Tag Archives: BDS

On the MLA and Academic Boycott

Young students and tank

This evening I gave the following remarks in the second of two special convention sessions on the boycott of Israeli academic institutions held by the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee as part of the association’s process of considering a resolution on boycott that could come at next year’s convention. The four speakers in each session, two pro-boycott and two anti-boycott, were limited to seven minutes each, after which questions were posed to the speakers from the audience. I will refrain from characterizing the arguments of the anti-boycott side in my session but to mention that I was asked if I agreed “Muslims are terrorists.” I said no, they’re not—to say they are is Islamophobic. And that was the tip of the iceberg of the anti side’s rhetoric…

I first want to acknowledge that we’re on unceded Indigenous people’s land here in Austin.

This past summer I was in South Africa doing research for my dissertation on criminalization, cultural representations of crime, and colonial and postcolonial social relations. While there, I met with organizers of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, BDS for short, including current students and recent graduates of the University of Johannesburg, the University of Witwatersrand, and the University of Pretoria as well as members of Jewish Voices for a Just Peace, the South African analog to the U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peace. I want to emphasize these two organizations at the outset of my remarks, since one of the popular criticisms of BDS, including the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, is that somehow it’s anti-Semitic, despite the countless Jewish-identified groups and people who are engaged in the effort.

At my meeting with BDS organizers in Johannesburg, I was asked why I participate in Palestinian solidarity and why I myself am engaged in BDS efforts, both at the City University of New York and at the MLA. It was, and is, a good question. I answered then and I say now that I’m committed to BDS and the boycott of Israeli academic institutions because Palestinians, in the midst of the unceasing occupation and colonial settlement of their land by the Israeli state, have asked the world to help them break this siege through the methods of BDS. Although opponents of these methods continue to try to dismiss this fact—that the force of this collective Palestinian call has no force at all—it is indeed a fact: as much a fact as the South African call for BDS throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s that played a central role in ending apartheid there.

This is how global-solidarity movements work: a community asks the world to support them in their struggle for self-determination, and the world, ideally, responds. And this is why, for instance, Palestinians under occupation and facing continual inroads by Israeli settlers, have responded to Black Lives Matter organizers here in the U.S. with robust displays of support. Indeed, the links between the black liberation movement in the States and the Palestinian liberation movement in occupied Palestine go back decades, as do links between the Palestinian struggle and many other struggles for self-determination the world over.

This is another reason I support academic boycott: as both a student and beneficiary of settler colonialism in the U.S. and its related structures of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and imperialism, and one who’s tracing these operations globally in my dissertation research, I consider it my ethical obligation to not just oppose settler colonialism—whether here in North America by the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican governments or in Palestine by the state of Israel—but to work to dismantle it as well.

And that’s what we can do, as MLA members, by endorsing the boycott of Israeli academic institutions: contribute to the dialogue within Israel and internationally on ending the occupation and colonial settlement of Palestine. Indeed, as much as BDS is an intervention against the Israeli state’s unjust policies concerning Palestine and Palestinians, it’s also an intervention against the support of those policies by governments and institutions around the world. So while BDS, in one way, is meant to spur Israelis to oppose their own government’s policies in response to growing global pressure to do so, in another way BDS is meant to spur non-Israelis to oppose our own respective governments’ support of those same policies.

This dialogue must necessarily extend to Israeli academic institutions, which, like our own academic institutions, have manifold connections to the state, including specific links to the occupation and settlement of Palestine, well-documented by independent sources. But in the remainder of my remarks I want to address the educational situation in Palestine.

So much of the debate in the U.S. over the boycott of Israeli academic institutions revolves around the academic freedom of U.S.- and Israeli-based academics, even though an institutional boycott would not constrain their academic freedom. Meanwhile, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza face severe restrictions on both their freedom and their academics as a direct result of occupation and settlement.

These restrictions were brought home for me when I met with students visiting from Birzeit University in the West Bank last academic year as part of the Right to Education tour, another example of dialogue. The students spoke of their difficulties in even getting to class because of the routine obstacles posed by the Israeli-security apparatus, apartheid segregation, and settler violence—that is, when classes weren’t cancelled outright because schools were shut down for Israeli military operations in the area or to quell academic resistance. Indeed, in a fresh-from-the-headlines example, sections of the West Bank city of Hebron have been closed since November by the Israeli military and residents have had to file for “special permits to cross through the 18 military checkpoints in the city center.” Can you imagine what that must be like?

As one of the organizers who helped bring the Birzeit students to the States, Kristian Davis Bailey, has written, “everyone must consider academic freedom in its fuller context. Education is a fundamental human right….We must protect it at all levels. So even when the academy or political elite do not agree with the methods of BDS, they have been presented with facts and with a call from a suffering people to do something. The question is no longer whether or when to act, but how will we respond now?” (Against Apartheid: The Case for Boycotting Israeli Universities 157-158)

I hope, as educators and MLA members, we can all take heart and answer the call Palestinians have made to us by endorsing academic boycott—and sooner, rather than later. Thank you.

[Photo: “Israel Palestine” by Rusty Stewart via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
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On the American Task Force on Palestine, Normalization, and ‘Dialogue’

This week in English professor Kandice Chuh’s class “Black, Brown, Yellow: On Ways of Being and Knowing,” we’re reading, among other texts, Hamid Dabashi’s Brown Skin, White Masks (Pluto Press, 2011), in which, among other interventions, he critiques Arab and Muslim “comprador intellectuals” as the opposite of the Saidian exilic intellectual, or, that is, an intellectual or knowledge producer who serves the state and empire rather than contesting them.

