaffa they really were driven into the sea, under bombardment. Children were lost in the waves as their families fled to Gaza in fishing boats (did you know that? It was we who threw them into the sea, not the other way round!).  And then we took all of their property and they stayed refugees, for sixty years. For sixty years!

Now they are here, and here are their children, looking at me, straight in the eye. Do you see why we are so scared?

But they are just looking at me, actually they are smiling. You may not believe me, but I get regularly hugged by Palestinians. Not everyone hates us, Aryeh (I think you said that was your name?). I have Palestinian friends: they cook for me; they laugh at my jokes; we gossip; they burn discs for me; we get all mushy and cheesy with each other.

Yeah, don’t tell me: maybe my friends are nice, but how can I generalize? What about all the suicide bombers, all those photos of little babies dressed with weapons, don’t “they” teach their children to hate us? And then I could quote you some surveys about attitudes to Israel and willingness to compromise, and there we go, straight back to cliché-land.

Let’s go another way, and look at that fear again. A lot of it has got to do with this Right of Return thing. What do you imagine when you think of it? For a long time I was too scared to even try to picture it, but when I did, the first image that came up was from the Westerns I watched as a kid: the Indians swarming down the hills, shrieking, shooting arrows or whatever weapon people use nowadays: The attack of the barbarians.

But maybe imagine something different: a plane landing in Ben-Gurion airport with some “new immigrants” from the refugee camps in Lebanon. This really pompous politician is out to greet them, smiling from ear to ear. The first refugee comes down the steps and shakes people’s hands. The politician uses some fancy clichés, welcoming them to their homeland. These cute kids, third graders, are standing in line, with huge bouquets of flowers, too big for them to hold, pointing at the refugees who just got off the plane, looking a bit dazed by the strong sunlight and the humidity. And then some representative from the Ministry of the Interior goes up and gets their details. She’ll be calling them tomorrow about arrangements, where to go to from the hostel, when they can learn Hebrew, she’ll give them the contact information of the organizations that have volunteered to help them. And welcome back home, by the way.

There, isn’t that a nicer image than the previous one? But you think I’m totally crazy, don’t you? Don’t I realize the implications? What about the demographic balance? What about the Jewish nature of the state? What about all we have built over the last sixty years? Don’t Jews need a safe haven? And our right for self-determination?

So the options you are giving me, Aryeh, are these: we could get to keep our right for self-determination, our safe haven, my favorite bookshop-cafe in Rabin square in Tel Aviv, the songs my mother likes to hear on the radio on the holidays, our wonderful Hebrew slang, our “dugri” directness and our weather (well, maybe not our weather, at least not in August). But then I need to look my Palestinian friends in the eye and tell them: no matter how much you miss your homeland, you are never going back. Not you, not your parents, not your children, not your grandchildren, nor your grandchildren’s grandchildren. We got to miss the Holy Land for two thousand years, but you’re not Jewish, so you will never ever be allowed to return.

Or, we could completely destroy Israel, raze everything to the ground. Bring bulldozers, knock down all the beautiful buildings of Tel Aviv University, the mounds of grass, the corner outside the Arts building where students and teachers smoke weed together, the little frame-shaped sculpture that overlooks the sea, the café outside the university with the hot Moroccan shakshuka, we can knock down all of these and turn the university back into Sheikh Muwwanis, and let the refugees live in the village that was there before.

And you’re saying these are the only two possibilities. Seriously? Is that the best we Jews can come up with? We, the People of the Book? With Einstein and all our Nobel prize winners? With our Ladino love songs and marvelous Yiddish curses? With all of our films, winning prizes at every festival? Our thousands of years of poetry, from the Song of Songs to Amichai and Yonah Volach? The agricultural innovations we export to the whole world? Are you seriously suggesting that these two miserable options are the best we can think of? Why, I find that almost offensive. Aren’t we a little bit smarter than that?

Do I have a solution? I do have some ideas, but what I really want is to get people talking. I want to hear Palestinians telling us what they miss most, where they would like to live, what they would want it to be like. And we could tell them what is important to us, what we have learned over the last sixty years. It’s like two flatmates about to move in together – where shall we put the couch? What time do you get up in the morning? Oh no! Do you snore? Don’t waste all of that hot water in the shower! Those are the conversations we need to be having.

Now you really think I’m nuts, don’t you? We could be talking millions of people here, it’s a huge upheaval, where will we put them all?

The short answer is – we’ve done it before. Every time a wave of Jewish immigrants came to Israel, people said it would never work, there would be no room, everyone will starve. But we managed, somehow. This is no different. In fact, we’re stronger and more experienced now.

And the longer answer is that the reason this seems unimaginable is simply because of our fear. That fear has deep roots: Jews and Israelis have definitely been attacked and hurt, time and time again. It’s through this fear that we tend to think we are dealing with some kind of virus that must be kept in isolation. But Palestinians are human beings, and they deserve to be treated that way. We really could try and do that for a change, instead of forcing them to the other side of the border, setting up walls and checkpoints and prisons, and pretending any of that is a solution.

To truly overcome fear, reading this letter won’t be enough. What you need to do is to hang out with some of my Palestinian friends, see them celebrating Hanukka and Passover with us, stuff grapeleaves with them, all of that mushiness I was referring to earlier. You have no idea how much fun it is: let me know when you’re coming. Trust me, you’ll enjoy it! Just give it a try. 

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