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Fragments from the Breach: On Anti-Racism, American Studies, and the Question of Palestine

[A Palestinian activist wearing a mask of U.S. President Barack Obama, holds a photo of Rosa Parks, when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, in the West Bank town of Hebron, Wednesday, March 20, 2013. President Barack Obama is declaring common cause with Israel, highlighting the bonds between the United States and its Mideast ally. Photo by Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP Photo.] [A Palestinian activist wearing a mask of U.S. President Barack Obama, holds a photo of Rosa Parks, when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, in the West Bank town of Hebron, Wednesday, March 20, 2013. President Barack Obama is declaring common cause with Israel, highlighting the bonds between the United States and its Mideast ally. Photo by Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP Photo.]

1. Fragment from the breach: As an untenured scholar whose research agenda for the last dozen years has included a focus on the complex cultural life of Israel/Palestine in the United States, I join many in considering this year’s meeting of the American Studies Association historic, enlivening, and, in scholar and poet Fred Moten’s deceptively simple words, “refreshing.” The ASA, its membership, and its leadership is presently asking itself a question so many have asked for so long and from so many different quarters. Simply put: how should we respond individually, collectively, institutionally to the call to us from Palestinian civil society? How can we respond to those voices in such a way that intervenes in the long-held practices of racism, colonization, and dispossession (to say nothing of willed amnesia) that have made even asking such a question in the United States seem like the sky might fall on us for doing so?

It is worth reminding ourselves, as Noura Erakat and Alex Lubin recently have, that many years of intergenerational, multiracial, multifaith, cross-sectoral, transnational organizing have gone into creating the conditions for American Studies scholars to deliberate on this question. Activists, scholars, cultural workers, and advocates have carved out a small space in the United States—call it academic freedom if you must (and we should), or perhaps more properly a zone of counter-memory from which to think across the sometimes militarized hierarchies of social differentiation. They have done so at the risk of demonization, name-calling, and potential and real personal/professional repercussions.

At minimum, and while we can, let us hold this space and do it the justice it deserves. Perhaps, as I shall argue, such a space will refresh our sense of anti-racism.

2. Snapshot of fact: The boycott resolution underscores the American Studies Association’s endorsement to honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. More specifically, the National Council states that it

understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law. [It] does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication.

Academic institutions and the fields they shore up are strange birds indeed—but of course no stranger than any other social institution we inhabit. They shape us, they make us legible to one another, they underwrite the arguments we make, the audiences we reach, the research we conduct, and the knowledge we produce. The fiction that such institutions are a site where the world-ordering circuits of power and privilege are inoperative is a fiction long ago undone. While we know this to be true in the United States, the intensified materiality of this truth in Palestine alerts us to the particular paucity of academic freedom under occupation. The de facto and de jure policing and discrimination of Palestinian students and scholars in Israeli universities, and the curtailment of Palestinian education by Israel through checkpoints, closures, and the demolition of Palestinian universities leaves an innocent notion of academic freedom in tatters.. 

To say this is also, importantly, to suggest that the resolution and the debate it catalyzes contributes to an ongoing inquiry into our own complex relation to the institutions within which we labor, the doing of the knowledge projects upon which we embark, and the worldliness of that doing.  The field of American Studies is a prime site from which to consider such things, precisely because of its own long investment in excavating the histories, legacies, and practices of racial nationalism, U.S. imperialism, and state and cultural praxis, to say nothing of the overlapping sites and scales of social justice projects and the publicly engaged scholarship arrayed around them.  We should not be surprised, then, that a reckoning with the broad institutionalization of Israeli state violence against Palestinians, and an invitation to respond to such moribund conditions, should animate such an inquiry.