Indeed, he quotes Joseph Massad—whose academic freedom was violated when he became the subject of a well-known anti-Palestinian repression campaign several years back at Columbia—on the Palestinian version of this figure as such:

Palestinian intellectuals who previously opposed the occupation, PLO concessions, and US hegemony, but now support, wittingly or unwittingly, all three….Palestinian intellectuals, attuned to the exigencies of political power and the benefits that could accrue to them from it, traded in their national liberation goals for pro-Western pragmatism. (42-43)

Ghaith Al-Omari of the American Task Force on Palestine, who’s having a “conversation” with an adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry tomorrow (Monday, October 20th), seems very much to fit this description. Not only has he worked closely with the accommodationist Palestinian Authority—the successor to the PLO—but his employer is principally committed to the “United States national interest” over that of Palestine or Israel, per the American Task Force on Palestine’s mission statement.

In other words, the conversation that’s happening tomorrow is about U.S. power, and upholding it, and therefore will have very little to say about the prospects of achieving “peace”—that is, an end to the occupation and colonization of Palestine and related issues—especially given that the U.S. funds Israel $3 billion annually. Indeed, nine groups, a majority of them Jewish-identified, called for an end to this funding, among other demands, in a full-page ad in the New York Times last month, about which I previously posted.

Finally, a note about conversations—that is, “dialogue”—re Palestine and Israel. Dialogue implies that the two sides have equal status, and, further, that the Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestine is normal, both of which are untrue. To this end, I want to share two passages about so-called “normalization” from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s site:

For Palestinians in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, any project with Israelis that is not based on a resistance framework serves to normalize relations. We define this resistance framework as one that is based on recognition of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people and on the commitment to resist, in diverse ways, all forms of oppression against Palestinians, including but not limited to, ending the occupation, establishing full and equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and promoting and advocating for the right of return for Palestinian refugees – this may aptly be called a posture of ‘co-resistance’ [3]. Doing otherwise allows for everyday, ordinary relations to exist alongside and independent of the continuous crimes being committed by Israel against the Palestinian people. This feeds complacency and gives the false and harmful impression of normalcy in a patently abnormal situation of colonial oppression.

‘[D]ialogue’ and engagement are often presented as alternatives to boycott. Dialogue, if it occurs outside the resistance framework that we have outlined, becomes dialogue for the sake of dialogue, which is a form of normalization that hinders the struggle to end injustice. Dialogue, ‘healing,’ and ‘reconciliation’ processes that do not aim to end oppression, regardless of the intentions behind them, serve to privilege oppressive co-existence at the cost of co-resistance, for they presume the possibility of coexistence before the realization of justice. The example of South Africa elucidates this point perfectly, where reconciliation, dialogue and forgiveness came after the end of apartheid, not before, regardless of the legitimate questions raised regarding the still existing conditions of what some have called ‘economic apartheid.’

The BDS resolution before the Grad Center’s Doctoral Students’ Council will be taken up again this coming Friday. I’m hoping GC students, in particular DSC reps, will be able to see past the fog of the opposition.

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Jewish Groups Call for End to U.S. Military Aid to Israel


In today’s New York Times print edition (page A9) is an “open letter to President Barack Obama” from the groups Deir Yassin Remembered, Americans for a Just Peace in the Middle East, Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends, RighteousJews.org, If Americans Knew, Council for the National Interest, and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

There doesn’t seem to be an online version, so I post some excerpts below.

Dear President Obama,

You renewed hope for a nation drained by interminable wars and economic trauma. You proclaimed that there is no problem we cannot solve, that we can say yes to justice and equality, and that we will oppose attempts by any group to restrict the rights of others. But Israeli violations of Palestinian rights continue virtually unopposed by America as yet another ‘peace process’ has failed. A new approach to this matter is desperately needed, and we would greatly appreciate your consideration of the following analysis and recommendations in this regard.

Secretary Kerry’s retraction notwithstanding, the occupied territories indeed are descending into a form of apartheid as Israel relentlessly confiscates and settles Palestinian land. The latter process is nothing new: the Zionist modus operandi for establishing an ethnic state in Palestine was to take as much land as possible, cleanse it of most of its Palestinians, and bring in enough Jews to ensure a dominant Jewish majority. In extending these methods to the occupied territories, Israel advances its endgame of a Jewish state in all–or nearly all–of Palestine. But it comes with terrible human costs….

Average Palestinians also are severely impacted by the occupation. Their rights to freedom of movement, commerce, education, medical services and more are greatly curtailed by Israel’s system of walls, gates, checkpoints, roadblocks, ID cards and passes. All of this impedes agriculture, slows transportation to a crawl, represses commerce, and does massive damage to the Palestinian economy. Israeli soldiers and border police wielding US weapons harshly enforce all of this. Israel claims these measures are for its security; but they are applied almost entirely inside Palestinian territory and in fact are designed to protect the spreading settlements and to induce Palestinians to emigrate….

Accordingly, we strongly recommend that you suspend military aid and arms sales to Israel until independent, non-conflicted human rights organizations including AI [Amnesty International] and HRW [Human Rights Watch] certify that it has ceased its human rights violations. Should this fail to end the abuses, we recommend that you suspend diplomatic support for Israel–especially at the UN. Of course, security assistance to the Palestinian Authority also should be withheld if its security forces are abusing rights.

In no way would these actions break your pledges to stand by Israel. Rather, this would mean standing with the many Israelis who support Palestinian rights. It would mean aligning with progressive Israeli organizations like Rabbis For Human Rights, Gush Shalom, Peace Now, B’Tselem, and The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, as well as US Jewish organizations like Jewish Voice For Peace and Tikkun. But it would also mean breaking with the right-wing establishment that shapes Israel’s current policies. In doing so you could help Israel achieve real democracy by living up to its Declaration of Establishment vow to grant equal rights to all.

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