3. A telling historical footnote, or, why American Studies: In the immediate aftermath of World War I, the Paris Peace Conference reached its apex. During that time, readers of the popular journal The New Republic were given routine access to the debates surrounding the meaning of the epochal reordering of Euro-American power’s relationship to the colonial world. In March 1919, a then-prominent American political philosopher named Morris Cohen took up how Zionism in the U.S., in particular, was to be understood amidst this rapid reordering. With the Balfour Declaration pledging British support for a Jewish national home in Palestine just over a year old, and the surrounding debate regarding the declaration’s role in the forthcoming Mandate system a live one indeed, the stakes of such an inquiry were notably high. Under the title “Zionism: Tribalism or Liberalism,” Cohen writes the following:

Concerning questions of race and religion, even more than those of politics, scientific knowledge is pitifully small and men’s convictions are accordingly most intense. But the discussion of Zionism is beset with the additional difficulty that clear and honest thinking is subtly hindered by the fact that really plain speaking is almost unattainable. An exceptionally long history of struggle and suffering has left many sore and sensitive spots in the body of Israel, and the thoughtful non-Jew feels the necessity of excessive caution lest he touch any of these tender spots; while the Jew, no matter how emancipated, cannot completely overcome the effects of a traditional attitude which may put group loyalty above devotion to the simple truth. …. In normal times mankind is protected from the clamor of zealous enthusiasts by its profound inertia and by the equally emphatic denials which every zealous group sooner or later provokes; so that those who care for impartial truth can generally wait with some confidence for a favorable time when the still, small voice of reason can make itself heard. But in abnormal days, when small but determinedly loud groups are mistaken for vast multitudes and are causing irreparable harm, one cannot wait for slow time to bring its withering refutations.

With these remarks, Cohen emphasizes the elemental epistemological concerns raised by an enlightenment discourse of reason and science that provided the grounds for “impartial” truth. Refracting the “Jewish question” through religion, race, and Zionism, the temporality of “abnormal days” following World War I would not allow the luxury of “slow time” through which to craft a proper stable knowledge. 

As a way to grapple with this epistemic instability, Cohen goes on to advance the claim that the geopolitical project to locate a Jewish national home in Palestine runs counter to the ideals of liberal democracy. Attempts to “solve” the Jewish problem through territorializing land claims forcibly refused a broader “salvation” of Jew and non-Jew, Cohen argued. “A national Jewish Palestine must necessarily mean a state founded on a peculiar race, a tribal religion, and a mystic belief in a peculiar soil.” As an alternative, Cohen turns to ideals best expressed in a fairly commonplace exceptionalist discourse about the United States as an ethno-racial melting pot. He lauds “liberal America,” a place that “has traditionally stood for separation of Church and State, the free mixing of races, and the fact that men can change their habitation and language and still advance the process of civilization.” In this way, Cohen argues that the secularization of the U.S. state and the assimilative impetus of a seemingly race-neutral national community are core normative commitments of American liberalism, to be embraced by American Jews for their emancipatory capacities. 

To be sure, such forms of liberalism in fact never substantively contravened the anti-black racism registered in Jim Crow segregation, or the state-sanctioned and extralegal violence towards Mexican Americans in the Southwest, and Native Americans throughout the United States. It did not curtail a racialized logic of immigration premised on Asian exclusion or the formative U.S. military occupations in the Caribbean and the Philippines. Nor did such forms of liberalism make available for thought the plain fact of a substantial indigenous Palestinian presence in the territory under discussion. These are the constitutive lacunae around which Cohen lauds Jewish American assimilation., . 

Cohen’s essay has generally fallen through historiography’s cracks; I initially came upon it in one of the Beirut-based Palestine Research Center’s first pamphlets called “Zionism and Racism,” published in 1968. The immediate rebuttal to Cohen’s argument by Horace Kallen is far better known. Kallen was a noted philosopher of pragmatism, who in 1919 was in the midst of advancing cultural pluralism as a theory of American civic nationalism, and whose work has come to mark a foundational moment in twentieth century theories of American ethnicity. He responded in the pages of the New Republic and elsewhere that Zionism’s territorializing aims were not contradictory to, but rather absolutely commensurate with, the ideals of American liberal democracy. Indeed, for Jews to embark on the development of a Jewish national home in Palestine would, in Kallen’s view, serve as a necessary precondition to normalizing the relationship between Jews and other immigrant communities in the U.S. “The Jew in America or elsewhere will not be free to ‘adjust himself harmoniously’ with the non-Jew,” writes Kallen, citing Cohen’s own language “until he also becomes unambiguous. The reestablishment of the Jewish homeland will make it so and it is thus an essential element in the ‘harmonious adjustment of the Jew to American life.’ ”

Here, Kallen replaces Cohen’s exceptionalist paradigm of national assimilation with the exceptionalist paradigm of cultural pluralism to underwrite a project of settler nation-building—one that in Kallen’s hands holds the key to producing an “unambiguous” modern Jewish subject. He purports to resolve anti-Semitism through a framework of liberal democracy whose practical articulation was predicated on indigenous Palestinian exclusion, dispossession, and dehumanization. Cultural pluralism’s investment in the “harmonious adjustment of the Jew to American life” was, one might say, a structural adjustment, binding Jewish emancipation and American incorporability to a structure of settler colonialism in Palestine. On offer, to paraphrase the cultural critic Chandan Reddy’s powerful insight, was freedom with violence, one whose legacies we are still struggling to disentangle.

We should reject as a false choice either Jewish assimilation of the melting pot variety or Jewish colonization of the cultural pluralist vein as the sole pathways fashioned to combat the institutionalization of anti-Semitism. A whole array of modes of thought and practice considered other avenues, and continue to do so, with deftness and precision. The point here, however, is to see both how the terms of such a debate have become genealogically embedded in the very conceptualization of race and ethnicity in American Studies; and likewise to see how the terms of that debate wholly evacuate indigenous Palestinians as historical subjects.

4. From the standpoint of its victims: U.S. understandings of race and difference have thus long had the Palestine question in their purview, even if in inchoate form. Further, a broad range of interdisciplinary scholarship provides ample evidence to suggest that from the late-nineteenth century to the present, the differential distribution of human value and human valuelessness at the core of modern operations of state sovereignty have provided one major rubric through which dominant strains of Zionism were fashioned prior to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, in its modes of governmentality after 1948, in the military and administrative occupation of Palestinian territories after 1967, and in the post-Oslo “peace process.”  Procedures that expose Palestinians to what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” are sedimented in the present-day social fabric of Israel and Palestine in a wide variety of ways. These operations include: the affirmative privileging of certain classes of human beings through regimes of law, policy, and the accrual of property; the leveraging of liberal discourses of ethnic and sexual tolerance to maintain world-ordering structures of violence and dispossession; the legal, military, and economic capacities to buttress the security of certain lives through externalizing the insecurity of others; the routine embrace of raw human demography and the biopolitical regimes of population management it underwrites; the territorializing logic of human dispossession, separation, partition, and replacement; and the routine deployment of the sharp historic antagonisms produced through histories of settler colonialism that underwrite a social order predicated on, and structured through, regimes of violence

5. Refreshing Anti-racism:  Contending with these fatal materialities and the historically sedimented infrastructures of power that produce them we should understand as anti-racism. This means recognizing, reckoning with, and laboring to reorder the structures of dominance that underwrite differential distributions of human value. Anti-racism means registering and proceeding from our differentiated imbrication in racialized institutions. These include institutions, like U.S. academic institutions, that are saturated with enduring hierarchies, microaggressions, and marketized narratives of scholarly praxis; institutions whose dual tracks of regulation work to narrow, hone, specify, bracket, and frame, while simultaneously, differentiating, admitting, and excluding people and the ideas that inhabit them. Anti-racism means reckoning with ongoing catastrophe—the catastrophe of indigenous genocide, European Holocaust, Palestinian ethnic cleansing, neoliberal accumulation by dispossession, state and state-sanctioned violence, and the refusal to investigate the deep, hard, unsettling relations between them. Anti-racism means lodging one’s own imbrication in such reckoning, while at the same time holding in abeyance those forces that shut down the vitality and sociality of study. It means crafting and then holding open fissures in formations otherwise predicated on enclosure, confinement, willful homogenization, and social prophylaxis.

Anti-racism of the sort enabled by this moment invites thought to flourish. A principled engagement with this call from Palestinian civil society properly enables such flourishing.  

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